If you are invited to a banquet in China, prepare yourself for a meal to remember. The banquet can consist of up to thirty dishes being served over a period of time and it is therefore wise to pace yourself. Try to eat a little of each dish rather than sticking to the one you recognize. It is traditional to leave some food — if you finish everything, this can be taken as a sign that you are still hungry!
The seating arrangements at a banquet are very complex and linked to perceptions of hierarchy and status. If you are invited, you will be shown where to sit. However if you are the host it is probably best to get some local advice on the best seating plan if you want to avoid insulting anybody.
The meal is usually coming to an end when the fruit is served and the hot towels are given out. It is possible to leave after this stage of the proceedings — although the host is unlikely to initiate your departure.
Meals can be accompanied by a great deal of smoking — even during the courses. The idea of non-smoking restaurants hasn’t really taken off in China. It is acceptable to belch and slurp during the meal as this is taken as a sign of appreciation.
Alcohol plays an important part in banquets, and should flow freely- when toasting is mandatory. And drinking alcohol should not start until after the principal host stands to propose the first toast with a speech or the words Gan Bei (bottoms up), A few courses later, it is customary and courteous for the principal guest to reply in similar fashion.
To observe the “face” of sobriety, you should fill other’s glasses as fully as possible, without their spilling over, as a sign of respect and friendship. Be aware of the host who tries to make you drunk or challenge you to a drinking game: it may be a matter of courtesy or honour for him to do so! If you want to stop drinking, be polite and use health problems as excuse.
When it comes to serving food, Chinese dishes are placed in the centre of the table and everyone shares the food in the same dishes. Serve others, which is a sign of respect and friendship, by offering the choicest morsels to your neighbours. If public chopsticks and serving spoons are out of reach, reverse your chopsticks and use the end that has not been in your mouth.
When faced with a food you dislike or distrust, accept it but do not eat it or pretend you have sampled it.
Remember to praise the food from time to time during, and at the end of the banquet.
As for chopsticks, do not play with them or point them at anymore. Never leave them in your rice-bowl (an omen of death) or pick up food dropped on the floor.
It is not only polite but also de rigueur for the host to over-order, and guests to leave something on their plates to signify their hunger has been satisfied. Before leaving, the guests should not hesitate to tell their host they have eaten enough.
As a general rule at a banquet, when it comes to paying: the host settles the bills and the guests reciprocate with a return banquet. Splitting bills is unheard of in China.
Tipping is unusual in China too.