The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Secrets of the Lazy Susan

Posted on | August 4, 2011 | Written by Crystal Edgar | No Comments

If you’re a Westerner living in Chinese society, you have to become familiar with the customs, traditions and social behavior in order to fully understand the culture and be welcomed into it. As a foreigner, you need to grasp the important concept of “guanxi,” or relationships between people, giving face and showing respect. It is the fundamental glue that has held Chinese society together, and it continues to play a huge roll in both business and daily family matters. Formed by Confucius, this system of ethics, morals, hierarchy and behavior has set the rules that establish each person’s proper place in society.

It is fair to say that the number one pastime in China is eating, and one of the best ways to show respect and build “guanxi” is the breaking of bread around the lazy susan. Back during the dynastic periods, dining etiquette was enacted according to a four-tier social strata, the most important being the imperial court; second, the local authorities; then trade associations; and lastly farmers and workers. Today, etiquette is simplified but still organized according to social rank. The most important or high ranking guests should sit on the right side of the host as it is considered the “superior” side; others will sit on the left or “inferior” side. Guests may not choose their own place at the table and are considered very rude if they take a seat before instruction. Instead, the host welcomes his or her guests and escorts each to their “assigned” seats.  If it is a business meeting, guests address themselves as Mr, Master or Doctor, according to their occupational titles. First names are rarely used as it is considered impolite.  Once introductions are completed, the guests are invited to sit.

Chinese banquets range anywhere from 10-12 courses, which include a series of cold cuts and appetizers, hot appetizers – usually some sort of signature dish, soup, poultry (usually pigeon or duck), an assortment of meat dishes, fish and other seafood, vegetables, fried rice or noodles and finally dessert. Diners must pace themselves over the dinner, for it is considered very rude to stop eating in the middle of the meal. As you may imagine, no one ever leaves a banquet hungry or with a plate empty. An empty dish in some cultures signifies that the dish was delicious and well received. In Chinese culture it means that there was not enough food. Warning, if you empty a serving plate thinking to be polite, another serving just may appear!

Drinking or toasting is an indispensible component of any Chinese banquet and it’s considered a social lubricant. Usually guests will have between 2-4 beverages at once – Wine and spirits as well as tea, soda and beer (used as chasers). Toasting is mandatory, and it’s always initiated by the host. When the host says the words “ganbei,” which means bottoms up (literally empty glass), all present should drain their glasses. Once the initial toast has been made, the remaining guests can toast the group or individuals as they choose (usually 15-20 more toasts take place over the dinner). Safe topics for toasts are friendship, health, pledges for cooperation, the desire to reciprocate the hospitality, and mutual benefit (avoid global politics). Interestingly, it is considered a courtesy for the host to get his guests drunk, which is not very difficult considering the strength of the spirits and number of toasts. And the only way to eliminate this drinking pressure is to inform the host before the dinner of an allergy to alcohol or a severe medical condition; otherwise this teetotaling could cause the host to become upset and be considered disrespectful. In order to create the best impression, go with the flow and follow the lead of the host.

Once the last dish is finished, the dinner has officially come to a close. The host will usually ask if every guest has had enough to eat, which is quite a silly question, to which they confirm with compliments. Depending on the success of the dinner, post-dinner activities may be suggested.  One must not underestimate the importance of participating in dining and after-dinner entertainment. Karaoke being one of the main forms of entertainment, it is an excellent way to build “guanxi” and work off a few of the calories that were consumed over feast. I will say from personal experience that these social gatherings can be quite intense and exhausting, but they’re also very rewarding when considering the friendships and business relationships that are built over such feasts.

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