A toast – or 10 – to doing business in China

Jennifer Hewett
The Australian Financial Review, 24 October 2014

Doing business in China is always going to be serious business for Australia. There’s the need to find the right partner and the right deal at the right price. There are massive commercial and cultural differences to negotiate. There’s the risk of sudden changes in government policy affecting imports. (Just ask the coalminers.)

And then there’s dinner. And serious drinking.

Sharing a meal is a crucial part of business life in China, far more so than in Australia. A Chinese banquet is key to establishing – or potentially damaging – the relationship with prospective or existing partners. It also comes with its own strict cultural rituals that can be tricky to master. So in the interests of Australia’s economic future, your fearless if temporary China correspondent has spent the past few days testing some dos and don’ts.

The first lesson is that dinner is going to start early – 6pm or 6.30pm at the latest and sometimes even before that. So no sauntering into the restaurant around 7.30pm if you want to avoid immediate corporate calamity. Dinner is also going to finish relatively early – and usually quite abruptly. The host rises around 8pm or 8.30pm and the guests scramble to their feet for a quick goodbye.

I use the verb scramble for good reason. A large amount of potent alcohol has usually been consumed over a relatively short but intense period of time. The rationale is the tradition of gan bei – equivalent to “bottoms up” or “empty cup”. Prepare to hear that expression said loudly and often over the course of any banquet in China. It’s still ringing – or is that spinning? – in my head for hours afterwards.

That’s because the many, many formal toasts are always accompanied by enthusiastically announcing “gan bei!” as two glasses are clinked. The pattern is for the host to stand and toast the most important guest. This is repeated with each guest around the table over the course of the meal, often several times. Any others from the Chinese side also join in regularly, using getting up and moving around the table to make their own individual toasts to each guest.


Usually, this is accompanied by a few words expressing pleasure in one another’s company, visit, history, friendship, etc. Smiles all around.

The only catch with all this bonhomie is that it’s considered rude not to immediately drain both glasses as part of any ritualistic clinking. And sometimes even to pointedly turn the empty glass upside down as proof. Gan bei!

Fortunately, the glasses provided are usually small. But they are often filled with a Chinese grain or rice-based spirit which has an unhappy tendency to burn brain cells as well as the back of the throat. The most famous is maotai, which is made from wheat and sorghum, but there are also plenty of locally made variants of spirit or baijui according to the region.

And once the host toasts a guest, it’s traditional to respond with the same sort of alcohol, filled to exactly the same level in the glass. Often, that’s right to the brim. Depending on the spirit, this can be a perilous venture. And the glass is almost immediately filled again by helpful waiters.

Gan bei! Gan bei! Oh no, it’s gan bei time again!

And even small glasses of wine or beer, if repeatedly emptied via repeated toasts, do add up. But there’s no politely denying the host or hosts by not matching them, toast for toast. I am still not sure how the Chinese manage to do this without collapsing face down in the noodle soup, especially if there are several guests at a large table who must all be separately gan beied. But they seem immune to this fate – if sounding considerably jollier as the evening goes on. Presumably practice helps.

For novice Australians, however, avoiding any such gan bei humiliation requires strategy, determination and a certain level of stamina. Not that I am suggesting most Australians have an aversion to alcohol, of course. But the pattern of downing a bottle or so at a business lunch and then proceeding onto a boozy dinner is far less common than it was and definitely discouraged in the HR good behaviour guide. (Am I showing my age by any chance?) So many Australian business people may feel a little out of their league when it comes to passing the gan bei test as an essential ingredient of doing business in China.

From experience, trying to sneak water into the glass under the table and pretend it’s clear liquor is difficult to manage without being caught.

The obvious alternative is to eat a lot more of the delicious food from the lazy Susan that is at the centre of every table. And there’s nothing like digging chopsticks into shared dishes going round and round to encourage a sense of mutual interest in everyone’s good health.

Not that it necessarily helps to inquire too deeply about the details of any particular dish that defies obvious description. I was enjoying a fiery bowl of something mysterious as my chosen antidote for excess alcohol until proudly informed it was blood of duck with stomach of cow. Call me hypocritical but I promptly reached for yet another dumpling instead. Now I just feel full. Gan bei!

This article was originally published here.

Jennifer Hewett was in China for the China Australia Journalist Exchange 2014.