What to Expect When Dining with the Chinese

Eating and Drinking -Despite what one may hear anecdotally, or observe in certain restaurants, Chinese table manners are exceedingly refined and are, in many ways, similar to Western table manners: One should not fill one’s mouth with food; one should chew one’s food thoroughly and quietly before swallowing; one should not speak when one’s mouth contains a significant amount of food; one should not shout at the dinner table; one should wipe one’s lips before drinking; etc.

-When invited to dine with the Chinese, one should dress appropriately. A small gift or a bottle of wine is always appreciated. Punctuality is important.

-The guest-of-honor should be the first guest to arrive (and the first guest to leave).

-Avoid discussing business at meals. Topics such as art, music, and literature are preferred.

-Chinese dining is done at a table, diners sitting on chairs.

-The typical Chinese dining table is round, not rectangular or square. And the food to be served is presented in communal dishes at the center of the table. To facilitate the round-table presentation, communal serving dishes are sometimes offered on a “lazy suzan.” The individual place-settings are situated at the periphery of the table.

-Unlike in the West, where individual plates are sometimes passed around the table to be filled, or serving-dishes are passed around the table for guests to serve themselves, in China the serving-dishes placed in the center of the table remain there, and guests, while sitting, reach towards the center of the table to obtain items from the communal dishes.

-The typical Chinese place-setting consists of a plate upon which a bowl is placed; a set of chopsticks; a chopstick-rest; a spoon (to be used only for the soup course); a napkin; a teacup; and the drinking glasses. (Knives are never a part of the Chinese place-setting since food is prepared such that it can be consumed in small portions with the use of chopsticks. An item that is too large to be comfortably placed whole into the mouth may be picked up with chopsticks such that a portion may be bitten off. Whole steaks, for example, would never be served at a traditional Chinese table. And rice is traditionally prepared with a sticky consistency so as to facilitate its consumption with chopsticks).

-Guests should sit where they have been invited to sit. Generally, the host or the guest-of-honor (seated to the immediate right of the host) will be seated in the seat facing east. The higher one’s rank, the closer one is seated to the host and guest-of-honor. Guests should not sit prior to the guest-of-honor or most senior guest. When all guests have been seated, the dinner may proceed—the host or guest-of-honor leading the way.

-Unlike in the West, in China the napkin is not laid flat onto one’s lap; instead, a corner of the napkin is secured under one’s plate, the remainder of the napkin being allowed to cascade onto one’s lap.

-A guest should not start eating or drinking prior to the host. Most formal meals are accompanied by tea, wine, beer, or some other distilled spirit. Once all glasses have been filled, the host will toast his guests then make a short speech to begin the meal.

-The host will serve the guest-of-honor or highest-ranking guest (seated at the immediate right of the host) first, then the next-ranking guest (seated at the immediate left of the host). Thereafter, the host will invite guests to serve themselves as he proceeds to serve himself. At the beginning of the meal, guests should offer to serve persons seated at their immediate right and left before serving themselves. Once the meal is in progress, however, each guest is expected to serve himself but should always, prior to serving himself, offer to serve adjacent diners. Whenever served by others, a “thank-you” should be expressed. And when a “thank-you” has been expressed, it should be met with a “you are welcome.”

-While liquids such as water, tea, or juice may be drunk at any point during the course of the meal, alcoholic beverages are only to be consumed during toasts. Likewise, because of the cultural proscription of drinking alcohol “alone,” cocktails are not typically served before meals in China.

-The person(s) seated nearest the tea and wine should pour for the other guests, beginning with the most senior/“important” and ending with himself. Rarely will a guest be responsible for pouring the wine or tea. But if ever the occasion arises, he must be sure to always offer to pour for others before pouring for himself.

-Generally, serving utensils are provided for each dish. But when dishes are presented without serving utensils, guests are to use the opposite ends of their own chopsticks—not the pointed ends which are put into the mouth when eating—to serve themselves (and others). (Obviously, then, guests should wash their hands properly before sitting down to dine. And when the opposite ends of chopsticks have been used to pick up food, any food residue on the chopsticks should be discretely wiped off in one’s napkin so as not to have unsightly food particles or sauces on the chopstick when eating is resumed). When selecting items from the communal dishes, a guest should select the items that are closest to him; he should not search through or reach across the serving dish to select something that he finds more appealing. When taking from a dish that has been presented on a “lazy susan,” a guest should yield to other guests before rotating the device to select his serving.

-Rice is not served from a communal dish (And with good reason since using chopsticks to transfer rice from a communal dish to an individual’s plate would make for a mess at the table); instead, rice is served at the end of a meal or may be requested in individual bowls during the course of the dinner to supplement a dish. A bowl of rice may be lifted to the mouth with the non-dominant hand, while the chopsticks, held in the dominant hand, are used to push the rice into the mouth.

-A bowl containing noodles may be brought to the mouth with the non-dominant hand, while chopsticks, held in the dominant hand, are used to push the noodles into the mouth.

-Soup, especially after any solid contents have been eaten with the spoon, may be drunk directly from the bowl. A bowl of soup should be raised to the mouth with both hands, thumbs, near the rim of the bowl, securing the portion of the bowl nearest the mouth, and the index finger and the middle finger gracefully cupping the upper periphery of the bowl, while the ring and small fingers brace the bowl towards its base. The palms should not touch the bowl.

-When courses are served in succession, diners should keep relative pace with each other such than no one finishes his course too soon or too late.

-Except for significant health or religious reasons, each dish should be sampled.

-A little portion of each course should be left on the diner’s plate so as to signal satiety to the host. (Otherwise, the host will assume that the guest has not had enough to eat and will offer more).

-Voluntarily taking the last portion from a communal dish is considered bad manners, bad luck, shows “greed,” and indicates hunger. But at some point, someone should eat the last portion…. So an observant host will invite someone—usually a robust eater—to take the last portion so as not to “waste it.”

-Chopsticks originated in ancient China during the Shang Dynasty (1766 – 1122 B.C. E). But it was during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 C.E.) that they came into everyday use for eating and serving. Most of the etiquette pertaining to chopsticks, then, originates during that period. Below are some of the rules commonly followed today:

a) Do not suck or lick sauce off the ends of chopsticks—even at the end of the course or meal.

b) Chopsticks should not be used to spear food that is difficult to pick up.

c) An item that is too large to be placed whole into the mouth may be conveyed to the mouth in the chopsticks such that a manageable portion may be bitten off. (The remaining portion should be placed back onto the plate). Alternatively, without spearing, the chopsticks may be used to skillfully divide the oversized item—one stick being used to hold the item in place, while the other is used to divide the item. The hands should never be used to handle food at the Chinese table (But see “o” below). “Hand-foods” such as sandwiches, corn-on-the-cob, or spear ribs, for example, would not be served at the traditional Chinese table.

d) Chopsticks should not be used to stir up food or to search through food in pursuit of a special morsel.

e) Chopsticks should not be held in the hand while gesturing during speech.

f) Chopsticks should not be used for pointing—whether at food, people, or objects.

g) Chopsticks are not toys and should not be treated as such. For example, chopsticks should not be used for drumming or clicking.

h) Chopsticks should not be used to move anything other than food.

i) Chopsticks should never be left standing upright in food, especially in a bowl of rice. Such a positioning is reminiscent of death and funerals where offerings of rice to the dead are presented with chopsticks vertically placed into the rice; or at funerals, where incense sticks (“joss sticks”) are placed upright.

j) When not in use during the course of a meal, chopsticks should be placed onto the chopstick-rest (if one has been provided) or laid side-by-side towards the right side of the plate. (Chopsticks placed horizontally towards the top of a plate or bowl signal that the guest is finished with the dish and that, as such, it may be removed). Chopsticks should never be placed in such a manner that they appear to be pointing directly at someone.

k) Food should never—ever—be passed chopsticks-to-chopsticks; the act is reminiscent of the funeral ritual where relatives use oversized chopsticks to pass the cremated bones of the deceased from one relative to another in order to place the bones into the funeral urn. If food must be passed, it should be placed directly onto the recipient’s plate.

l) It is considered bad form to drop food. Food being conveyed from a communal plate to one’s plate, or from one’s plate to one’s mouth, should be held carefully.

m) Chopsticks should never be used as toothpicks.

n) It is considered bad luck to drop chopsticks.

o) Inedible portions of the food should be removed from the mouth with the hand (the only time food may be touches with the hand at the Chinese table) or with chopsticks and placed to the upper left side of the plate.

-Toasting is an essential component of Chinese dining. And just as there are rules pertaining to the use of chopsticks, there are rules pertaining to toasting:

a) When all guests are seated and all glasses are filled, the host begins the dinner with a speech and a toast of welcome. Thereafter, throughout the course of the meal, especially at the end of a course, various people will propose toasts, beginning with the most senior/“important.” When toasting several people during the course of the evening, a guest should propose toasts to people in the order of their “importance.”

b) A toast is most respectfully proposed by holding the glass with both hands and raising it shoulder-height. If only one hand is used to raise the glass, the right hand should be used. A toast may be made with any beverage other than water. At the end of the toast, everyone takes a sip from his glass—or at least raises his glass to someone in his immediate vicinity, makes eye contact with that person, and says, “gan bei,” which means “empty glass!” When shots of “baijui” are being drunk during toasts, guests are expected to drink the entire contents of the glass with each toast. (The shot-glass is then immediately filled in preparation for the next toast).

c) The person to whom the toast is offered should immediately stop eating or drinking and accept the toast.

d) When seated far from the person being toasted, the person proposing the toast may tap his glass on the table—rather than shouting across the dinner table—so as to call attention to the intended recipient, then proceed. At a large table, toasts may be exchanged amongst people in close proximity without being announced to the entire table.

e) Glasses are not typically “clinked” in Chinese culture.

-The serving of fruit signals the end of the meal. Some hostesses will encourage guests to take home uneaten food. Guests typically do not linger long beyond the end of the meal.

-At the end of the meal, guests should thank the host abundantly.

-Guests should not leave before the guest-of-honor. So as not to inconvenience others, therefore, the guest-of-honor should leave shortly after the conclusion of the meal.

-When dinners are held in a restaurant, guests are expected to offer to pay the bill; and, of course, the host is expected to refuse their offers. The offer-and-refusal “saving face” ritual is expected to be repeated twice or thrice. Beyond two or three exchanges, however, would be insulting to the host as the gesture would insinuate that the host is incapable of paying the bill. Likewise, a guest’s not offering to pay the bill would insinuate that the host was somehow indebted to the guest.


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