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Chinese Entertaining

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Dining and Entertainment Etiquette & Protocol
  • Entertaining guests at a Chinese banquet is an important way of establishing guanxi.
  • For more formal banquets, invitations will be sent and place cards will be at the table.
  • Guests should sample all of the dishes and leave something on the plate at the end of the meal. A clean plate indicates you are still hungry and it is the host's responsibility to see that you are continually served food and drink.
  • Under no circumstances should chopsticks be placed in the rice standing up. This symbolizes death.
  • There are no firm rules regarding dinner conversation. Depending on the closeness of the relationship, business may or may not be discussed. Follow host's lead.
  • Drinking is an important part of Chinese entertaining and is considered a social lubricant. The drinking officially begins after the host offers a short toast to the group.
  • It is always a good idea for the guest to return the toast either right away or after a few courses have been served.
  • Safe topics for toasts are friendship, pledges for cooperation, the desire to reciprocate the hospitality, and mutual benefit.
  • The Chinese understand if you are unable to drink alcohol. Stating medical reasons is always a good way to get out of drinking alcohol.
  • The most common expression for toasting is Gan bei, meaning "dry cup", or bottoms up.
  • The Chinese are not as understanding of tipsy guests as are the Japanese or Koreans. If you feel you have had enough, smile and politely indicate this to your host.
  • Do not pour your own drink. It shows a lack of protocol.
  • Do not underestimate the importance of participating in dining and after-dinner entertainment. It is an excellent way to build guanxi.

A Chinese Banquet

Banquets are held to celebrate the New Year, the Moon Festival, weddings, and other special occasions. Each event is associated with particular treats -- filled moon cakes for the Moon Festival or New Year's pudding, for example -- but there are also many common characteristics and ceremonies involved. A banquet acquires much of its festive character through 2 elements: the release from some everyday eating customs (usually those that impose restraint) and the exaggeration of others. At a banquet, for example, rice doesn't need to be treated as the center of the meal, but the respectful interaction between guest and host must be performed with extra gusto.

Getting In
The meal begins with the entry of the revelers into the banqueting room. An elaborate ceremony of deference may take place at the door, where the most honored guest is supposed to enter first. Two or more guests may hold up this entry for some time, each insisting that the other is more worthy of this honor. The ensuing debate can, among good friends, lead to a bit of pushing, as the struggle escalates. Once through the door, the process may begin again, this time over the issue of precedence at the table. Usually, the guest of honor sits directly across from the host, who takes the least honorable seat near the serving door.
Serving the Meal
Regular Chinese meals are served all at once, but a banquet is about bounteousness, a host's generosity and prosperity, and the joy of celebration, so the food is brought in many successive courses. In a further display of exaggerated courtesy, the host apologizes in advance for the meager and ill-prepared meal about to be served. Hot towels are distributed at the beginning and end of the meal.
What is Served, or Beyond the Grain
In a dramatic reversal of everyday habit, banquets consist solely of special dishes. The meat and vegetables that serve as side dishes at regular meals become the focus, and fan, or grain, which is normally so important that every last grain must be consumed, is relegated to the very end of the meal and guests need only to pick at the fan, indicating their supreme satisfaction. To eat one's rice at a banquet might hint that the host failed to provide enough food.
What is Drunk
Alcohol is very rarely served at everyday meals, but it plays an important role at banquets. (In fact, a banquet is called a chiu-hsi, or "wine-spread") In the West, the type of alcohol must match the meal according to set customs, and often the guests' special preferences must be accommodated. This is not the case in China, where the host often decides on one sort of alcoholic beverage, either a wine or liquor, which will be served throughout. Wine glasses are traditionally filled at the start of each course. The banquet will probably be marked by guests challenging each other to drinking games throughout the evening.
Commencement of the Meal
The meal begins with a toast by the host, after which there is a long moment while the guests engage in the ceremony of beginning -- the degree of politeness exhibited by a guest at this stage increases with every moment he waits to start eating. Throughout the meal, the host displays great solicitousness for the guests. Guests may refuse offers of food or drink two times or more without being taken at their word - or, of course, without really meaning their polite refusals.
The Courses
The first course is an even-numbered selection of cold dishes, eight or ten are traditionally served. After the cold course comes a showy soup such as shark's fin soup or bird's nest soup. The guests help themselves to the dishes at a banquet, but the soup is served by the host, and much drinking and toasting accompanies it. Following the soup comes a decorative meat dish. More courses follow -- lobster, pork, scallops, chicken. Between the courses, a variety of sweets are brought out. Peking duck with scallion brushes, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes is often served in the middle of the festivities. Traditionally, the final course is a whole fish, which is placed on the table with its head is pointed toward the guest of honor. Throughout the meal, the guests pay elaborate compliments to the food. Enjoyment of the food offered is much more important than sparkling dinner table conversation. At a banquet, the food itself is the medium communicating the host's good wishes and the joy of the celebration.

In the Canton region of Southern China, families save Sunday mornings for yam cha, or "tea lunch." This is a time when they stop racing the clock and spend hours in conversation.

Dim sum, the tiny delicacies served at yam cha, translates to "touching your heart," a phrase that demonstrates the focus on togetherness.

Use these easy tips to host a festive meal that reconnects you to your friends. With dishes like egg rolls, custard tarts and mandarin pancakes, no one will confuse your feast with standard brunch fare.

Each small serving of dim sum contains two to six pieces, so guests can sample many different treats.

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