Meals and banquets are an important aspect of doing business in China, used as a setting to form business deals, build relationships and show respect. Some of the practices associated with dining in China may vary from place to place, however, there are several standard elements of dining etiquette you can become familiar with before venturing to China to conduct business.
As with the seating arrangements for business meetings in China, the most honoured guest sits on the side of the table furthest away from the door, positioned at the middle of the table, with the second most important person seated next to them and so on, in descending order of importance. This means the host will generally sit at the middle of the table on one side, with the honoured guest seated directly opposite. Be sure to arrive on time and wait to be told where to sit.
Dining etiquette in China can be more ritualised than in many western cultures and the protocol can vary according to the level of formality.
Most Chinese business meals are banquets, often with a huge number of dishes on offer. It is considered good manners to serve others before serving yourself and to try everything you are served, without showing displeasure. Wait for your host to start eating before you begin to do so and never take the last piece of any dish, instead showing honour by offering it to others.
While it can be acceptable to ask for western cutlery in some major cities, it is best to master using chopsticks, as this is the tradition in China. As most dishes will come with their own individual serving chopsticks, your own chopsticks should not be used to take food from shared plates. If no serving chopsticks are provided, you may need to ‘reverse’ your own chopsticks to take food from communal plates, using the blunt ends, rather than the end that has been in your mouth. Your chopsticks should be used to eat everything on your plate and can be used to cut (rather than spear) larger bits of food. They should be returned to the chopstick rest when you pause for a drink or to speak.
Rice is usually eaten from a bowl, rather than a plate, and it is acceptable to bend over the bowl in your hand and push the rice towards your mouth with your chopsticks. It is not, however, acceptable to lift plates from the table to eat.
Praise the food and your host’s good taste throughout the meal, leaving business matters aside and be sure to thank them at the end.
Toasting and drinking
The host will usually make a toast at the start of a meal and if you are the honoured guest you may be required to reciprocate soon after, or at the end of the meal. It is commonplace to toast the health of the host and all those present, and to the prosperity of the business that brought you together.
A toast of “ganbei” means “cheers” or “bottom’s up” and it is customary to say “youyi” before you start eating or drinking, which basically means “here’s to friendship”.
When drinking, never refill your own glass, instead refill your neighbours and they will in turn replenish yours.
It is standard practice for whoever has invited you to the meal to pay the bill and you should not offer to leave a tip, as this is not standard procedure in China and is technically illegal.