In today’s globalised world, the 21st Century’s international business person has to have an increasing understanding of the commonly experienced contexts of day to day life in the countries in which he or she is in. For the Chinese, this regular feature comes under the guise of banquets. During a typical session, it is all to common to become involved in some challenging drinking, business game play, and to witness tests of alcohol endurance and consumption reputations in action. For centuries, it has proven to be a business arena that is dreaded as much as it is respected, indeed, it is all too often at the dinner table where the sucess or demise of one’s business endeavors can hinge under the facede of alcohol to build a lasting friendship.
The Chinese banquet has the same function as the Irish Pub, the Sicilian Cafe, or the Australian Front Bar. It is a social occasion used for a variety of purposes including business, as well as showing hospitality and entertainment. And as anywhere, if basic local etiquette is not appreciated, difficulties can arise. Banquets are often called at short notice and can be used to test the chemisty of potential business partners. Generally speaking, in China, people don’t go to a bar and have a drink with friends; they drink and entertain each other in restaurants. The Chinese are famous for the variety of cuisine, their enjoyment of food and they take dining very seriously.
The host, who usually sits facing the door, will place the most important guest to his right, and the deputy host will place the next most senior guest on his right, at the opposite end of the table. An interpreter will often be seated to the right of the most important guest. Hosts and guests will normally be seated alternately around the table. Tea is soon served and cigarettes are offered around. Speeches and toasts usually begin after the first dish is served.
“In China the old adage is; business may flow out of friendship, whereas, in the West, friendship may flow out of business.”
The host will speak first between the first and second courses and the senior guest should reply a few minutes later, after the start of the second course. Follow the lead from the host and keep the response speech short regarding potential future cooperation and emerging friendly ties. There are often three glasses for each person at the table, on for beer, one for ‘grape’ wine and a smaller glass for the distilled white ‘sorghum’ wine, maotai or baiju. The fiery baiju is often used for toasts and is usually finished off a glass at a time. The Chinese equivalent of “Cheers” is ganbai or “bottoms up”, and during a typical meal which may contain over a dozen courses, there are a number of these toasts, hence a lot of drinking. Once the meal is over, visitors may chat for a few minutes, but are then generally expected to politely get up and go. A word of caution, there is a common misperception by foreign business persons in China in thinking ‘guanxi’ relationships can be established simply by hosting banquests. However, anyone can pay for a dinner, but only a good friend can be trusted to bare the ups and downs of life and commerce. What is sought via the “banquet” are long-term friends and business partners; the most important issue at heart being the initial sincerity of the friendship upon introduction.
It would therefore be recommended that those seeking to do business in China concentrate initially on only one aspect of business where mutual connections have already been tentatively established. For example, an introduction to a propective business partner via a mutual colleague or acquaintance will pay dividends in attempting to construct a lasting mutuallyu beneficial relationship. Also, by honing in on one facet of a particular industry, the foreign business person can learn the structures of the sector they are entering, along with the local rules and regulations, and the region’s business culture and customs. they need to develop empathetic relationships and consider modifying their own cultural biases, behavior, and actions to suit their counterparts from the local culture.
The new corner needs to take time to actively listen, and cultivate the observation skills to learn and understand modern Chinese business practices with their long ties to China’s cultural history. The foreign business person in China needs to take the time to socialise and build relationships, while understanding that these relationships will often begin in the form of a ganbei. This is not to say however that the more you drink, the greater your chance of gaining that much sought after ally.
Rather, it is ironically more about demonstrating that you care more about the friendship than the business by lifting your glasses in a genuine toast. Thus, the banquet in China is often considered by some Chinese as a test of your authenticity and sincere interest in eventual cooperation together. To appreciate the value and significance of the banquet in China is to help your commercial model to not only withstand the rigors of cross-cultural exchange, but also the somewhat circuitous route of successful joint ventures.
by Conan Fahey with thanks to Redstar Magazine in which it was originally published.