Some dinner etiquette has changed in China

I wrote about the topics of dinner, seating, eating, drinking and smoking in a November 2009 Dispatches from China column. But now almost three years later, things are different.

The big sea change, time and success, powerful political leaders and successful business Lao Ban’s (bosses) are often double or triple booked at meals. Long boozy lunches and dinners interfere with work and personal time.


Meals are still part of the meeting sequence, but they are getting shorter. A typical scenario, three private rooms at one restaurant will be booked for three different groups. The top guy(s) will shuttle between them giving short toasts and greetings. A high level subordinate will act as your main host. Make sure you inquire politely about what their responsibilities are within the firm. It might be wise to avoid Karaoke invitations. Say you have a scheduled conference call.

Seating is still the same. Wait to be seated by your host. This will give you clues as to each person’s status. The head seat is the one facing the entrance to the room. You should either be in the seat to the right or left of the head seat. Your interpreter should sit next to you to facilitate conversation. Make sure someone notes the seating arrangement, so when you host you know where people should sit. Your China intermediary should also be at your table.


Where and what you eat is an indication of how you are being regarded. Ornately decorated restaurants and seafood are the usual signs (expensive) that they are treating you well. Ironically, for a country that is obsessed with food, the most beautiful restaurants do not always offer the best food. A great conversation starter is to ask what everyone’s favorite local food is.


Always feel free to ask for a fork and knife. The Chinese custom is to place one corner of their napkin under their plates to hold it down, the rest is used to cover their laps. It is actually quite practical as it does away with the need to figure out what to do with your napkin every time you stand for a toast.

Try everything, but do not feel compelled to finish anything. The wait staff will replace your plate whenever it becomes full with things you have put aside. The newest dishes will be put on the lazy Susan and circulated to the head of the table. If you are not at the head of the table, resist the temptation to spear something from a new dish as it goes by. Eat what you like, but refrain from taking the last bite, as it means the host did not order enough and another plate will appear shortly. Do not be surprised when after 30 dishes you are offered rice or noodles and/or soup, it is customary in many places to make sure no one goes away hungry. When you are full, leave things on your plate. An empty plate says “I am still hungry.” Fruit is the last thing to be served.

If someone puts something on your plate, they are doing you an honor. Note something they seem to like and reciprocate.


It is now perfectly acceptable to skip drinking at lunch and dinner. Use a reversible excuse like, I am taking medications. The toasting choices are tea, beer, wine and hard liquor. If you were not the drinking king of your fraternity, and even if you were, it might be best to refrain from the wine and beer and especially the hard liquor. The Chinese drink baijiu “white liquor” (think white lightning) which varies in proof from 80 to 160. If you start, expect to drink two or more shots with everyone at the table.

Toasting with tea will keep you and your host ready for work. You may want to loosen up a bit, if things are progressing, and select wine or beer for any farewell meals. Remember, it is customary for everyone at the table to toast the leaders and the honored guests and you should reciprocate. If there was someone who rubbed you the wrong way, make a point of toasting everyone except him or her. Do not forget to toast your intermediary and make sure you publicly praise their efforts and help.

When toasting a senior leader or older person, always touch the top of your glass to the middle of their glass, this shows respect and will earn you etiquette points.


People smoke less and less at meetings and meals, but do not be surprised if it happens.

Some things to think about:

  • Beware a host who seems to have unlimited time to eat, drink and play. It should make you wonder about their business and who is running it.
  • If someone at a meeting takes the battery out of their phone and looks at you, they are expecting you to do the same. You may want to make a mental note to avoid people and meetings like this.

Einar Tangen, formerly from Milwaukee, now lives in Beijing, China. He is an adviser to Heilongjiang Province, Hebei Province QEDTZ,, China International Publishing Group, Beijing Baotong and DGI DESIGN. He is also a weekly public affairs commentator for CCTV News’ Dialogue and the author of “The Kunshan Way,” an economic development history of China’s leading county level city. While in Milwaukee, he was a partner at Jackson, Morgan and Tangen, president of E-Tech and a senior vice president at Stifel Nicolaus. He chaired various boards in Milwaukee and was a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. Readers who would like to submit questions or suggest areas of interest can send an email to

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