Special Occasions: Chinese Banquets

As a foreigner in China, chances are high you will be invited to a special gathering at a restaurant called a Chinese Banquet. This is typically done to honor someone. This is the type of event held in a nice hotel or high-end restaurant with a private room.

Symbolism runs deep in Chinese blood. Etiquette is involved, and you will be expected to act accordingly. There are certain things you do and certain things you do not do. When you arrive, wait to be seated. The host will most likely have a seating chart planned ahead of time. Never seat yourself. There is much pressure on the host to do a good job, and your job is to let them do theirs.

The guest of honor will be seated at the far end of the table, with the next most important people seated next to him or her.

Many dishes will be ordered. Every attempt is made to order too much food. This is an elaborate attempt to impress you and every other guest present. You will be asked and given some of every dish and to complement it. The host is trying his best to take care of you. Negative or blunt comments about your distaste for anything are a social taboo. This is an event in which you need to think of the host. Take every opportunity to let him know that he is doing an excellent job.

It is very rude to refuse any dish that is offered. Chinese cuisine is very different than what we think is acceptable in the United States or even Europe. Dishes might include chicken feet, intestines, brains, fish, and even thousand year old black eggs. You are expected to take a bite of each and every one. Meat is more expensive than vegetables. In an attempt to save face and serve the best, expect to see more meat in the dishes than vegetables. You might see some very odd things placed on plates. One of the measurements placed on hosts as people judge them is their generosity. As a foreigner, don’t be surprised to see someone put the head of a chicken or the eye of a fish on your plate. Mind your manners and accept every gift with grace and pleasure. They are trying to impress you by saving the best parts for you.

As part of the host’s generosity, it is their job to make sure that your plate and cup are full at all times. Don’t ever signal you need more drink. This is an outward display that tells the host they are not doing a good job. It is polite to ask for more of something that you liked, however.

The pace of the meal is supposed to be slow. You are not there to eat. You are there to honor the guest and enjoy thecompany. Do as your fellow peer do and eat slowly. The meal lasts at least two hours. After the men have their fill, it will be time to socialize and relax for a bit. Afterward, they will commence eating again.

Enjoy the meal and enjoy the company. Never leave early. This is the pinnacle of rude behavior. It shows a measure of ingratitude you will not likely recover from. The meal is finished when someone announced “ZO!” which means it is time to go. Everyone leaves at once. Do not linger or socialize.