Footing the Bill in China: Tips and Insights into China’s Paying Culture

Footing the Bill in China: Tips and Insights into China’s Paying Culture
May 31, 2016 By Elaine Pang ,

If you've ever been alarmed at the sight of red-faced diners talking at the top of their voices and waving fistfuls of something around, don't be; they are only fighting to “qingke, or pay the bill. Scuffles to foot the bill after meals are as common a sight as lighting up or picking teeth. So you've been in China for a month or so and haven't paid for dinner or movies or anything. Rest assured, you haven't won the lottery. Sure, every time you reach for your wallet, gracious Chinese dining companions beat you in a round of quick draw. Cash is safely ensconced in the hands of wait staff and your profuse thanks are waved aside in usual Chinese-styled deprecation. Are free meals your fate in China, or will it soon be your turn to pick up the tab?

Why do Chinese always feel compelled to pay?

With locals who earn a fraction of what you do as a foreign expert, this can be especially bewildering, if not uncomfortable. The Chinese concept of face, which drives this seemingly irrational behaviour of splashing cash in public, is one of the main factors behind the urge to foot the bill. Or to put it more positively, being a good host is paramount. Moreover, Chinese don’t like to feel obligated – bought for the price of a meal. This explains why someone you took to dinner last week has been hounding you about a return treat ever since.

Chinese almost never “go Dutch” or “AA”, as it is called in their lingo. However, younger generations do seem to be slowly taking to the concept, especially when dining and wining among close friends. To the older generation, splitting the bill implies the host is incapable of affording the treat or even worse, a sign of estrangement, rendering the process of dining together absolutely meaningless.

Instead, in the spirit of reciprocity, an informal rotation system exists. Under the seemingly unending depths of hospitality, the Chinese believe that eventually their “kindness” will be repaid and one day, you will automatically start picking up the tab.

Of course, the novelty factor also weighs in as well. Chinese are delighted to entertain guests from afar. Showing off their wealth in front of “exotic” foreigners seems to give a certain kick, as does waxing lyrical about local culture, delicacies or attractions. At the very least, honored guests must be well-fed (or overfed). Just like on your last trip back home, family and friends were so glad to see you back that they wouldn’t let you pay for anything when you were with them – at least until the initial euphoria of seeing you died down.

Besides the karmic force that drives the dinner tab roster, more sinister motives may exist. Foreigners are often viewed as language practice targets or information/ placement centers for emigration attempts. Working for an MNC? Your “guanxi” will be well sought after. In any case, foreigners are often viewed as well-heeled suckers for offloading products on. If you smell a rat, turn down the invitation firmly right from the beginning.

When should you pick up the tab?

When you are the one needing a favour or “guanxi”, you have no choice but to foot the bill, and order lots of dishes to boot. Footing the bill could encompass entertainment activities like golf, karaoke and anything your prospective client may fancy.

A less obvious situation is when you have something to celebrate, running counter to what you are used to back home, where friends buy you a birthday treat. Whether it is your birthday, your kid’s birthday, your new job, recent promotion or raise, you are expected to give a treat, as well as feel honored when guests turn up in droves to give you “face”. In return, guests normally bring a “hongbao” or a present for birthdays and special occasions.

As with most aspects of culture, who pays for dinner varies from place to place. In certain provinces, like Shanghai, girls almost never pay. Do also watch out for non-verbal cues for you to fork out the cash. If your dinner companion makes a big show of looking for his wallet, it is probably time for you to take out yours.

Things to note when you are not paying

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you’ve got one what should you do?

First and foremost, never assume. Always offer to pay repeatedly. Or at least make a move for your wallet a few times, even if you know your offers will be rebuffed. Nobody likes to think they just treated a freeloader.

Thank the host profusely. Even if you secretly detest their company, offer to return the treat, especially if the host comes to your “territory”, or where you live. During the ordering process, unless you are very familiar with both the host and Chinese menus, leave ordering to the locals. You can, however, give suggestions or advise them of your dietary requirements, which the host is usually happy to accommodate. If you are the one to order however, don’t be stingy with the selection of dishes you order. In more formal situations, hosts usually order a handful of expensive items, including lots of meat, seafood and alcohol. Don’t be tempted to order mainly vegetarian dishes to reduce the cost of the bill; the dishes you order is an integral part of the face-giving process.

Bringing a gift is usually optional, with the unseen rotation mechanism well set in place. Special occasions like a birthday are the exception. Rather than fretting over what to get, a “hongbao” is usually more appreciated. Non-monetary gifts are viewed as a means of concealing stinginess with cash. For business situations, corporate gifts go a long way in helping matters along.

Since gifts are not expected in most situations, you can also use this to your advantage by springing a surprise on the host, especially if they are in-laws or prospective in-laws.

If you really insist…

So your Chinese friends are really dear to you and you are dying to treat them. How do you pay without getting overly physical?

The usual practice locals also employ is to pretend to go to the bathroom but detour to the cashier. If your dining companions are more astute, get your kids, or your girlfriend, or whoever looks more unsuspecting to sneak off to the bathroom.

Technology also allows you to achieve the same with more finesse. Purchase the treat on a “tuangou”, or group buying, website, to take care of both payment and ordering issues. If you don’t want to appear stingy, remember to arrive earlier to complete all group buyingformalities in the guests’ absence.

An alternative to fighting for the bill is to offer to pay for movies or ice-cream or whatever activity you are going to after the meal. But if you are unlikely to ever see them again, you’ve no choice but to fight it out. Entice wait staff to accept your cash by offering the exact change. Or say something to get them on your side, like, “accept the gentleman’s/ older or younger generation’s payment”. You can also try to reason with the host by explaining why you should foot the bill, like this meal took place on your “turf”.

The culinary-inclined have the option of entertaining at home instead of a dining establishment. But be sure to provide lots of food, in Chinese-style hospitality.

To be a good host…

If you’ve decide to host, pull out all the stops to impress or you will be seen as insincere or stingy. Always order more than necessary. Heap food on guests’ plates and ask if they want to order more. Never take “no” for an answer and order away during the meal.

When it all pays off

When you are finally allowed to pay, you can then be sure that you have become a friend, or at least no longer an exotic being. And for winning their hearts over, there is a price to pay.

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Keywords: footing the bill in China China’s paying culture


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recycled the article for the third time gg. look at the dates of the comments. Furthermore the article is not really accurate. You neither become friends nor do great guanxi out of one stupid dinner. For Guanxi you have to bring expensive gift, go ktvs or other retarded expensive things. A one time thing will not help you at all, especially if its just a dinner for 500 RMB. We often invite people for 5000 RMB dinner just to get nothing out of it. It just opens the door to really be able to present more to build guanxi

May 31, 2016 12:15 Report Abuse



Interesting to see the old snide remarks. A reminder of how much more ignorant asshole expats there used to be around these parts. The ones that gave Americans and English teachers a bad name.

May 31, 2016 11:49 Report Abuse



Your name says it all.

Jun 02, 2016 15:30 Report Abuse



Dining with friends, going Dutch. With your clients, business partners, paying the bill is a biz strategy.

Jun 16, 2014 10:54 Report Abuse



yes. Foreigners understand that as a given. The Chinese - well you know what happens

Jun 16, 2014 21:08 Report Abuse



A few months ago myself and a few of my foreign colleagues decided to go out for a meal at a local 'western' restaurant (not a fast-food place). It was understood that we were going Dutch. A few of the guys wanted to bring girl-friends, with the understanding they would pay for them. Fine. Then the girl-friends asked if they could bring other friends and we ended up with a group of about 20, mostly Chinese. It was made clear that everyone was going to pay for themselves. There was a very awkward moment at the end when the extra Chinese refused to pay their share. We had to explain that this was a SHARED expense and the look on their faces was priceless, especially as they had filled their faces as fast as they could. This meal exemplified the worst of local expectations: they felt that they were 'guests' and expected the foreigners to pay, and at the same time done the typical Chinese 'free-loading' that occurs at a 'free' meal. There were mutterings of discontent. One girl even complained that 'This is China' and she would not pay her share until someone pointed out that they had almost invited themselves to the meal.

Jun 15, 2014 19:07 Report Abuse



Sorrel, you must have the patience of a saint. I cannot abide going to eat with anyone I don't know really well precisely because of this.

Jun 18, 2014 10:30 Report Abuse



my colleagues were still quite new to China and thought they were being generous in allowing their gf's friends to join us. I suggested to them why it would not be a good idea for the very reason I stated (free-loading), but they would hear none of it. So they learnt the hard way. They have only themselves to blame if they continue funding the free-loaders willingly or otherwise.

Jun 18, 2014 11:23 Report Abuse



The concept of democracy is so foreign in China that splitting the bill equally is unthinkable to many local Chinese. Everyone knows it is the boss, or someone higher up who feeds those below. This status extends to settling the bill at the dining table and other occasions. The number of those who pay with ulterior motives far outweighs those who act out of genuine generosity. Since it is never easy to tell which is which in a culture filled with master actors and actresses, the Chinese strategy is to fight with your life to pick up the tab. An ancient culture that doesn't know much about equality but knows a lot about power struggle, deceit, facades, fakes, corruption, whatever it takes to get the "upper" hand and survive.

Jun 14, 2014 11:00 Report Abuse



aaaaaaaargh this annoys me so much. I sometimes have to threaten people to let me pay. But honestly. going dutch is so much better, but so awkward to ask...

Jun 13, 2014 00:07 Report Abuse



I didn't knew such complexities about this simple topic ... Well thanks for sharing

Jun 12, 2014 02:53 Report Abuse



Although this is a well written article, it just reinforces my dislike of the bullshit culture. WOAH..... the deja vu has slapped me! Seems like my very words have been manifested by Mike's computer. The who pays thing here is so dumb. Not to mention how antisocial it is. There are scores of people who stay home alone for fear of being sent broke if they initiate social contact with others. Splitting a bill is common sense. Chinese people occupy a common sense free zone.

Jun 11, 2014 16:10 Report Abuse



Although this is a well-written article, it just reinforces my dislike of the bullshit culture.

Jun 11, 2014 14:41 Report Abuse



+1, but yea nice article

Jun 13, 2014 15:08 Report Abuse



Is this a guide for dummies? It makes me wonder who the writer is targeting with such nonsense. My God, is it really necessary to psychoanalyse the reasons why someone wants to pay for a bill? By the time the bill comes around everyone at the table is hammered anyway and will most likely not even remember who payed for dinner. Just take it as it comes and use your own judgement.

Jun 11, 2014 09:34 Report Abuse



Not a bad article. You seem to know what your talking about and go into detail. Good job! Reading it reminded me of when i first came to china. So many rules! Who to cheers with. Where to touch glasses ect. Its a killer. I havent had to deal with it in a few years. Generally if you invite you pay. No one will fight. Same for business, if your a customer you dont pay. Or if your a partner it depends on whose office your at. Me and my friends are simple. If its just a regular dinner we will rotate it doesnt matter who pays. All of us are past fighting for face. If its any real money at all then well go AA. I think the best way to get away from the akward fighting is to just say clearly before that you are treating when you invite them.

Jun 11, 2014 09:27 Report Abuse