Tang dynasty banquet

The Chinese love banquets. High-ranking party officials often attend several banquets a week and foreigner tourists on package tours are often treated to a banquet shortly after their arrival in China. It is considered an insult if food isn't left behind and too much rice is consumed (at a banquet rice is regarded as a filler).

Chinese usually arrive early at banquets and greet all the guests starting with the host. Being late for a formal banquet is considered extremely rude. The Chinese commonly welcome guests to a banquet with applause. Guests are expected to sample every dish. The honored guest is expected to try a new dish first. Other guests then follow. The guest of honor is often identified with a folded paper dragon at his place setting. He or she is expected to be the first one to leave.

"The formal progress of a Chinese banquet," wrote Theroux, "depends on little speeches: a word of welcome from the host, followed by something grateful from the guest — that is at the beginning; and afterwards, more formal pleasantries, some toasts, and a very abrupt end. No one lingers, no one sits around and shoots the bull. All the Chinese banquets I attended concluded in a vanishing act." In the old days in some places it was customary to slaughter a cow and drink a toast of chicken blood to declare battle against some scourge.

Most banquets last for about two hours and include a dozen, a dozen and half dishes. The serving of fruit and/or tea signifies the dinner has come to an end. The guest of honor should then make a motion to leave, thanking his or host/hostess and depart. Other guests have to wait until the guest of honor leaves before they can leave. Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Do not feel insulted if everyone seems to finish dinner and get up to leave at the same time. Chinese rarely linger over a formal meal. They like to eat punctually, in more traditional places this means between 6:00 and 7:00 pm. Once the meal is finished, they will leave. Walk your most important guests to the door and accompany them to their car or taxi. Be profuse about your appreciation for them coming to the dinner. Warmly promise that you will meet again soon. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Websites and Sources: Alcohol Use in China ; Warrior Tours ; Wikipedia article on Mao Tai Wikipedia ; Mao tai blog piece / ; Wikipedia article on Beer in China Wikipedia ; China Wine Info ;Gluckman on wine ; Etiquette and Protocol ; Gift Customs: Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Eating and Drinking Customs: Chinese Food Culture ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette

Drinking Customs in China

Chinese usually don't start drinking until someone offers the toast "gan bei" — ("dry glass," the equivalent of "bottoms up"). Koreans and Japanese use the same word for their toasts. The word originated in Japan.

When drinking, one should not drink from the bottle. It is considered impolite to pour a drink for yourself and when pouring a drink for an older person make sure to use two hands (a sign of respect). If you want a drink yourself the polite thing to do is fill someone else's glass and they in turn will fill yours. In some situations, it is rude to turn down a drink that is being offered to you. To avoid drinking too much keep you glass full. To avoid being rude accept a drink the first time it is offered to you by a particular individual. The second time he offers, it is acceptable to politely say no.

Some Chinese are fond of playing the "finger game" (two players fling out numbers on their fingers and make guesses to how many) with the loser taking a drink. The Chinese generally look down on drunkenness. The don't get hammered as much as the Japanese and Koreans. Chinese especially look down on daytime drinking.

Tea cups are constantly refilled. As part of a tradition called tea tapping, the host regularly fills the cup to make sure they don’t go empty. When a person cup is filled he taps the table to show thanks.

Toasts in China

The Chinese are very big on toasts. Gam bei is heard after every course and guests are often asked to have one drink with every person who is considered a host. There is Chinese proverb that goes: "if you leave a social meal sober you did not truly enjoy yourself." A host usually begins the toast after the first course by welcoming all of his guests. Toasts can be offered to the whole table or people sitting around you and they are usually ushered in with "gam bei." Even though gam bei toasts are offered through the night, you only have to empty your class on the first one when people drain their glasses and show each other the empty glass (ladies are supposed to take only a sip). The Chinese generally don't touch glasses with each other during a toast.

The Chinese often drink "shaohsing" (red rice wine) when making toasts and beer between toasts. It is not customary for guests to drink only when making or receiving toasts. The first toast is frequently a general one, with everyone drinking together, usually as soon as the first dish is presented. After this it is general practice for all at the table to toast others, starting with host/hostess toasting the guest of honor. It is not necessary to give a short speech when making a toast but is common to specify the kind of toast. The most usual toast is gam bei. Other toasts include “sui bian” ('drink as you please"), “sui yi” ("drink a little"), or “ban bei” ("drink just half the glass"). The whole table often drinks together when new dishes arrive.

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: It is very common for groups to have lengthy dinners that involve eating interspersed with stories, drinking games and feats of continual bravado. At any banquet, you will be expected to participate as a guest. The most usual form of this is rounds of drinking. They begin with a twinkling-eyed person leaning toward you across the table, filling your glass and shouting gan bei, which is the Chinese equivalent of ‘bottoms up’. If toasted in this manner, you are to drink the entire contents of your glass, and once finished, tip the glass toward the person that initiated the toast showing that you have consumed all contents. If you are not a hardened drinker, you can usually get away with raising your glass in toast, taking a sip and setting the partially full glass back down on the table. Typically if you cannot reach all the people’s glasses to touch them in toast, you can tap the bottom of your glass on the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table, to offer a toast to all around it. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

Partying Customs in China

Chinese like to party in one big group rather than breaking up into small groups and circulating like Westerners do at a cocktail party. When Chinese do divide into groups they tend to divide into separate groups of men and women). Taking turns singing is a popular activity, with one person playing the role of "emcee" and calling on the others to participate one by one. If you attend a party like this it is a good idea to have a song ready in the case you are called upon to sing.

Chinese love to sing. They sing in karaokes and singing rooms, bring portable karaokes to parks and beaches, ask guests to "sing-a-song" at parties, and watch entertainers and actors sing karaoke songs on television. Guests at parties and on bus trips are often asked to sing a song. Chinese generally are shyer about dancing than singing, whereas the reverse is true about many Westerners. Chinese children generally have few opportunities to dance when they grow up and feel awkward doing it, but they do a lot of singing in school and tend to regard it as a fun activity like recess or sports. Among Chinese adults karaoke is very popular. In parks, people often sit in groups of twenty or thirty and sing songs or put on plays or operas. Chinese singers with good voices of course are admired more than those with bad voices but even bad singers are applauded for their effort.

Discos are becoming increasingly popular in China. Men and women usually don't dance as couples. Friends usually dance in a group. Women often dance together and men sometimes dance with each other. Often you are more likely to see people of the same sex dancing together than people of the opposite sex. Sometimes men even slow dance together.

Drinking, Business and Banquets in China

Ritualized drinking is big part of conducting business and getting things accomplished in China. Banquets are a standard welcoming gesture and prerequisite to getting down to business. Restaurants often have special banquet rooms with private bathrooms and tables with place setting with three glasses: one of beer, one for wine and one for baijiu.

Hosts lose face if their guests are perceived as not having a good time and the key to making sure they do so is making sure they get enough to drink. An executive at a baijui maker told the New York Times, “It’s like a form of communication between people. It would be disrespectful to not drink with a guest.”

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Alcohol certainly greases the wheels of business in the west, too, but people can usually stop after one or two glasses. In China, the opposite is often true: it is much easier to refuse an initial drink than to stop once you have started. Foreigners are not immune to the pressure — one friend recalls being poured half pints of baijiu by an overly hospitable local official, who paused briefly to vomit before topping up his glass again.”

Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China. "When one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough," runs one traditional saying. That does not mean bingeing has been the norm: in the 1980s, a study of Chinese classical poetry concluded that heavy drinking had been in and out of favour over the years. Experts have suggested that Chinese habits — consuming alcohol with food, playing drinking games and toasting in a highly ritualised fashion’served to regularise alcohol intake and limit drunkenness.

Officials drinking and feasting during lunchtime banquets is a big problem in China. Ordinary Chinese are outraged because cadres are often so drunk after lunch they can not do their jobs and the money to pay for the banquets often comes from public funds.

One taxi driver in Xinyang, a city of 7 million in Henan Province where the problem is said to be particularly bad, told the New York Times, ‘sometimes you’ll go to the civil affairs bureau after lunch and they are sleeping or playing cards. Sometimes you can’t even find anyone.” A Communist party chief, who is appalled by the custom, said, ‘service is not always a priority for government workers after a few hours of slugging down shots.”

Chinese Banquets as Drunken Competitive Events

Yan Ge wrote in the New York Times: “I arrived late.. A slim hostess in a red qipao welcomed me while I stood dazzled by the colossal crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. I told her my friend’s name and was escorted to a private dining room at the end of the hall. The hostess held open the door. I walked in. The dining room was the size of half a swimming pool. A large round table was in the middle. Its centerpiece was a miniature Chinese garden, from which a thick vapor of dry ice ascended. I didn’t need to check the faces of the guests who had already been seated to know that I had been tricked. This was not a casual dinner — what we call a fan in Sichuan, which means rice, indicating a gathering mainly for the purpose of food consumption. This was a xi — a banquet. [Source: Yan Ge, New York Times, November 30, 2019]

“A Chinese banquet can be many things, but it is never a gastronomic occasion. It is more like a sport, one in which the primary goal is to drink a toast with each individual sitting around the table, in a rigid successive order, starting with the most prominent and proceeding clockwise. If that sounds straightforward, it isn’t: Bear in mind that everyone at the table is playing the same game simultaneously, which means just as you’ve homed in on your target and are ready to make your move, he could be raising a toast to another guest, who could very well be looking to drink with someone else. Other rules: Make sure to turn the shot of baijiu bottoms up with every encounter; say flattering words in your toast, but nothing too flowery; appear cordial and personable; smile, but avoid inappropriate body contact. Finally, while you’re busy circling the table, don’t forget to eat. At a Chinese banquet, the eating is the least important part. The problem, though, is that Chinese food is irresistibly delicious.

“Around 2,000 years ago, our ancestors coined a phrase: “min yi shi wei tian” — food is the top priority of the people. But that was a different China. Today, in the post-Deng Xiaoping era, we have merged food with what, for many Chinese people, has become the most vital aspect of their lives: business. All business meetings end up in private dining rooms, employing pork and chicken as icebreakers and closing deals over dumplings and rice. But every experienced banqueteer knows that the dishes are just props. What really matters are the diners, whose roles are underscored by their positions around the table. The most prominent guest gets the “upper seat, ” the one squarely facing the entrance, so his authority is appreciated as soon as a guest arrives. Opposite the upper seat, in the chair closest to the doorway, is the so-called manager, the one who sends out invitations, orders dishes, arranges the seating, urges people to drink more and then shoves the drunks into taxis afterward.

“The ultimate purpose of a banquet is to get its diners drunk. Only in this way can we connect and become friends, squeeze each other’s shoulders and make dirty jokes. When it goes wrong, it can be ugly: Fights can break out; women might be abused for sport. But when it goes right, mistakes are forgiven; the diners perspire, devour, quaff and sing together, and then, only then, will business be done.

Binge Drinking Among Working Men in China

In the last few decades, consumption has soared, fuelled by increased personal freedoms and rising incomes. "Excessive drinking, frequent drinking [five to seven days a week] and binge drinking behaviour have reached epidemic proportions among current drinkers in China," warned a study published in the journal Addiction last month. The authors, led by Li Yichong of the National Centre for Chronic and Non-Communicable Disease Control, found that only 56 percent of men and 15 percent of women drink. But of those, 57 percent of men and 27 percent of women binge.

Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Bingeing and excessive drinking were most common in men aged between 35 and 44; and frequent drinking increased significantly with age, whereas in "Anglo" cultures alcohol consumption usually peaks in the late 20s or early 30s, the paper noted. The government has pledged to tackle driving under the influence — police caught half a million drunkards behind the wheel last year — but bingeing does not otherwise seem to lead to much anti-social behaviour in China. You won't see people urinating on the street, or the equivalent of beered-up rugby lads pulling down their trousers for the delectation of passing women.

So the main issue is the damage that drinkers are doing to themselves. China is still some way off the cirrhosis death rates seen in Britain or Japan, according to World Health Organisation figures. And in more cosmopolitan and educated circles, over-indulgence is often regarded as somewhat déclassé’suggesting that perhaps heavy drinking may fall out of fashion again. Anecdotally, friends suggest that people are increasingly willing to make excuses on health grounds or to surreptitiously dilute their baijiu with a mineral water bottle hidden under the table.

Binge Drinking and Getting Ahead in Life in China

Binge drinking is becoming increasingly common among Chinese professionals — often it's even in the job description. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Peter Chi knows he has to cut back on his drinking. It is not much fun at the best of times, and the worst have included hospitalisation — after drinking fake alcohol — and the numerous evenings where he has passed out at the table.” "No one likes binge drinking, but it's not under your control," he complains. "Of course I don't like it, but there's nothing I can do." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian August 22, 2011]

Chi, from north-eastern Liaoning province, is not an alcoholic. Nor is he a party animal, despite his four-times-a-week binges. But as a respectable headteacher in his 40s, he feels he has little choice but to indulge — or risk harming his career. In the west, binge drinking is associated with young men and women spilling out of pubs and clubs in the early hours of the mornings. But in China drinkers are older and — in many cases — drinking not just for fun but for career reasons. "If I drink, it doesn't necessarily help me get promoted. But if I don't, it's less likely that I will be. So I must drink, even if it's not pleasant at all," Chi explains. "People want to show they are forthright and try to get along with others — It's very normal to get an order to drink from bosses."

In fact, some job adverts explicitly demand applicants who can hold their alcohol. "Candidates with good drinking capacity will be prioritised," says one for the Hunan Zhike Public Security Engineering Company, an alarms and surveillance technology firm that is seeking a business manager. "The job is to develop business through establishing closer connections with our clients. Drinking is a big part of the work," explains the recruiter, adding that the successful candidate will need to handle 250 to 500ml of baijiu at a time.

China's reluctant drinkers worry about what all the heavy drinking is doing to them. "Health is a big concern of mine. Even if things seem OK right now, there'll definitely be problems when I get to 30 or 40 if I keep drinking like this," says Bruce Wang, a young businessman whose work involves regular boozing sessions with clients. "I get drunk a lot It's impossible to feel good about it."

Women at Banquets in China

Yan Ge wrote in the New York Times: In 2017, “an article called “Women at Banquets, ” published in GQ China, went viral on the Chinese internet. “Without women, even a banquet full of meat would turn out vegetarian, ” it declared, before going on to lay out different types of women — “a coquettish virgin or a chaste whore” and the ways they could shape an event’s ambience. It compared them with dishes, ranging from braised pork belly to tiramisù. The article was polarizing. Some were disgusted by its unvarnished objectification of women; others simply considered it an especially vivid reflection of reality. For the latter camp, it was not the article itself that was appalling — rather, it was the very nature of Chinese banquets. [Source: Yan Ge, New York Times, November 30, 2019]

“In 2008, when I was 23, I went to a PEN meeting in Beijing, organized by a top literary journal and attended by a number of nationally acclaimed critics and editors. At the postmeeting dinner party, where I sat at a corner table with all the young attendees, I was horrified by the scene at the main table, where a 30-something woman writer, seated next to the editor of the journal, could barely hold herself up under the bombardment of toasts coming from all the important men at the table. Yet she pushed on, shot after shot, knocking back baijiu as the critics and editors cheered like a mob. “Do you think she needs some help?” I asked a young man sitting beside me, a lecturer at a university in Beijing. “She doesn’t need help from you, ” he said in a knowing tone. “That woman knows very well what she’s doing.”

“As a young woman who lived far from the capital city, I allowed myself to be dissuaded. I only started to wonder, years later: Why had what appeared to be a crucifixion to me seemed like an act of enthronement in the eyes of men? “We actually met once, ” the president said to me soon after I sat down. “It was many years ago, at the Writers’ Association’s New Year’s banquet. I was very impressed with you there: You certainly can drink!” he laughed. “Did I?” I smiled, remembering it was probably the time when I drank 15 shots of baijiu in one go and went straight to the bathroom to throw up. I was 24. Desperately wanting to be seen as an equal by men, I decided to drink like one. It didn’t work out in the end.

Being a Woman at a Chinese Banquet

Yan Ge wrote in the New York Times: “The guests all turned to stare when I entered. My friend, who was sitting closest to the entrance, stood up and walked toward me with an encouraging smile. “You’re finally here, ” he announced. “Our precious guest from afar!” He led me to the table, where a broad-faced middle-aged man — the president of a publishing house — occupied the upper seat. The man nodded lightly at me, while the rest of his body remained motionless below the neck. We shook hands. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.” “Thank you, ” I said. As soon as the words came out, I realized I’d done something wrong: I should have delivered an answer that was more deferential, one that showed more recognition of his position. I frowned at myself. [Source: Yan Ge, New York Times, November 30, 2019]

“My friend interrupted before the awkwardness deepened. He invited me to take a seat in the vacant chair next to the president. To get out of the spotlight, I sank down quickly into the red velvet, before realizing I had made another mistake. I was sitting on that seat, the seat I had been pinned in to too many times when I had lived in Chengdu as a 20-something, a nervous newcomer to literary circles.

“This seat was for “the girl” — the young woman installed to entertain the important middle-aged man. Those in this seat can expect to receive: an absurd amount of secondhand smoke; a number of judgmental looks from men and women around the table; inexhaustible baijiu refills and, occasionally, a squeeze on the shoulder or a hand on the back. I cringed, turning back to my friend. He grinned at me.

Turning toward the entrance, waitresses were bringing in an array of dishes. “There are some fans of yours in our office. They are all thrilled to meet you, ” I heard him continue, as I eyed a beautiful plate of braised aubergine with garlic. “Little Chen, ” the president said. “Come have a toast with Ms. Yan.” I turned toward him and saw that next to the president, there was now a young woman holding up a shot of baijiu with both her hands. “It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Yan, ” she said. The look on her face reminded me of myself not so long ago — the way I once cringed and struggled at banquets, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and humiliated but also obligated to please. I also realized in amusement that I’d misread the situation. I’d been seated near the head of the table because I was, in fact, the guest of honor at this banquet. I was not the girl anymore. This young woman was “the girl.” I looked at her. She smiled at me, gamely raising her shot glass.

“Then I acted inappropriately for the third time since I’d entered the room. “I don’t want to drink today, ” I said. “Why don’t we all have tea instead?” At the party, it soon became obvious that the purpose of this banquet was to get me to sign my next novel with this publishing house. And very quickly, it was clear that the deal would not be sealed: Not only had I refused to drink, but I also disclosed apologetically that I had already signed with a different press.

“Once this became apparent, the president sat in boredom, picking at vegetables in his bowl, sipping buckwheat tea. Around half an hour later, he ordered and ate some noodles and took his leave. After he left, the atmosphere around the table changed. My friend came to sit beside me for a good catch-up. Little Chen told me about when she’d first read my book as a college student and a coming-of-age novel she’d been working on. We finished every dish on the table, including the fruit platter. “This is great, ” another woman at the table sighed. “It’s probably the only dinner party after which I won’t go home hungry.”

Chinese Official Suspended over Pig Trotter Banquet Bills

In October 2013, the BBC reported: “A Communist Party official in China has been suspended after running up huge unpaid bills at a pig trotter restaurant, state media report. Han Junhong racked up bills totalling 700,000 yuan ($115,000) over three years, the Global Times said. The cash shortfall forced the restaurant's owner to close its doors. [Source: BBC, October 28, 2013]

“The case, which provoked a storm of criticism on social networks, is the latest example of abuse of power and runaway spending by Chinese officials. Mr Han, party secretary of Wangluo, a small town in the central province of Henan, racked up the bills while entertaining guests at the pig trotter restaurant. The restaurant - whose signature dish is braised forelimb in brown sauce - is a designated venue for official functions in the town, the Global Times reported. The paper offered no details on the breakdown of the bills - such as how many trotters had been consumed.

“The case caught the attention of state media after being exposed by a user of Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. Mr Han had been suspended from his post pending a disciplinary investigation, the Global Times said, adding that his bills had also been settled. Another state newspaper, Beijing News, quoted the restaurant's owner, Geng Weijie, as saying: "I am seriously ill, I have a small child, and my family has debts to pay." Chinese president Xi Jinping has ordered an austerity drive by Communist Party and government officials. Measures include ordering no more than "four dishes and a soup" at banquets. However, high-profile cases of wasteful spending and corruption persist.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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