It is fair to say that the number one pastime in China is eating. Although your Chinese host will not expect you to know everything about proper banquet behavior, he will greatly appreciate it when you are displaying some knowledge of the subject, because it shows that you have respect for Chinese culture, etiquette and traditions.
Banquets are usually held in restaurants in private rooms that have been reserved for the purpose. All members of your delegation should arrive together and on time. You will be met at the door and escorted to the banquet room, where the hosts are likely to have assembled. Traditionally, and as in all situations, the head of your delegation should enter the room first. Do not be surprised if your hosts greet you with a loud round of applause. The proper response is to applaud back.
Seating arrangements, which are based on rank, are stricter than in the West. This is another reason why you should give your host a list of delegation members and their rank. Guests should never assume that they may sit where they please and should wait for hosts to guide them to their places. Traditionally, the Chinese regard the right side as the superior and the left side as the inferior. Therefore on formal occasions, including meetings and banquets, the host invariably arranges for the main guests to sit on his right side.
It is the host's responsibility to serve the guests, and at very formal banquets people do not begin to eat until the principal host served a portion to the principal guest. Or, the host may simply raise his chopsticks and announce that eating has begun. After this point, one may serve oneself any food in any amount, although it is rude to dig around in a dish in search of choice portions. Remember to go slow on eating. Don't fill yourself up when five courses are left to go. To stop eating in the middle of a banquet is rude, and your host may incorrectly think that something has been done to offend you.
Drinking takes an important place in Chinese banquets. Toasting is mandatory, and the drinking of spirits commences only after the host has made a toast at the beginning of the meal. It is likely that he will stand and hold his glass out with both hands while saying a few words. When he says the words gan bei, which means bottoms up (literally empty glass), all present should drain their glasses. After this initial toast, drinking and toasting are open to all. Subsequent toasts can be made from person to person or to the group as a whole. No words are needed to make a toast, and it is not necessary to drain your glass, although to do so is more respectful. Remember that hard liquor should never be drunk alone. If you are thirsty, you can sip beer or a soft drink individually, but if you prefer to drink hard liquor, be sure to catch the eye of someone at your table, smile and raise your glass, and drink in unison. Beer or soft drinks can also be used for toasting. Also, it is impolite to fill your own glass without first filling glasses of all others. This applies to all drinks and not just to alcohol. If your glass becomes empty and your host is observant, it is likely that he will fill it for you immediately. When filling another's glass, it is polite to fill it as full as you can without having the liquid spill over the rim. This symbolizes full respect and friendship.
It is a matter of courtesy for the host to try to get his guests drunk. If you do not intend to drink alcohol, make it known at the very beginning of the meal to prevent embarrassment. Even then, the host may good-naturedly try to push you into drinking. One way to eliminate this pressure is to tell your host that you are allergic to alcohol. In the course of drinking at banquets, it is not unusual for some Chinese to become quite drunk, although vomiting or falling down in public entails loss of face. After a few rounds of heavy drinking, you may notice your hosts excusing themselves to the bathroom, from whence they often return a bit lighter and reborn for more toasting!
When the last dish is finished, the banquet has officially ended. There is little ceremony involved with its conclusion. The host may ask if you have eaten your fill, which you undoubtedly will have done. Then the principal host will rise, signaling that the banquet has ended. Generally, the principal host will bid good evening to everyone at the door and stay behind to settle the bill with the restaurateur. Other hosts usually accompany guests to their vehicles and remain outside waving until the cars have left the premises.
After you have been entertained by your Chinese associates, it is proper to return the favor unless time or other constraints make it impossible. A good time to have a return banquet is on the eve of your departure from China or at the conclusion of the business at hand.