Eating at a Chinese Banquet


It’s easy to eat and speak a little Mandarin Chinese at a Chinese Banquet. Bring a small gift for the host if you barely know him or her. Bring a nice bottle of wine or a nicer gift if you know him well (after all you are part of the family.) Come early, let the host seat you according to plan, and don’t drink anything but water or tea before the first toast. Don’t eat a bite until the guest of honor (person facing the door or the host), not the host, takes the first bite even if he says in Mandarin Chinese “Let’s eat” or even puts food in your dish, unless you are, yourself, the guest of honor!

One or two helpings are enough if it is a formal meal, because there will be close to 12 courses. Pick from the side of the platter nearest to you and don’t dig trough the dish looking for the best morsel. Eat with your wrists on the table, as it is rude to keep them on your lap. Lay your chopsticks to the side of your plate on top an upside down spoon or on a chopstick rest.  Otherwise, place the tips on the edge of your plate.  Never stick your chopsticks in the rice or wave them in the air while you are talking. Put them down while you are talking. Hold your rice bowl up lightly, thumb on rim and index finger and middle finger at the bottom. Put it down while talking. Keep conversation light, and praise the atmosphere to everybody (yītuán héqì 一团和汽  “group friendly warm”) and dishes to the host (chuíxián yùdī  垂涎 欲滴  “mouth watering delicious”).  The host may criticize the dishes or even criticize the cook, but this is just a show of humility. You may find this man’s video’s interesting:

Like in the west, casual Friday is not an opportunity to wear rags, even informal dinners are not a time to be overly relaxed with your attention to table manners.

Drinking at a Chinese Banquet

Come to a banquet early so that the host can seat you where he has planned to.  Before the meal, drink only from the tea or water provided, but not any wine or juices.Then..

The guest of honor is the person ideally sitting facing the door and has a big view of the room and almost always sitting directly across from the host. At the beginning of the meal, s/he cues you when to begin.  S/he raises her glass to one side, and they raise; s/he raises to another side, and they raise. S/he drinks, and everybody drinks. Unless YOU are the guest of honor, don’t eat a bite until the guest of honor, not the host, takes the first bite even if s/he says “Let’s eat,” even if s/he puts some food on your plate. Back to drinking..

During the meal, you will be toasted and you will toast each person or each couple, at least once. It is impolite not to acknowledge people at your table by toasting and returning toasts. A good rule-of-thumb is not to take a sip of anything other than water without toasting someone. If you don’t want to drink alcohol, apologize and tell them anything “I’m driving,” “I’m taking medicine,” or “It is against my religion” and return toasts and toast with your heaviest drink (tea or fruit juice).  To toast someone, say, Wǒ jìng nín.  Followed by gān bēi (bottoms up) or suí (as much as you want). It is prudent to drink water or tea when thirsty and alcohol when being social.

Don’t allow yourself to become the butt of a drinking game, especially when the goal is to get the foreigner drunk, because being publicly drunk is a sign of weakness and loss.  Leave your glass full or almost full so that they can’t keep filling it up. You may cover it with your hand to stop them and say, “Thank you, but I need to take care of my health.”  DON”T turn it upside down.  You may prudently save that last full shot glass until the end of the banquet, or not (if you use sickness or religion for an excuse).

If you happened to have too much, before you go to bed, take an aspirin, a B-complex, and a big glass of water before you go to sleep.  The next day will be more bearable.