Dining etiquette in China
Photo by Michael Johnson
Food is central to life in much of China, which famously has eight classic cuisines and many more local variations and specialties, and as a consequence there has traditionally been a great focus on table manners. So if you want to enjoy dinner with Chinese friends or colleagues without making a faux pas, read on…
In Chinese culture, the seat facing the door is reserved for the most important or distinguished guest in the table, and the closer the other seats are to that one, the more prestigious the person sitting there. Traditionally this is where the eldest person at the table would sit, or the leader of the group. If it’s a business banquet, the guest with the highest rank will get this seat.
Of the two seats on either side of the main seat, the one on the left-hand side (from the point of view of the person sitting in the main seat) is considered to be more privileged than the one on the right.
If it is a casual occasion, the host will pass on the menu and let everyone choose a dish they like – but even if you’re hungry don’t get too greedy! Normally, people will order one dish and pass the menu on to the next person. It is also polite to ask if there is any particular foods that those a the table cannot or do not want to eat before ordering.
In Chinese dining, everyone will share the food, which will be placed in the centre of the table, or (if it’s a larger and more ‘fancy’ restaurant) placed on a rotating disc in the centre of the table. Even if you chose a particular dish, don’t take more of that item than anyone else unless it’s clear that people have tired of it and won’t mind you taking a little more.
Chopsticks are the most important eating utensil in Chinese cuisine. Chopsticks absolutely have to be used in pairs – do not try to ‘cheat’ by stabbing the food with one chopstick (or two!), even when it is difficult to pick up. Use a spoon if you have not yet mastered the use of chopsticks.
When talking to someone, lay your chopsticks flat on a bowl or plate, or the small chopsticks rack if there is one. Do not hold them when talking.
Do not stick them vertically into your food. This is considered very rude. People only do so when they lay a bowl of food and chopsticks in front of a coffin or a tomb.
Do not use chopsticks for any other purposes than picking up food.
For business banquets and other formal occasions, you may find that some dishes come with their own chopsticks, in addition to the ones by your own plate. These are only for distributing the food to your plate, not for eating – just take the food you want with them and then lay them back down where they were. Usually there will be a chopstick rack to lay them on.
Do not chew loudly – in fact, do not make any sounds when eating. Particularly avoid slurping when eating soup or noodles (of course, if you go to Japan this particular rule is reversed!).
Eat slowly. Do not pile your plate up with food, and do not put food straight in your mouth as soon as you have taken it from the central plates. Put it in your own bowl or plate first. Pick up a little and eat it at leisure.
In a lot of Chinese cuisine, meat is served on the bone. If you have to gnaw the meat off, for example, a chicken joint, and need to spit out the bone, use your chopsticks to remove it from your mouth and place it on the side of your plate (or a separate plate/bowl if you have been provided with one).
Do not spend too long stirring or digging around in food, even if you’re looking for that last piece of meat in a stew or hotpot. Grab what you want (or what you can) and get your chopsticks out as soon as possible.
If you are sitting in a table with a rotary plate in the middle, do not turn the plate too often. If you want to pick up food from far end of the plate, wait until it reaches you. When you turn the plate, turn it slowly, and be aware of whether there is someone else picking up food. In such a case, stop rotating it and let them get what they want.
Alcohol – especially baijiu, a very strong type of Chinese liquor – is often consumed at large dinners, although if you don’t drink alcohol (or only drink it in moderation), you can announce this to the other diners and swap out alcoholic beverages for tea and similar drinks.
China has a somewhat complicated system of toasts and drinking etiquette; for more information on the rules, see this article.
If the teapot is on the table and within reach, then feel free to pick it up and pour yourself a cup of tea – but before you do, offer to pour tea for the other people at the table. Make sure you pour your own tea last.
If the teapot is out of reach, you can ask someone near it to help out – they will hold out the teapot and offer to fill your cup. Hold your cup up to make it easier for them. And, of course, do the same whenever anyone asks you to pass the teapot to them.
Paying the bill
Chinese people often fight over who will have the privilege of paying the bill, because they are afraid to look stingy. So when you see people pushing each other, grabbing each-other’s purses and wallets, and shoving their own money or cards into the cashiers’ hands, you know that they are fighting to pay for their meal.
This often happens at family gatherings, or between friends if they did not agree to split the bill before eating. To avoid such arguments, some people choose to go to the counter and pay for the bill quietly before anyone asks the waiter for it. If you want to split the bill after a dinner, talk it through with the other members before asking for the bill.
In business banquets this will usually not happen, as the bill should be paid by the host.
Tipping is not a custom in China, so there is no need to leave tips when you pay for service or food.
Useful Chinese words and phrases
|点菜||diǎncài||Order a dish|
|付钱||fùqián||Pay the bill|
|我想要这个。||wǒ xiǎngyào zhège.||I would like this.|
|你要茶吗？||nǐyào chá ma.||Would you like some tea?|
|请把XXX递给我好吗？||qǐngbǎ XXX dì gěiwǒ hǎoma.||Can you pass me the XXX?|