IF YOU ever happen to find yourself in a men's toilet in deepest China and you see a man hurriedly devouring a tin of sardines with a pocket knife, that will be my friend the iron and steel trader. He's not crazy. Far from it: he regularly negotiates and signs multi-million dollar deals with Chinese steel mills on behalf of the South African company that sends him to some of the most ghastly places on earth. This businessman spends a major part of his time in China and has every reason to believe his company thinks highly of him. So what's with this eating of sardines (canned Norwegian smoked sardines in oil, to be precise) in a loo? 'I always travel with them in my briefcase. They're the secret to surviving Mao Tai wine,' he says. 'I don't know why it works but I've found it definitely neutralises the terrible effect of this lethal drink which is half rocket fuel and half embalming fluid.' Writer and television personality Clive James, while covering Maggie Thatcher's trip to China in 1982 (the one when she fell down the stairs of The Great Hall of the People) described the effects of drinking China's prestige tipple as similar to putting your head into the dark interior of a musty wardrobe and asking a friend to slam the door on it, very hard. When I first ordered it out of curiosity (the drinks list described it as Chinese white wine, bai jiu, the generic term for all clear Chinese wines which are not wines at all but spirits) my nose noticed its arrival from 20 metres away. My friend the iron and steel man was born and bred within falling over distance of a tequila distillery, and in northern China he has actually traded on his ability to knock back whatever is put before him. 'I'm a famous drinker up there. I go up and file them down, that's the way business gets done. One guy bet me that if I drank six of these Mao Tai things in a row he'd buy an extra 100,000 tonnes of iron ore from me. He kept his word. We altered the contract the next day. At another banquet, another guy did the same, but only bet five glasses.' To which he adds with a sigh: 'Being on the banquet circuit is tough, three weeks at a time, you have to be very careful. We nearly lost a guy once, he nearly died. Alcohol poisoning.' There are many ways to die. One is 'death by duck' and it's more lingering than a bullet in the back of the neck or the devastating effects of fermented sorghum. It is caused by a sudden, excessive ingestion of fat and normally occurs in people who tend to eat cottage cheese and salad every day. The fact remains that eating is a fundamental part of the process called Doing Business with Chinese Characteristics. And in order to stay alive the rules must be obeyed. Rule 1: Never, ever say 'mmmmm, yummy', even if it is. You'll get it again for the remainder of your trip - breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you're being truthful and really do like it, that's not so bad, but if you've lied, pretending you like dog as much as the next man, dog is what you'll get for the rest of the trip. 'Chinese officials use the banquet with the foreigner as a way to eat all this weird expensive stuff they don't normally get to eat: bears' paws, giant bumble bees, locusts, scorpions, slugs, camel hump. They really think it's something,' the iron and steel man says. He cast his mind back. 'One banquet still holds the record. Through our blurred vision we each counted different figures but we averaged out at 52 courses; they just kept bringing them in,' he says. 'I was at one banquet where they served the ears, the nose, the tongue, the tendons, the balls, the penis and the tail of a bull. Where the rest of that bull was, I don't know.' Rule 2: If the dish is 'good for you', it's likely to be slippery, unappetising in appearance, expensive, and something you'd rather not know about. 'One of the worst was steamed beetles, big ones,' my friend says. 'You learn to fake it somehow, scoop it out, pretend to eat it but dump it on or under something else. One time this dish arrived with unidentified sausage-shaped somethings. I turned one around with my chopsticks and saw an eye go past. My colleagues and I were trying to work out what they were, how we were going to avoid eating them, and what we were going to do with them. Then the host proudly put one on my plate. 'Eventually we realised they were turtle heads. So I got up to propose a toast to long term co-operation and all that. As I stood up I picked this thing off my plate and flicked it under the table. Unfortunately it landed on my colleague's lap on the other side.' Rule 3: Normally, there will be three tables at a business banquet. The first is for you and the main dealers, the second for some of the guys who work with you. The third table seats all the guys you've never seen before and will never see again. As pre-ordering the food is essential, it means a real headache if you are the host because you never know how many are going to show. Rule 4: What you are getting is probably not what your hosts are getting. While you are getting drunk, they are not. This is revealed when the macho loser of the drinking game discovers the clear liquid in his host's glass is in fact water, while he has been on 90 per cent proof. Rule 5: Speeches are mandatory. Sub-rule A: Get yours in before the Mao Tai gets you, although it must be after your host's. Sub-rule B: Always praise the food. Sub-rule C: If quoting a Chinese sage, the relevance of the subject is less important than the source. These days, choose someone either from antiquity, like Chuang Tsu (300 BC), or (until further notice) Deng Xiaoping. Rule 6: Banquets are business but business is never discussed. Stick to the basics: poetry, the health-giving properties of each dish as it arrives, the glories of extravagance. Remember Sun-Tzu's The Art Of War (deception wins). Your host will be filled with admiration if you haven't broached the subject of who's going to pay for the road to link the joint venture to the outside world. You won't really be losing time, you will have gained points. Rule 7: Beer is not considered an alcoholic drink. It is quite OK to take your own booze with you, say a nice bottle of Chivas Regal. So when they start shooting their stuff, you can say: 'You do one of yours and I'll do one of mine.' But, beware, here is a recipe for disaster. Never take brandy XO, thinking you can toast it in the little wine cups. These guys have heard about brandy and how it should be drunk out of large goblets, which they happen to have. So they fill them one third full and expect you to gan bei that. You can stand two, maybe three of those but by the time seven, eight and nine come around, that means a very bad hangover indeed. Talking of which, the iron and steel men once surprised the inhabitants of Beijing by wandering the streets in winter in their shirt sleeves. They were trying to sober up for an important meeting the next day, but almost caught pneumonia instead. 'Another time, when one of our group nearly died, we all had alcohol poisoning for a week; on the other side, I think the steel mill shut down. I remember we had to support our guy as we walked into the airport. One of the Chinese thought what was needed was some food. Our poor guy took one look at an egg swimming in oil and bolted out of the room. As he went, he blew. He nailed about 20 people on the way to the loo.' Which is more or less where we came in - apart from one last golden rule. Rule 8: Practise the art of survival. If you're in for the long haul, declare yourself a vegetarian and teetotaller at the very beginning.