Chinese Banquets: A How To

Well, since there’s not really been much going on in the Jing this past week worth writing about, I’m going to give you an education on Chinese banquets. They’re actually quite a lot more complex than you might imagine; the whole who-sits-where and who-does-what are things that you need to know if you don’t want to offend or come across as ignorant. I do realise that there isn’t an extremely high likelihood of you all being invited to huge Chinese banquets, so you can just chalk this post up to being like one of those days you get lost in Wikipedia and learn about the difference between varying types of bees or the benefits of Reiki healing

Banquets tend not to take place in the main dining area of a restaurant. In most nice restaurants (especially in small town China) there will be an upstairs that has at least five private rooms. These are the places where banquets tend to go down.

The most important thing surrounding banquet etiquette is the seating plan. Tables are usually round, and have a lazy susan (love this name, so irrelevant!) so that each person can sample every dish that is ordered. The host of the banquet sits at the central seat facing the door, whilst the honoured guest, or most important guest, will sit to his/her immediate right. The second most important guest will sit to the left of the host. Without status to define the importance of each guest, the seating plan is arranged by age, with the young ‘uns taking the spot with their back directly to the door. The young ‘uns also tend to pour tea for everybody in absence of a waiter/waitress. As business is often done over dinner, banquets are commonplace.

The food at banquets will be pre-ordered by the host, and usually expensive dishes are ordered as a show of taste and wealth. Although there are no particular dishes that must be ordered you will generally find that each banquet contains at least one type of soup and one fish. Rice, noodles or any other carb will not be provided unless you asked for it, as they are seen as cheap fillers – you may even offend the host by asking for carbs, as it shows that the food ordered was not to your satisfaction, so be careful on this one.

banquet

Next up, drinking. My favourite! Chinese drinking culture differs hugely from western drinking culture. Nowhere is this more obvious than at a banquet. As a rule people don’t sip at alcohol (that’s what tea is for); everybody at the table will be poured a shot and a toast will be given, upon which the shot will be downed (wash, rinse, repeat at least 10 times). I actually find it kind of sad. When I was out in Xinjiang the headmaster of our school had a wooden leg because he’d continued to drink after being diagnosed with diabetes. Another teacher’s husband died from a mild heart attack that any healthy adult would have survived, but, owing to the punishment his body had been put through by years of hard drinking multiple times per week, he didn’t. Anyway, slight sidetrack there. One more tip about drinking in China – whenever you cheers somebody with a senior status, be that age-wise or position-wise, you should make sure the rim of your glass is lower than theirs. This is an acknowledgement of their seniority.

banquet toast

Yours truly (right), cheers-ing with the dreaded Bai Jiu way back in ’07

Lastly, hosts deliberately over order. There is always meant to be food left on the table at the end of a banquet. This is to show that the host is generous, and provided a banquet that was more than enough for everybody.

Slightly different post this week. Hope you learned something!

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About Greg

A simpleton from West Yorkshire, England living in Beijing. I try to document the oddities, frustrations and funnies that happen to me whilst out here. Hopefully you enjoy reading these little episodes as much as I enjoy writing them.
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6 Responses to Chinese Banquets: A How To

  1. Kenneth Jobe says:

    Fascinating. I love these kinds of posts. I find the tidbit about rice/noodles especially interesting. I also didn’t realize how much drinking went on; it sounds like everyone has a good time but may regret it later. They must have some interesting hangover remedies.

    • Greg says:

      Yeah, it’s a very macho approach to drinking. I think there are times when nobody at the table wants to drink, but they do so anyway for fear not drinking will make them lose face.

  2. maesprose says:

    I went to a Chinese wedding once here in New York. It was held in a banquet hall and there were probably 350 people who recently emigrated from China and then the rest of us (20) who had size 8 feet or more. None of the 350 would speak English, we didn’t recognize the food and every table had a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. We toasted and toasted, knew our little table looked like fools since we didn’t know how to use the utensils or even how to eat the food. Once the groom gave us permission, we laughed like loons. That was probably the best wedding I’ve ever gone to.

    • Greg says:

      Haha, sounds about right! They’re certainly different from western weddings. Was it in, out and done in about two hours too? The Chinese weddings I’ve been to all left me drunk in the middle of the afternoon. Back when I was doing my voluntary teaching stint I even had to teach the afternoon’s classes half cut!

  3. Sharry says:

    Back before he retired, my dad often had to go overseas to China to speak to have business meetings. Once, my mother and I went along and it was pretty much as you described. Lots of toasting, and lots of smoking and over-eating haha

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