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Three cheers for Chinese banquet guru
[Harbin] Lavish meals loaded with booze have long been a mainstay of Chinese politics and business for centuries, but for many they are more a source of anxiety than joy.
For some, salvation has come in the form of a middle aged former wedding planner.
At the "Art of Communication School" in the northeastern city of Harbin, businessmen and bureaucrats are taught to drink themselves up the social ladder.
Its middle aged founder Xiu Weiliang appears an unlikely guru, softly-spoken with a penchant for woolly jumpers, and frequently mopping sweat from his brow in class.
But he says more than 4,000 students have taken his classes in the last decade.
"The banquet table is the place for Chinese people to exchange their feelings," said Xiu, beaming from behind a wooden desk in his office.
In the "Tricks of the Dining Table" course, his charges are drilled on seat selection, lazy susan control, and making obsequious toasts to their bosses.
But declining alcohol is also a key part of the curriculum, added Xiu.
"Some people will encourage you to drink to excesses and lose control to achieve their aims," he said, adding it was crucial to know how to "turn down a drink without hurting someone's feelings".
Business meetings across China often take place around a dinner table and punctuated by shots of baijiu - a domestically brewed grain alcohol.
That has fuelled a mini industry in self-help books such as "Chinese Style Banquet: Mind Reading Techniques". Some of the tomes underline the sexism of this dining culture, where women are often expected to act merely as decoration.
Such titles include "Women at Banquets: Flexible Accompanying Skills" and "Relationships Come From Drinking", which strictly demarcates differing gender roles at dinners.
Authors for the latter suggest: "When women are at the banquet table, it's usually in a supporting role... that requires casting aside arrogance." Many in China lament the culture of forced drinking and Mr Xiu said that his students - male and female - often found the prospect of office banquets left them in panic.
"For Chinese people, there are many problems which can only be resolved at the dining table," sales manager Zhuang Kelu told AFP.
After a 12 class term, she said, "I now know phrases to use to indirectly refuse a drink... I am no longer afraid of business banquets." Members of China's ruling Communist party have for decades cut deals over drinks - with reports of public funds used for alcohol fanning popular resentment.
In 2011 a chief executive at China's state-run oil giant Sinopec was suspended after it was revealed the company spent more than one million yuan on vintage wine and spirits in a single sitting, including Chateau Lafite.
As part of an austerity drive allied to President Xi Jinping's corruption crackdown, the ruling Communist party has ordered officials to limit themselves "four dishes and one soup", as it tries to placate public anger.
High-end alcohol sales in China have been hit by the measures, and Xiu says he is shifting his pedagogy towards speechmaking instead.
"Now the government has banned officials from deciding matters over meals... I started a class called: 'Better public speaking will change your life'," he said.
The approach seems to have paid off, with high-level Harbin city officials touring the school this summer.
But he still runs banqueting courses, with the final class taking place around a dining table loaded with dishes.
"In the hotel - that's when the real action happens," Mr Xiu said.
When a dozen of his brightest graduates gathered for a meal, generous toasts were the order of the day.
"Before, I couldn't say anything at the banquet table," said one middle-aged man, standing up with a glass of red and asking to remain anonymous.
"He explained his concept to me. I thought, as the head of a company, it's exactly what I need.
"In the classroom we call him 'Big Brother'," he added, tilting his wine and taking a deep chug. "Thanks, Big Brother."