Chinese dining traditions have as long a history as the history of Chinese Cooking or Chinese Food. The Chinese people pride themselves on being one of the earliest peoples to develop sophisticated notions of polite social interaction, including highly sophisticated rules of etiquette governing acceptable table manners.
Since wining and dining guests is an old and esteemed tradition in China, it is not surprising that Chinese society has developed an intricate set of rules to govern also this delicate aspect of social interaction.
Chinese dining etiquette, whether it applies to receiving only a few guests at a single table in one’s home or to holding a public banquet involving dozens of guests seated at several tables, varies with the character and purpose of the dinner. It also differs slightly from region to region in China. China’s banquet etiquette is said to have originated from the Etiquette and Ceremonials, a work believed to have been penned by the Duke of Zhou during the Zhou Dynasty (BC 1027 – 221), though no independent mention of the book exists until the beginning of the Han Dynasty (BC 206 to AD 220).
Through thousands of years of evolution, Chinese dining etiquette has continued to develop, albeit always with one foot in the traditions of the past.
The main difference between Chinese and Western eating habits are that unlike the West, where everyone has their own plate of food, in China the dishes are placed on the table and everybody shares. If you are being treated by a Chinese host, be prepared for a ton of food. Chinese are very proud of their culture of cuisine and will do their best to show their hospitality.
Here are some tips about Chinese Dining Etiquettes.
- Guests should present themselves to the host upon arrival. This is important since it is the host who determines the seating arrangement, and in order to do this properly, the host needs to know who among the invited guests actually arrived.
- If one is more or less a stranger to the other guests and needs introducing, the host will generally take care of this, either personally, or by delegating this function to an appointed person.
- Be punctual – it is rude in Chinese society to arrive late. It shows disrespect to the host, one should not keep the host waiting.
- One may bring a small gift if one is a low-ranking guest (a stranger or a near-stranger, a distant relative, etc.) while one brings a finer gift such as a bottle of quality wine if one is a higher-ranking guest.
- The elderly or guest(s) of honour are usually the first to start the meal.
- The youngest or least senior may serve the eldest or most senior first, as part of the Confucian value of respecting seniors.
- The youngest on the table addresses all of the elder members at the table before starting, perhaps telling them to please “eat rice” as a signal to help themselves.
- The best food in a dish should be left to the elderly, children, or the guest of honour.
- When the hostess says her food is not good enough, the guest must disagree and tell her it is one of the finest foods they have ever tasted.
The First Toast and the Signal to Dine
Usually, the guest of honour start by taking the first drink or by proposing the first toast, just as it is the guest of honour who is the first to begin eating. As to the mechanics of the first toast, the guest of honour raises his glass first, then the first “row”, the second “row”, etc., down the line as each “row” raises its glasses until the last “row” is reached, whereupon everyone drinks at the same time, possibly to a special toast.
Generally, the guest of honour will invite everyone to commence eating with words to the effect of “Shall we dine?” This gesture of politeness serves as a signal to the other guests that they may then commence dining. It is unforgivably rude to commence eating before the guest of honour has begun to eat, so although the guest of honour invites the assembled guests to begin dining, no one does so until the guest of honour has taken the first bite.
During the dinner, you also have some tips to attention:
- Chopsticks should always be held correctly, i.e. between the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
- When not in use, chopsticks must always be placed neatly on the table with two sticks lying tidily next to each other at both ends. Failure to do so is evocative of the way the dead would be placed in a coffin before the funeral.
- Never point the chopsticks at another person. This amounts to insulting that person.
- Never wave your chopsticks around as if they were an extension of your hand gestures.
- Never bang chopsticks like drumsticks. This is akin to telling others at the table you are a beggar.
- Never use chopsticks to move bowls or plates.
- Never suck the chopsticks.
- Decide what to pick up before reaching with chopsticks, instead of hovering them over or rummaging through dishes.
- To keep chopsticks off the table, they can be rested horizontally on one’s plate or bowl; a chopstick rest (commonly found in restaurants) can also be used.
- When picking up a piece of food, never use the tips of your chopsticks to poke through the food as with a fork; exceptions include tearing apart larger items such as vegetables.
- Never stab chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as this resembles incense sticks used at temples to pay respects to the deceased.
- Pick the food on the dish that is at the top and nearest to you in distance. Never rummage through the dish or pick from the far side for your favourite food.
- In general, more conservative Chinese frown upon the practice of picking more than one or two bites of food in your bowl or serving plate as if you were eating in the Western way.
- If both a serving bowl – separate from rice bowl – and plate are provided, never put any food items to be eaten onto the serving plate. This rule may be relaxed for foreigners.
- If a dish is soupy, pull the serving bowl near the serving dish and reduce the distance the chopsticks need carrying the food. Spilling plenty of sauce on the table is a major faux pas.
- When eating food that contains bones, it is customary that the bones be spat out onto the table to the right of the dining plate in a neat pile. Spitting onto the floor is almost never acceptable.
- Talking with a full mouth, eating with the elbows on the table and tasting from a table guest’s plate is also not allowed
There are several kinds of drinks at a Chinese table such as wine, alcohol, but more tea is a more common drink.
- The host should always make sure everyone’s cups are not empty for long. One should not pour for oneself, it’s be good to offer to pour drink for the person sitting next to you and he/she will in turn pour drink for you.
- Make sure the spout of the teapot is not facing anyone; it is impolite to set the teapot down where the spout is facing towards somebody. The spout should always be directed to where nobody is sitting, usually just outward from the table.
- When people wish to clink drinks together in the form of a cheer, it is important to observe that younger members should clink the rim of their glass below the rim of an elder’s to show respect.
Strong alcohol, called baijiu, is often served throughout the meal; and it is customary for the host[s]/hostess[es] to insist that guests drink to “show friendship.”
If the guests prefer not to drink, they may say, “I’m unable to drink, but thank you.” [in Mandarin: “Wo bu neng he jiu, xie xie.” ]The host may continue to insist that the guests drink, and the guests may likewise continue to insist upon being “unable” to drink.
The host’s insistence is to show generosity. Therefore, refusal by the guests should be made with utmost politeness. Beware: If a guest drinks alcohol with a subordinate at the table, the guest will be expected [if not forced] to drink a glass of the same alcohol with each superior at that table, and possibly at other tables too—if the guest has not passed out yet.
礼仪 lǐ yí etiquette
筷子 kuài zī chopstick
功能 gōng néng Function
举杯祝酒 jǘ bēi zhù jiǔ Toasting
客人 kè rén Guest
慷慨 kāng kǎi Generosity
好客 hào kè Hospitality