“Gan Bei”: Business and ritualistic drinking in China

As I have discussed in my previous article on “The subtle art of the formal Chinese banquet”  (https://nathanhgray.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/the-subtle-art-of-the-chinese-banquet/), the importance of relationship building to the Chinese is paramount. Apparent social functions like banquets are held in very high regard by Chinese businessmen and government official due to the ability for one to get to ‘know’ their potential business partners. This knowledge is achieved through watching foreign businessman’s behaviour during the formal and informal drinking and eating rituals that are performed during every formal banquet. It is therefore important to be aware of these rituals, drinking strategies and how to ensure you leave the banquet in higher esteem than when you arrived.

Drinking in China

 There is a definite hierarchy to the formal toasting at a banquet.  Thus the host will toast the most important guest, then the next most important and on and on down the order of importance. This must be remembered, in order for one not to jump the gun and propose a toast before ones allocated turn. It is therefore important for one to observe the banquet environment to determine ones hierarchy at the banquet table. Toasting someone is highly ritualistic and generally requires the toaster to stand and make a toast. It is important at this stage to ensure there is an adequate supply of wine, beer or spirit in the glasses of the toaster and the toastee. The glasses should be filled to the same level, if they are uneven it can imply anything from a lack of respect through to an intent to cause drunkenness. One must then propose a suitable toast, probably to enduring friendships and successful business ventures, while looking at the person receiving the toast. It is at this point that the glasses are clinked to confirm the toast. Even this ritualistic clinking is embedded with importance.

Clinking of glasses should be done in a delicate and considered manner, not smashed together like beer steins in a Bavarian beer hall.  It is important to get the glass as low to the table as possible when clinking glasses. This is much the same principle of bowing in traditional Japanese culture. A lower glass infers respect upon the other person. This can create a competitive environment when in China, as each person strives to outdo the other with the lowest glass.  Ultimately both glasses may be touching the table.  It is at this point that the toast is completed with the refrain of ‘Gam Bei’ which is like cheers, and implies that the glasses will be emptied. Obviously this could pose a problem if the glass is significantly filled, or is filled with a strong spirit, especially if you have already completed a series of ‘Gam Bei’s’. The glass should ideally be grasped with both hands, one hand around the rim and the other at the base of the glass.  Drinking the contents of the glass in a measured fashion, not necessarily throwing them back quickly like shooters in the front bar of you favourite night club. Depending upon the competitiveness of the drinking, you may be required to show the inside of your glass to prove it is empty, or even turn it upside down over your head. Allow for regional variations to determine which is the norm in this regard…when in Rome do as the Romans, when in China do as the Chinese.
At this point its starting to seem like an end of season footy trip or even a stag party…..but it is in fact serious business, and it is vitally important to remain at the top of your game. Potentially business killing mistakes can be made easily under drinking duress, so be careful. To succeed in not playing the fool or blowing the game through inappropriate drunkenness it is important that you have a strategy to deal with a ‘Gam Bei’ attack should one occur. A ‘Gam Bei’ attack is where a series of hosts all toast you one after the other; this is especially dangerous if you are at a numerical disadvantage, and your team members don’t match up evenly with the other side to reciprocate the ‘Gam Bei’s’.  If there is no disadvantage then this is easily remedied by reciprocal ‘Gam Bei’s’ by other members of your contingent, that way evening the drinking balance.  If you are under siege and have a disadvantage then you need to be a seasoned drinker, keep calm and even consider regular trips to the toilet….for a ritual cleansing (I am not joking here).
 Obviously not everyone who ventures to China on Business is a drinker, or a seasoned drinker, however, not accepting a toast is very dangerous and will be looked upon as uncivilized or potentially disrespectful. This does not mean that you will necessarily kill any deal, but it does mean a successful deal is a lot more difficult to achieve. So the moral of the story is to be prepared, be strategic, and try not to drink mystery spirits.
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The Subtle Art of the Chinese Banquet

Open the Door to Business Success in China

Conducting business in China can be a confronting affair, with the rules of engagement vastly different from what we would expect in many western countries.  The number one rule when conducting business in China is to take it slow, develop your reputation or Guanxi, and build your relationships with the people you meet, whether they be business or government officials.  Business deals can be, and will be formed in a variety of locations and environments, and the relationships you develop at the Chinese banquet table can be crucial for long term success.

Banquet settings will obviously change depending upon the people you are meeting, the location of the banquet or the food variety on offer. However some things never or rarely change.

The banquet table will in many cases be a round table, large enough to seat up to 14 people. The host of the Banquet is the most important person in the room, and their seat will be at the head of the table…which at a round table may be against the wall, allowing for the host to look into the room and see all the guests easily. The next most important host will be seated directly opposite the host at the foot of the table.  The most important guest will be seated to the right of the Host, with the second most important guest to the left. If Interpreters are required then they will be seated next to the guests, to allow for easier conversation.  The third and fourth most important guests will be seated in a similar formation at the foot of the table. The other important hosts will be seated at the wings of the table. It is always best to wait until you are invited to sit at the table, this will allow you to observe how important you are perceived by the Chinese Host of the banquet.

Is it half full? or just enough?

On the table will be placed wine glasses, and a waiter will come around with a decanted wine (depending upon the company this could be beer, rice wine or barley spirit), and pour approximately two mouthfuls of wine (about 60mls) into each glass on the table.  The head of the table will indicate that he is going to propose a toast, upon which everyone present should stand. The host will then propose a toast to enduring friendship and successful business and glasses should be raised and ‘clinked’ with each member of the banquet in turn, ensuring that the glasses were clinked as low as possible and gently. Once everyone has ‘clinked’ their respective glasses, you must drink the contents of the glass. The glasses will be promptly refilled as before, and the second host will propose a similar toast. The same ritual will then ensue.  The Chinese Banquet is as much about drinking as it is about the food. The drinking is ritualistic and reinforces the hierarchy present at the banquet table.

Following the formal group toast, the host will likely toast the guest to his right, with a speech about friendship and a personal welcome, this will indicate to all that this guest is the

Ritual symbolism is everywhere in China

most important guest at the table. The ritual will then be carried out with the second guest. It is then likely that the host will propose a toast to the second host. This will reinforce that the second host is equally important, and essentially this has passed the baton to him to start his own round of toasts to the guests beside him.  It is at this point that some food may start to appear on the table, for sharing. If you are going to China, learn to use chopsticks, as failure to adequately manage them will confirm to those present that you are indeed a Barbarian…..In essence it is not much different in western cultures to eating with your hands at a fine dining restaurant.

Conversation will be necessarily small talk and informal in most cases, and it is not appropriate generally to talk formally about business. The important thing is to build your relationship, and allow your host to understand who you are and what you stand for as a person.  And this leads us to the final point in the art of the Chinese banquet.  As in many cultures, alcohol is known to loosen the tongue, and so your host may strategically arrange toasts so that you drink more than you should, and then say more than you should. Hold your own, and try not to become too loud or obnoxious. There is no surer way of killing a deal than to be rude and offensive at the Formal Chinese Banquet.

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