Many of the biggest surprises you’ll encounter in China will occur at the dinner table.  Because meals and food are so important to business or social connections in China, I’ll write several articles based around food etiquette, and I want to start with the biggest shocker of all, the fight for the bill.

Particularly if you do not speak Chinese well (or not at all), this could create immense confusion (best-case scenario) or else an irreparable misunderstanding and fear (worst case scenario).  Let me explain:

As you are eating out in a restaurant in China, you will witness adult men yelling and sometimes pushing or arm-wrestling (at least it looks like arm-wrestling from a distance) around you.  Many people who witness this for the first time are legitimately scared.

Actually, these people are fighting for the right to pay the bill!  Like many shocking activities you will witness in China, this phenomenon is a direct result of 面子, or “face.”

If there are multiple families at the table, usually the father “represents” his family in the struggle for the bill.  He will fight with the other fathers or other representatives until one person outlasts the others and is allowed the privilege of paying.  These fights are often very loud and active, and very much public.  If there are several business executives, then the event may turn into an all-out brawl.  Each person must show sincere desire to pay the bill.  When you can’t understand Chinese, it sounds like perhaps someone is accusing another of kidnapping his only child, followed by the accused counter-accusing the attacker that he kidnapped his only child!  They will all shout (and out-shout the shouter), and can appear to be very upset.

If you could understand what they are saying, the entire exchange becomes quite comical from a western perspective.  they simply yell back and forth several variations of the phrase “I’ll pay for it.”

How could this be?  Wouldn’t it be much much easier to just decide ahead of time who was paying?  Why not just split the tab equally?  Or have each person pay for what he or she ate?  Well, far more important than the $100 or $500 (or more) that the meal costs, is the value of being the big daugg.  The person who pays should be the most wealthy, or should be the leader of the group in some way.

How should I react when people at my table start fighting over the bill?

Even if you don’t want to pay the bill (many people don’t,) you should put up a fight for the bill.  Don’t worry, you won’t win.  Even many of the people around you that look very sincere in their efforts to pay at their tables actually do not want to pay.  They are content to put up a good fight, and then shower the winner with praise and gratitude.  It took me years before I was able to successfully pay for my first meal.  But you should put up at least a little bit of a fight.  At the very least you should offer to pay twice.  Again, there is virtually zero percent chance of “winning” this fight and actually having the right to pay.

When you “lose” the fight, do what the Chinese do; generously shower praise and gratitude on the winner.  This strokes their ego and gives them face.

There is only one scenario that can be more vicious than multiple businesses executives trying to impress each other at the same table.  This happens when an engaged couple has a dinner to allow both sets of parents to meet.  At the end of that dinner both fathers will engage in a serious struggle for the bill.

If you do want to pay the bill, simply excuse yourself during the meal to “use the restroom.”  Go to the counter and pay the bill ahead of time.  You should realize though, that doing so may very well cause your Chinese friend to lose face, so be careful with this.


15 Responses to Fighting Over the Restaurant Bill? Get Ready for China!

  1. Col says:

    Good one Steve! I relate to this article very well. I remember having my own fights with friends for the bill.

    I should also add that going dutch (ie each person pays for their own meal) is still not the norm, and only the more westernised Gen Y people going out as a group of friends *might* do it.

    I’ve never seen nor heard of middle aged people or attendees of a business lunch ever suggest going dutch.

  2. Alina says:

    This is funny and so true!

  3. April Chen says:

    It is so true. I don’t appreciate it – don’t feel funny at all…

    • Steve says:

      I think it can be humorous for Westerners just because it is so different from what they are used to, having grown up in China, I’m interested that you don’t find it funny. Do you and your friends split the tab or “A A 制?”

  4. Steve says:

    @Col — You are absolutely right, splitting the bill is highly unusual even among young people in China, and absolutely unheard of for anyone over 25 or so. As long as you know ahead of time, this doesn’t have to scare you, it can just be fun to observe.
    @Alina– glad you liked it

  5. Jingjing says:

    A very very deep insight into Chinese “paying bill” culture! Yes, saving face is actually an important part of Chinese culture. I remember an Australian teacher asked me about it when I was on the European trip and I found it difficult to explain this to her. She said, oh, no, I coudn’t understand it. why why why? I am also a little bit worried about “paying the bill” thing when finishing a meal because it might spoil the atmosphere if everyone is checking how much I should pay and how much you should pay. So having buffet may be a good way, isn’t it? 你是个中国通哇!比我还通!

    • Steve says:

      glad to hear you liked it! You are welcome to share the article whenever the issue comes up again. 我比你还通啊?太夸张了吧!哈哈

  6. Shua law says:

    Loved it Steve! Business and newly engaged set aside. I used to refer to the “bill quarrel” more like a seen of an old western gun fight. The first one to retrieve their enormous wallet came out conquer. I had a few friends and co-workers who would strategically loose the fight by placing their wallet in the most difficult pocket to reach ( I.e. the pocket inside the shirt which was inside their vest, which was inside their jacket which was underneath their coat -> rain poncho….etc…. I personally thought it was purely genius, and so I soon began to follow suit .

    • Steve says:

      excellent tip! You had already integrated into Chinese culture very well if you ever felt like you needed to place your wallet in a difficult place in order to “lose” that battle! Most of my readers stand no chance of winning, and so they could very safely fight for the bill all they wanted… Just remember to praise and thank the victor!

  7. Christine says:

    I’d love to hear the story of how you were finally able to pay a bill!

  8. […] In this post, I discussed what you can expect to happen at the end of a meal in China.  Before that bill ever arrives there is an entire adventure of actually eating the food you are (sometimes forcefully) served.  If you don’t understand some of the basic table manners in China, the dinner experience will completely baffle you. […]

  9. Trent Lamb says:

    wow, been here for 11 years, I’ve been going to Chinese dinners all that time, and I have NEVER seen a fight for the bill in mainland China. Now in Taiwan, yes, I have witnessed this, but on the mainland, you pretty much know who the host is, and who is going to pay before you ever sit down to dinner.

    Now in Taiwan, I have seen some battles that are on the edge of downright brawls.

  10. […] about those three young guys. If this happens in China, people will feel so embarrassed. Usually, all the people will say “I will pay“, but most time is the most wealthy people pay for the meal. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike […]

  11. […] me to be prepared to battle for a restaurant bill and the right to pay for it against her father. Fighting Over the Restaurant Bill? Get Ready for China! | Discovering Life Now The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to […]

  12. […] our meal companions would pick up the tab since we had come from so far to visit (ah, the Chinese art of fighting over the bill), which was never assumed but certainly appreciated. Me and Mr. Bacon also tend to eat on the cheap […]

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