Want to live happily ever after (and keep your job) dining with bosses, clients, coworkers, family and friends? Learn how to wrestle for the check!

If you’ve been in China long enough, say ten dinners or more, chances are that you’ve caught a glimpse of the special wrestling ritual between locals and foreigners alike. The ritual begins when someone at the table calls for the check by shouting mǎi dān! 买单! (lit. buy list), the phrase which strikes fear into the hearts of cheap bastards everywhere. No matter whether you’re genetically predisposed to wrestling, feeling tempted jump into the fray, or just flat out confused by this strange ritual, we’re here to help.

Momentum escalates when the check arrives. The wrestling can get rough, with one-upmanship, even life threats, and at some point, if the restaurant server does not comply with their demands, the wrestlers may turn on the annoyingly neutral server, threatening to slice him to death with their imaginary credit card blades unless he makes the right choice, which at this point, does not exist. (note to servers: drop the check and run; do not attempt the “and the winner is” announcement!) The game is mental and physical brinksmanship, with fluid rules and spontaneous displays of hutzpah, which anthropologists have identified as rather similar to the mating rituals of certain species of wildebeest.

When you’re not expected to pay the bill

Let’s warm up with the basics. You get to enjoy a free meal when:

  • Visiting someone in his/her home city, country or territory.
  • Responding to a clear “let me buy you a dinner” invitation.
  • Attending a “thank you” dinner you’re happy to accept.
  • Tagging along as a guest of the main company/family group.
  • Recognizing you’re among the junior participants (enjoy while it lasts).

Piece of cake, right? The game becomes trickier, however, when the hidden agendas begin to surface.

The Art of Relationship Building

Chinese people highly value relationships. Buying someone a meal is often the first step towards a closer connection and greater levels of trust. Asking others to a meal can backfire and destroy a good relationship, if not handled with care. For example, “going Dutch” or splitting the bill “AA制” read “A.A. zhì” (lit. Algebraic Average System) is frowned upon, unless you’re with really close friends, as it’s perceived as being too calculating or insincere. In most cases, you’ll recognize who is likely to foot the bill, especially if you’ve been applying our Chinese Dinner Etiquette – 4 Key Insights for Foreign Guests recommendations.

To be clear, you are expected to grab the bill when:

  • Asking someone for a favor.
  • Trying to get in someone’s good graces.
  • Extending a sincere thank you, apology, etc.
  • You’ve already hinted you have something big to celebrate.
  • You’re by far the most senior level person at the table.

If none of those situations apply, you encounter the “to pay or not to pay” dilemma. If you decide to pay and others protest, then you should insist harder and give a reason why. For example, you might say “I just got a pay rise, let me treat you tonight” or “Please allow me the honor” or “I just won the lottery.” Keep in mind the value of Face, the final frontier.

To side step the dance altogether, you can excuse yourself to “go to the restroom” so that you can settle the bill without anyone noticing. If you are on the other end of the dance, you still have your role to play. Reach for your wallet and insist several times that you get the bill. Before giving in say “I’ll get the next one,” which is in line with another thing Chinese people value – lǐ shàng wǎng lái 礼尚往来 meaning “courtesy demands reciprocity.”

Here’s what you need to know in a handy chart:

(guaranteed win)
Avoid the wrestling ritual by sneaking out near the end of the meal and paying the bill. If needed, use excuses such as “I’m going to the restroom” or “I’m making a call in the hallway” to not tip off your intention.
(you want to win)
Call for the check. Grab it fast. Refuse to take a second look at the detail. Insist on paying by saying “Let me have the privilege” or “It’s all on me today” or “Touch this check and there will be serious trouble.” Look angry if anyone wants to wrestle or give you money.
(you want to win, but don’t mind losing)
Let’s get ready to rumble! Call for the check. Let server put the check on the table. Search for your credit card while double checking the breakdowns. Others will try to jump in. Let them see the amount on the bill. Push their offers away. Say something like “Let me take this cheap one and you buy me a fancier dinner later.”
(wrestling as a courtesy)
Wait for someone else to call for the check. Reach for your wallet in the wrong pocket. Not too fast, but don’t delay either. Offer to pay without insisting too much. You might still end up paying, so assess the risk and use discretion.
(you definitely don’t want it)
When the check is about to arrive, go to the restroom. If stuck there, you can’t find your wallet. Maybe it’s in the car. Or take out your credit card in a cash-only place, to stick it to the guy who never pays.

The possibilities are endless, so use your creativity and go for that Oscar winning wrestling performance. The others at your table will appreciate it.