Guanxi & The Business Dinner in China: Sea Cucumbers, Who Gets Drunk? and Where to Put Your Chopsticks
The meal between Chinese companies and foreign businesspeople is critical to cementing a relationship; underlying the meal is the concept of guanxi. Where there is guanxi between two people, there is considered to be a depth of feeling between them, and there is an assumption that both will strive to protect the relationship, but not to the point of surrendering face. Familiarize yourself with the following tips to build guanxi with your hosts and prevent your venture in China from going awry before the first dinner is over.
Dumplings, Chicken Feet & Don't Ask For Rice
Many restaurants in China have menus with pictures and English translations, but you'll be ahead if you familiarize yourself with a traditional dish or two. Learning the names in Mandarin Chinese is a nice touch, although certainly not expected; the key is to show your enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine and still end up with food you're willing to eat.
Familiar dishes for anyone who has eaten Chinese food in America include the chicken with peanuts (gong bao ji ding) or Chinese dumplings (jiaozi). Both vegetarians and meat eaters can request a delicious Chinese dish of fried potatoes with eggplant and peppers (di san shien), often a little on the spicy side, or Chinese fried eggs with tomatoes (fan chie cao dan), which is usually not spicy.
If you're lucky, you may find yourself in a seafood restaurant lined by large aquariums filled with a wide variety of aquatic life. You'll personally select your whole fish, crab, or lobster, which will be caught in front of you and sent on to certain death in the kitchen. More exotic options also awaiting sentencing may include frogs, turtles, and snails. Taking you to a restaurant that offers live seafood is a sign of respect and goodwill, and means that the food will be incredibly fresh.
Not all Chinese business dinners are held in expensive restaurants with extravagant dishes. If you are invited to a simple restaurant, be aware that your hosts may not be wealthy, but still wish to honor you. There may be dishes unfamiliar to a Western palate: common dishes include chicken feet with claws and webbing, duck tongues or whole duck heads, pig snouts and tails, and various intestinal meats. These are ordinary foods in China, and your hosts are unlikely to be offended if you decline, so try them or not, as you like.
If you do find yourself at a more modest restaurant, however, you may not see a lot of rice or noodles on the table; while these are staples in China, your hosts will want to give you as much meat, seafood, and vegetables as possible to show their esteem for you. To request rice or noodles will convey that you have not been well fed, or that you believe your hosts cannot afford more substantial dishes. Even if the food is not to your liking, it is better to wait until you return to your hotel for a snack.
Your ability to use chopsticks will serve you well at a business meal, as your credibility will increase immediately in the eyes of your Chinese partners. You can ask for silverware, but a lack of skill with chopsticks will likely be viewed as weakness (and silverware may not be available). There are lots of videos on YouTube that will teach you how to use chopsticks like a pro; the link to the right is just one humorous example. The video will also provide other points of etiquette for using chopsticks, but the most important is that you should never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of food between bites; place them next to your plate. If you have a flair for ambidexterity, a great party trick is to demonstrate the ability to use chopsticks with both hands!
Sea Cucumbers, Shark Fin Soup & Bird's Nest
You will likely encounter these special, albeit probably unfamiliar, dishes in a formal business meal in China; the reception you give these delicacies will go a long way towards building a good relationship.
The first is the sea cucumber: in China,
the sea cucumber is considered to be
an elixir of youth, the source of vitality, and a universal healing agent. Often served in soup, fried, or in a heavy sauce, the flavor is very mild and the texture is rather rubbery. Sea cucumbers are usually about the size of an English cucumber, greyish-brown in color, and have small bumps along the surface. When sea cucumbers make an appearance, your host is paying you a compliment; your Chinese partners will be thrilled if you try them and express your enthusiasm for such a famous Chinese delicacy.
Shark fin soup is another dish regarded highly for its symbolic status as well as its flavor; it is believed in China to restore vitality and protect against disease, and is perceived as a symbol of prosperity. As many people are aware of the controversy surrounding animal cruelty in the harvest of shark fins, Western businesspeople will need to make a personal decision. Refusing your Chinese host's offer of shark fin soup will likely give great offense, far more so than if you were to refuse foie gras on similar grounds while visiting a French company, so it is important to weigh the importance of the meal against your opinion about the dish.
The third and perhaps most unusual of the important delicacies is bird's nest soup. The nests are spun by a species of swallow native to Malaysia and Indonesia, partly or almost entirely of their saliva, and are considered in China to be a panacea for many ailments, from asthma to digestive problems. Bird's nest soup is also believed to be an anti-aging remedy. If you are served bird's nest soup, it may appear similar to egg drop; the flavor is not too strong, and your host will be pleased to hear how vital and happy you feel after trying the first bite. It is sometimes cooked inside a halved papaya, and coconut milk, honey and spices will be available to be mixed in; this formal presentation has a mild, sweet flavor that most will enjoy.
This chopsticks instructional is done by the host of a Korean cooking show, but her tips for using chopsticks will work just as well in China!
Spicy Food & Alcohol
Impress Your Hosts, But Proceed With Caution; Plus, Should Women Drink?
When you want to win the respect of your Chinese hosts, keep spicy food and alcohol in mind. Two provinces in China are known especially for their spicy dishes: Sichuan ("sitch wahn") province, of the famous peppercorns, and Hunan ("hoo-nan") province. If you're asked what you'd like to eat, lovers of spicy food will enjoy these regional cuisines. If you're not sure, ask for Dongbei ("dong bay") food. Dongbei province is in the far northeast of China, and Dongbei restaurants will include fewer spicy dishes more familiar to a Western palate.
More important than your ability to enjoy spicy food will be your enthusiasm (or at least willingness) to consume a great deal of alcohol. Tea will sometimes be served at a meal, but you are more likely to be offered a choice of alcohol. (You may also be treated to a formal tea service, but that requires another article entirely.)
It is popular at Chinese banquets to play information games to see who can drink the most. Beer is far more common than water at business meals, including lunch, and hard alcohol like whiskey, vodka, or Chinese liquor (a clear spirit called baijiu, pronounced "buy jo") will likely make an appearance at dinner.
Women doing business in China have a difficult decision to make: Chinese women are usually offered juice at business meals, and are generally exempted from drinking competitions. A Western woman at a Chinese business meal can avoid drinking alcohol without giving offense to the hosts, but as the drinking game is seen as a sign of mutual respect and builds guanxi, it is especially important for businesswomen in senior positions to engage in the game as far as is personally acceptable.
Discussions of respect can often be heard at Chinese banquets, and on the issue of drinking, the topic is particularly sensitive.
To refuse a drink offered by your Chinese business partners presents a double risk, either of giving an impression of disrespect for them, or of giving an impression of weakness on your part. Many Chinese people have heard that Westerners love to drink large amounts of liquor, and challenging this impression can suggest that they are wrong, or that you believe the other person cannot win the contest. It is not uncommon for the most senior of your Chinese business partners to select a proxy for the drinking games: a junior manager will jump at the chance to try to out-drink a Westerner, because it will win favor with his superiors and give him bragging rights for weeks.
The Check Arrives
Don't Reach For It
Lastly, you should never attempt to pay the bill. While there are many times in Western culture when it's expected that both parties will attempt to settle the bill, offering to pay for a dinner to which you've been invited will be seen as an insult. The bill may be settled out of your presence, but if it is brought to the table, it is best to ignore it and instead thank your hosts for a wonderful dinner, and to praise the excellent work of the chef in particular and the regional cuisine in general.
You are now prepared to enjoy a meal with your hosts, and more importantly, to succeed at the meal by building a strong relationship. Don't skimp on compliments, go out of your way to appreciate the hospitality, and good luck with your implementation of joint projects in China!
Written by Sarah Donahue Henderson, Fremont's VP and Chief Cook & Librarian, who lived in Shanghai, China for several years while establish Fremont's Chinese subsidiary, Conghua Trading.