Evening banquets are the most popular occasions for business entertaining. Generally, they start between 5:30 p.m.- 6:00 p.m. and last for two hours. Guests should arrive on time. Chinese hosts and counterparts will probably be present before the proceedings officially begin. Banquets are hosted with varying degrees of extravagance, usually in a restaurant.
The meal begins with the entry of the revelers into the banqueting room. An elaborate ceremony of deference may take place at the door, where the most honored guest is supposed to enter first. Two or more guests may hold up this entry for some time, each insisting that the other is more worthy of this honor. The ensuing debate can, among good friends, lead to a bit of pushing, as the struggle escalates. Once through the door, the process may begin again, this time over the issue of precedence at the table. Usually, the guest of honor sits directly across from the host, who takes the least honorable seat near the serving door.
Wait to be seated, as there is a seating etiquette based on hierarchy in Chinese business culture.
Generally, the seat in the middle of the table, facing the door, is reserved for the host. The most senior guest of honour sits directly to the left. Everyone else is seated in descending order of status. The most senior member sits in the center seat. Follow this seating pattern if you are hosting a banquet or a meal in your residence, whether for business or purely social reasons.
The host is the first person at the table allowed to begin eating by suggesting the first drink. Then, the rest of the company can proceed with the meal. If you are the host, take the first piece of the most valued food and put it on your guest of honour's plate after leading the first drink. This will signify the beginning of the eating and is considered as a friendly gesture.
Business is not discussed during the meal.
It is not uncommon for a host to order enough food for ten people at a table of five. He or she loses face if there are not plenty of left-overs at the end of a meal. Rice, considered by many Chinese to be filler, is generally not served until the end of a meal. So, if you want to eat rice with your meal be sure to ask the waitress [or 'shou jie'] to serve it early, particularly if the food is spicy.
During a meal, as many as 20-30 courses can be served, so try not to eat too much at once. The best policy is to lightly sample each dish.
The first course is an even-numbered selection of cold dishes, eight or ten are traditionally served. After the cold course comes a showy soup such as shark's fin soup or bird's nest soup. The guests help themselves to the dishes at a banquet, but the soup is served by the host, and much drinking and toasting accompanies. Following the soup comes a decorative meat dish. More courses follow, lobster, pork, scallops, chicken. Between the courses, a variety of sweets are brought out. Peking duck with scallion brushes, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes is often served in the middle of the festivities. Traditionally, the final course is a whole fish, which is placed on the table with its head is pointed toward the guest of honor. Throughout the meal, the guests pay elaborate compliments to the food. Enjoyment of the food offered is much more important than sparkling dinner table conversation. At a banquet, the food itself is the medium communicating the host's good wishes and the joy of the celebration.
Leaving a 'clean plate' is perceived to mean that you were not given enough food--a terrible insult here. On the other hand, leaving a food offering untouched will also give offense; even if you find a dish unappealing, try a small portion for the sake of politeness.
One important part of Chinese business entertaining is a tea drinking ritual known as 'yum cha'. It is used to establish rapport before a meeting or during meals. If you do not want a 'refill' of tea, leave some in your cup. If you are served food that does not require utensils, you may be given a bowl of tea for the purpose of dipping and cleaning your fingers.
It's perfectly acceptable to reach in front of others for dishes and other items. Seeds and bones are placed on the table or in a specially reserved dish; never place these objects in your bowl. It will be appreciated if you use chopsticks. When you are finished eating, place your chopsticks on the table or a chopstick rest. Placing your chopsticks parallel on top of your bowl is believed to bring bad luck. Sticking your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl is considered rude because in this position, they resemble the joss sticks that are used in Chinese religious rituals. Do not put the end of the chopstick in your mouth. Try not to drop your chopsticks, as this is considered a sign of bad luck.
When eating rice, follow Chinese custom by holding the bowl close to your mouth.
Slurping and belching at the table can be perfectly acceptable: they are perceived as signs that you are appreciating the meal. Scorpions, locusts, snake skin, bile, dog meat, soft-shell tortoise and blood are considered delicacies. Toothpicks are usually offered between courses and at the conclusion of a meal. When using a toothpick, cover your mouth with your free hand for concealment.
Forming a personal relationship ['guanxi' in Chinese] in your business dealings is very important. Part of this involves participating in the strong drinking culture that exists here. Generally, the Chinese regard with suspicion anyone who does not participate in the inevitable drinking that takes place during almost all business dinners. And it is at these kinds of social occasions that most negotiating breakthroughs are made. Prepare some medical excuses for yourself to avoid drinking heavily; if you really wish to avoid alcohol, they will accept medical excuses.
Alcohol is very rarely served at everyday meals, but it plays an important role at banquets. (In fact, a banquet is called a chiu-hsi, or "wine-spread") In the West, the type of alcohol must match the meal according to set customs, and often the guests' special preferences must be accommodated. This is not the case in China, where the host often decides on one sort of alcoholic beverage, either a wine or liquor, which will be served throughout. Wine glasses are traditionally filled at the start of each course. The banquet will probably be marked by guests challenging each other to drinking games throughout the evening.
Toasting, usually with beer, wine or Chinese white liquors, is an important part of Chinese business etiquette.
You will often find three glasses on your table: a glass for your drink of choice [toast with this glass], a wine glass, and a shot glass for a liquor called 'maotai' or 'wu liang ye.'
The host of a banquet offers the first toast. If you prefer not to drink alcohol, it's perfectly acceptable to toast with a soft drink, glass of juice, or mineral water.
Toasts will be proposed throughout the meal. Two popular toasts are 'ganbei' ['bottoms up'] and 'kai wei' ['starting the appetite'].
Sometimes, the Chinese enjoy testing the ability of a foreigner ['lou wai'] to handle his or her alcohol, especially 'er gua toe', a potent clear alcohol that one might compare to airline fuel. A good practice would be to eat something beforehand.
Before smoking, it's polite to offer cigarettes to those in your company.
The meal has reached a definite conclusion when fruit is served and hot towels are presented. Shortly after these items are offered, guests should make preparations to leave. In accordance with Chinese business etiquette, the host will not initiate the guests' departure.
Tipping is generally considered an insult in China. Most government operated hotels and restaurants prohibit acceptance of tips. It is sometimes expected, however, in some of the bigger hotels and by younger service personnel, in the more opened cities.
Follow Chinese business protocol and reciprocate with a banquet of the same value; never surpass your host by arranging a more lavish gathering.
Generally, the Chinese are not great experimenters when it comes to their diet. Unless he or she has traveled extensively, the typical Chinese businessperson doesn't like Western food. Better to take your guests to a good Chinese restaurant rather than, for example, the latest French restaurant opening in Beijing. They'll appreciate it. When inviting people to your home, avoid serving cheese: it is usually incompatible with the national diet.