Deconstructing a Chinese Dinner: of Cuisines, Structures and the Art of Making Deals; By Archana Jay
C3S Article no: 0044/2017
“Do you like Chinese food?” is probably one of the first five questions that you get asked as a foreigner while interacting with the Chinese, and there is only one correct answer. As His Excellency, Ambassador Zhaohui mentions in his speech[i], “a joke goes, the people in southern China could eat everything in the sky but the aeroplane, everything on the ground but the train and everything in the water but the ship”.
Chinese cuisine is synonymous with Chinese culture. Its deep relationship to the land and the climate is demonstrated by the specific attention given to local produce and cooking styles. This, along with the staple of either rice or noodles, defines Chinese cuisine and gives it its unique character. However, the relationship of the Chinese with their cuisine goes beyond dining in itself; it is an experience with many subtleties and layers to it. For an outsider attempting to navigate China, from tourists to business people to even diplomats, a Chinese dining experience is a major opportunity for conversation, discussions and negotiating deals.
There are “Four Major Cuisines”[ii] which are the most celebrated in China, Chuan (from Sichuan), Lu(from Shandong), Yue (Cantonese) and Huaiyang, representing the West, North, South and East respectively, while the Modern “Eight Cuisines”[iii] of China are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang cuisines. Chinese food is described on the basis of colour, smell, taste, meaning, shape and nutrition. The major components in a typical meal are tea, usually green tea, pickled vegetables, mains consisting of meat and vegetables, rice (especially in southern China) or noodles. Soup is often served after all hot dishes have been served, followed by fruit. On special occasions, the dishes always carry special meaning, whose significance may be based on what they look like or how their names are pronounced. For example, at the New Year Dinner, everyone eats fish as the Chinese word for “fish” is pronounced the same way as the word abundance. Like birthday cake, Chinese have noodles on their birthday parties, as long noodles symbolise long life. When a baby is born, people usually eat eggs painted red as they symbolise fertility.[iv]
Dining is most likely to be a collective affair, be it with family, friends or colleagues. The group would sit around a round table with a rotating glass top and dishes are served on it. Since dining is such an integral part of Chinese living, it follows a structured seating arrangement. In ancient times, seats around the table were assigned according to a four-tiered social stratum[v], firstly the imperial court, followed by local authorities then trade associations and finally farmers and workers. The ‘respect’ structure in modern dining etiquette has been simplified to, first the master of the banquet and then the guests. The place for serving dishes is a specific point of the dining culture, which is adhered to when planning a seating arrangement for a Chinese meal[vi]. The guest of honour and host avoid sitting near this place. In a family setting, it is seen that sometimes men have a table to themselves, while the females and children eat separately. In a work setting, a private room is often used with seating for all the attendees.
Having understood the background of the dining etiquette, one can now note with interest the dynamics of seating in an official Chinese banquet. In a typical work/business process, an invitation for sharing a meal is almost always extended. On such occasions, the senior-most person or the host would be at the head of the table, which is the centre facing the east or facing the entrance, followed by the guest of honour, other guests and executives in order of prominence. This dictates the conversation flow and ensures that the top brass has an uninterrupted access to the guests. Another crucial component is baijiu or “white liquor”, which is a strong distilled spirit made from grain and the mainstay of many dinners. Drinking baijiu when the host offers it shows respect and is often a key ingredient in making deals happen. The ability to drink and be able to hold one’s liquor is crucial for maintaining objectivity while discussing the topic at hand. Describing one such incident, a particular gentleman recounted to the author about how, during his first visit to China for a lecture, unaware of the potency of baijiu and out of respect for his hosts he consumed more than he had intended to but for his lecture the next day, every single one of the previous night’s dinner table occupants were alert and present. The fact that he did manage to deliver his lecture impressed the Chinese and he formed a great partnership with the institution from then on. Other aspects of the etiquette are that the head of the table always begins to eat first after which the table follows. The first toast is made by the head and it goes around the table in the order of prominence. Most importantly, Chinese dinners always start around 6:00 pm in the evening, while lunch is served around 11:30 am onwards. Punctuality is expected, in fact, people usually arrive early and leave together after the meal is over.
By understanding and analysing the Chinese style of dining, one can get an insight into the Chinese mind and decipher the art of making deals. Just like in a dinner table setting, most literature attests to the fact that relationships are the key to everything in China[vii] and building a rapport is very important to get things done and move forward. The focus is on developing ‘Guanxi’[viii], which are connections based on mutual interest and benefit. In this process, expansive (and expensive) dinners are not uncommon, and Chinese cuisine is a great conversation starter as the Chinese are very passionate about their food and love to educate others from around the world about it. The importance of following etiquette, especially the emphasis on the seating is ingrained in the society and could possibly be traced back to Confucianism, which lays emphasis on social order where each individual should be conscious of his/her position in the society.[ix][x][xi]
Another reason is that ‘losing ‘face’ or causing loss of ‘face’ is avoided. Loosely translated as reputation or honour, the Chinese concept of ‘face’ includes[xii]:
1) Diu-mian-zi: this is when one’s actions or deeds have been exposed to people.
2) Gei-mian-zi: involves the giving of face to others through showing respect.
3) Liu-mian-zi: this is developed by avoiding mistakes and showing wisdom in action.
4) Jiang-mian-zi: this is when the face is increased through others, i.e. someone complimenting you to an associate.
The literature points out that Chinese consider problems, alternatives, and solutions from a long-term, societal perspective rather than an individual perspective[xiii].Yet it is important to note that Chinese society is collectivist in that individuals identify with an “in-group” consisting of family, clan, and friends. Within this, cooperation is the norm. Outside it, zero-sum competition is common[xiv]. This is significant in understanding the undertones and the Chinese psyche deeply for effective discussions to take place.
On a standalone basis, Chinese cuisine is incredibly detailed and intricate. It is what drives the well-being and happiness of a nation of more than a billion people. The observations and interpretations in this article show that cultural understanding is the key to effective dialogue, and the background, customs and practices go a long way in contributing to it.
[i] Speech by H.E. Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of India, Luo Zhaohui. “The Essence of Chinese Food Culture and Culinary Diplomacy”. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of India, http://in.china-embassy.org/eng/embassy_news/t1453581.htm (Accessed on May 10, 2017)
[ii] China International Travel Service Limited (CITS). “Four major cuisines in China”. http://www.cits.net/china-travel-guide/four-major-cuisines-in-china.html (Accessed on May 2, 2017)
[iii] Travel China Guide. “Eight Cuisines of China – Shandong & Guangdong”. https://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/cuisine_drink/cuisine/eight_cuisines.htm(Accessed on May 1, 2017)
[iv] Ibid 1
[v] China Highlights. “Seating Arrangements for a Chinese Banquet”. http://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-food/seating-arrangement.htm (Accessed March 16, 2017)
[vi] Ibid 5
[vii]Bariso,J. “Going Global: 6 Things You Need to Know About Doing Business in China”, Inc, https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/going-global-doing-business-in-china.html
[viii] The Institute of Export. “Doing Business in China Guide”, http://www.china.doingbusinessguide.co.uk/media/880543/Doing_Business_in_China_Guide_PDF.pdf (Accessed on May 7, 2017)
[ix] Confucius . “The Analects”, 1938, Translated by A. Waley. New York: Vintage College Books
[x] People’s Republic of China. “Culturgrams”, In Brigham Young University, David M. Kennedy Center for
International Studies. S. M. Sims, L. M. Ralph and A. L. Andrus (eds.). Provo, UT, 1998.
[xi] The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council. “Common Knowledge About Chinese Culture”, The Office of Chinese Language Council International. Higher Education Press. China, November, 2006, pp. 6-7
[xii]Commisceo Global. “China Guide”, http://www.commisceo-global.com/country-guides/china-guide (Accessed on May 3, 2017)
[xiii] Tse, D. K., R. W. Belk, and N. Zhou. “Becoming a Consumer Society: A Longitudinal and Cross-Cultural
Content Analysis of Print Advertisements from Hong Kong, People’s Republic of China and Taiwan”, Journal
of Consumer Research, 15, 457-472, 1989
[xiv] Witt, M.A. “The Ten Principles For Doing Business In China”, (contributed by McKay, Zoe) Forbes, March 6, 2012
[Archana is a Programme Specialist at the International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage, a Category 2 Centre under the auspices of UNESCO, located in Beijing, China. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of C3S]