Posted by: Lotus Light | March 29, 2011

Of Banquets and Baijiu

Oh... the baijiu!

I’ve been lucky lately and been invited to several important dinners or banquets.  This is a lovely tradition in China – but has many traps for young players!!

Firstly – where to sit?  The host may ask you to sit on his/her right, and this is nice.  Do not take the host’s seat inadvertently.  It will be the one facing the entrance, and in very fancy restaurants may have a differently folded table napkin.  If you do take this seat, have your credit card with you!  This is the chair that indicates who is going to pay for the whole meal!  At most Chinese dinners you do not have the option of splitting the bill, although it is polite to offer to pay for everyone.

Next, the food.  Ahhh… Chinese food at its best!   An experienced host will order a beautifully balanced meal.  The cold dishes will arrive first.  Crisp fresh dishes, mixed with softer textured smoother dishes; salty mixed with sweet; spicy mixed with bland.

Now to start eating?  NO … if there is a guest still to come, no matter how long, you wait.  No sneaking a taste of the delicious food in front of you.  Yes, you can drink the tea though.  When the last guest is seated the host will invite you to eat.  If you haven’t eaten some of the dishes before, trying to figure out how to eat them can be tricky.  My technique to watch how other people eat things I haven’t seen before.  This works well if I am not the ‘honoured guest’ who is supposed to eat first!  If I am, then I take a small helping of the vegetables or topping of the dish and gently push the lazy Susan (the revolving section) around to the next person, and then I watch what how to really eat!

The hot courses will be next, and again, an experienced host will have chosen balanced colours, textures and flavours.  Generally there will be at least one soup in the middle of the meal, or in southern parts of China at the end.  More and more dishes will be brought out until there is no room left on the table and they start piling the half-empty ones on top of each other.  The fruit platter frequently signals the final dish, although sometimes you will be asked if you want to finish with noodles.  I am usually way to full to think about eating a bowl of noodles at the end of the meal.

All this food stuff is good – but is not the real reason for the banquet.  The real reason is that scary animal – the baijiu (白酒) toasts!!  Oh my…  In China, there isn’t just one toast and then we can get on with eating and sip our wine as we wish.  Oh no.  Each person at the table will offer a toast.  Others may come to you to invite you to drink with them.  If there is more than one table, a procession of people from other tables will come up to toast with you.

To be polite, you need to toast everyone who has toasted you.  You too need to make the circuit offering toasts. Baijiu toasts are lethal, but just as difficult is if the drinks are beers.  You still need to toss down the whole glass to show your respect.  So, beer may not make you as inebriated as quickly, but you soon feel as if you are sloshing loudly as you walk.

There is an art to surviving toasting in China. If you are a woman you can get away with saying you don’t drink.   This is good, especially if it is the truth.  You can say this as a fella as well, but it is not so easy to convince people.  If you have EVER been seen drinking by one of the other guests, you are done for.  You have to drink to keep face and to give honour to your host.  You might get away with telling people you have a medical problem, but it looks pretty bad, and it means you can’t have a glass of beer or wine with the meal.

How to survive?  Always have a large glass of milk or water at hand.  After each shot, take a big drink.  Learn the words ‘Sui ni (’随你) – basically meaning “Drink as you wish”.  That way you may be able to get away with a sip instead of having to drink the whole glass. Another method is to suggest only drinking one half or third for each toast.

When you are returning toasts, invite two or three people to drink with you, that way you can return the toasts you were given, but at the cost of only one glass, not two or three.

My next favourite technique is to pour the baijiu myself.  By doing this I can pour myself a slightly smaller glass and wrap my finger around the top of the glass, so no-one can see it is not quite as full as others.  If a waitress fills the glasses, ask her, very quietly, to make every second glass water instead! It looks the same and lessens tomorrow’s headache a little!

If you can’t manage any of these tricks – then I’m sorry – you are in for a terrible headache the next day and a very wobbly stomach!!



  1. Thankfully most with whom I end up in toasting use the “Sui ni” approach. LOL! I can vouch for the sloshing if using beer. One notable occasion had the drinks being served in small bowls with two “gan bei” bowl fulls per toast (a village in rural Jiangsu province).

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