The Chinese food culture is one of the richest in history and the Chinese etiquette makes the food culture whole.
You probably notice that everything in regards to food here is quite organized and different from the rest.
I believe we may attribute this to the royalties’ influence.
China was for a very long time led by royalties and the community was fast to embrace the set etiquette.
It prides itself for being the first country to welcome the ideas of polite social interactions.
Wining and dining together is not new to us, it’s an old tradition which ultimately makes it a no brainer that we would have a developed structure of how to carry ourselves at a dinner table.
What’s the History of Table Manner?
I tend to believe that the table manners began during Confucian philosopher’s reign.
To start off, he believed that food and friends were inseparable. But what’s even interesting is that he drunk with his townsmen at the table.
In fact, Confucian would only leave the table they were wining and dining at after his elders had left. This shows you the value of hierarchy which is still depicted today.
In another instance, if he was visiting and dining with friends especially when there was a great feast, he would stand and give thanks to the host for the meal.
Other books show us that the Chinese table manners began from the etiquette and ceremonial book by duke of Zhou. The Duke lived during Zhou dynasty.
At the beginning of the Han dynasty, the book gained popularity and they began to follow the rules in the book.
Since then the set rules have evolved but always following the traditional guide. To date, we still treasure those rules especially since we often share the meal at the dining table.
The general elegance rules and what you expect
It’s not uncommon to invite each other for meals, especially on special occasions.
If you are invited to go and dine somewhere, you must follow the table rules or else you will appear rude.
The welcoming rules
- Remember to present yourself to the host once you arrive. Its importance is that the host officially welcomes you and they also show you where to sit since you are not expected to sit just anywhere as you will see in the following subtitle.
- If you have guests that are not known by others it’s upon the host to introduce you to the rest. He can also choose whoever he sees fit to introduce the new guest.
- Punctuality is a necessity. If you are invited for a meal, always be punctual or else you will send wrong information of rudeness. You should never keep your host waiting for you.
- For gifting, you may bring a small gift if you are low in ranking or a stranger while the quality gifts are brought by those of high-ranking stature at the table.
- It’s upon the youngest or the lowest ranked individual to address the elders before you start eating. For example, you may tell them to eat their food.
- As earlier stated, the host shows you where to sit. Since we often share our meals, we leave the square and rectangular tables for small gatherings. When you are having a number of people at the table, you must have used the round table setting.
The order of seating
- Just as royal families do, the Chinese seating arrangement is strict. You sit in the order of seniority or hierarchy.
- The seat of honor is the one that faces the door and the east. It’s often at the center of the table and it’s reserved for the guest of honor. Other guests with a high seniority level sit next to the guest of honor.
- Those at a lower level or the younger ones sit further away. The host will take the seat that is of the least honor. If possible, he/she should sit next to the kitchen door.
- You must wait for the guest of honor to sit or invite you all to sit before you can take your seats.
- Do not seat your guests at the place where the food is served from. It’s also upon the host to ensure that all guests are seated and it’s his duty to invite them to be free.
Your place setting
- Whether you are at a restaurant or at home you ought to have the right utensils for your meal. Basically, you should have a set of chopsticks, a spoon, teacup, your large plate and a bowl of rice or noodles.
- In a more formal set up you will add the wine glasses, water glass or baiju glass. You will further have the napkin just as you do in other western restaurants.
- Sometime the table might be too large and, in such cases, it will have the lazy Susan turntable to help pass different meals to different people at the table.
Ordering the dishes
- Assuming you are at a restaurant or at a high-end table the menu will circulate to each individual. It’s then upon the host to make the final decision once they consult with each member.
- As the guest of honor, you are allowed to order your favorite dish just make sure it’s inexpensive.
- Remember to consider other people’s dietary choices. If they are vegans and vegetarians let them have their way.
- If you are new or just visiting China, we expect you to follow the local dining etiquette. Also, allow yourself to try the Chinese dishes as this will show you what we eat and you never know you may just love it.
- If you are having a Chinese banquet then don’t worry you will have a variety to choose from. Dumplings, pita bread and fried spring rolls are among the few meals that you will never miss in the menu.
The Chinese meal courses
Contrary to what you may be used to as a foreigner, here, the snacks are presented first. The snacks may be anything but mostly peanuts which you enjoy as you wait for your order. They come in a few bowls or dishes.
- Beverages and cold drinks
You will have your tea served the moment you sit down or after the meals. This you may drink through the meal. Always say thank you to the person serving you. However, if people are talking you can tap the table twice.
If you wish you may take cold juices instead of tea. Some people will take even wine or any other form of alcohol available.
- The main meal
This one will have different dishes per person. You, however, always have your own bowl of rice and you might have to pick your different meats and veggies from the communal pot. You then eat all the soups and sauces over the rice.
If you are in the restaurant your meats are served before the veggies. One by one you are given the meats then the veggies follow.
Unlike the way you are used to it, here our soups come after the main meal. It’s not an important part of the meal so you can skip it if you feel full. The soup is often served in a big bowl.
- The fruits
Last on the list is the fruit of your desire. You can have a display of fruits on two or three plates to choose.
- You should let the guest of honor start by toasting or even just taking a sip as a sign of welcoming you to begin drinking.
- Your guest of honor will have his glass higher than all of you then followed by those who are seated close to him going down to the least senior or youngest. The guest of honor will then invite you all to eat as soon as the table is fully set.
- Nevertheless, although he welcomes you to dine you can’t eat before he has had his first bite.
- In China, you should always respect the elderly which therefore means that you let them pick the food first. The saying that ‘save the best for the elderly’works here.
- We want to avoid rumbles when serving food so we will let the elderly and those in higher ranks serve first.
- You don’t have to take a meal if it’s not pleasing to you. However, it’s considered a good behavior to just sample each meal presented to you. Remember, your host is probably looking to see if you are enjoying the meal.
- Just take a little food on your plate at a time because remember there are a number of you still waiting to eat. You don’t also want to come out as a glutton.
- If the meal has a lot of soup or broth, place your bowl next to the serving bowl. This will help to avoid splattering the food on the table.
Always consider others
- I know there are times when you find your favorite meal but you shouldn’t eat it all. Don’t serve a lot of it, just let others also have a taste. Also, don’t eat as first as a horse and go for more.
- If everyone has enjoyed the meal and there’s just a little remaining, ask the others if they would want it and if not then take the remaining.
- When serving yourself, go for the meals set next to you and one more thing, don’t use your chopsticks to dig into the bowl in search of the parts of meats or food you want.
- If you have a large table and a lazy Susan, just turn it to reach the meal you want or just eat what is on your side. If you want to turn the lazy Susan, ask for the chance to turn it first.
- Do not bring business discussion at the table. If possible, just bring about a light discussion of any other thing like football, the weather, your happenings just anything not too serious.
- Eat with your mouth closed. You don’t want to splatter the food all over the place. Take time to swallow your food before you carry on with your conversation.
- Don’t even put too much food in your mouth as this may make you look like a glutton. You will notice that more Chinese prefer to take a single or two bites of each meal at a time.
- Avoid getting your tongue out to reach for the food you are putting into your mouth.
- If you need to remove something from your mouth use your hand or chopstick to get it out then put it on the side plate. Do not just spit out things from your mouth to the table.
- As you are eating, use the napkin to wipe food scramble or pieces from the side of your mouth. Never lick it with your tongue.
- Avoid making absurd noises as you are eating or slapping the tea.
- It’s not considered a good habit to finish all the food in your plate and serving bowls because that sends a message to the host that the food wasn’t enough. Equally, you don’t want to leave the bowls full of food.
- It’s easy to send a message that you are full when you leave some drink or food in your plate, cup or glass.
- Don’t put your elbows on the table as you are eating. Also, you should not eat from your guest’s bowl.
How to use them
Since you won’t run away from the usage of chopsticks on a Chinese dinner, you may as well learn the basics. Chopsticks can be tricky to use if you are not used to it.
- Simply put, tuck one under your thumb making sure its firmly held. Next, hold the other chopstick as though you are holding a pencil.
- When reaching for food, keep the first chopstick in position but move the one that you hold as a pencil. Ensure you firmly hold the food before getting it to your mouth.
- You can hold the chopsticks together to pick the food while you are serving yourself.
Check the complete guide about how to use chopsticks.
The chopsticks etiquette
- Ensure you hold your chopsticks correctly when eating.
- When you aren’t using the chopsticks, place them neatly on the table. Keep them lying next to each other.
- Don’t point another with the chopsticks as this is insulting to them. Additionally, do not wave your chopsticks on the air.
- Do not bang the chopsticks like a drumstick as this says to the people around you that you are a beggar.
- The chopsticks aren’t supposed to move your bowls or plates.
- It’s just bad manners to suck or eat the chopsticks.
- If you are using the chopsticks to pick your food from a serving bowl decide what you wish to pick so that you don’t rummage through the bowl.
- Don’t stab the chopstick vertically on your rice as that says that you are paying respect to the dead.
- Don’t pick the food using the tips of the chopsticks as you do when you use a fork, only use the tip when you tearing the larger pieces of food.
- Avoid spillage by all means. And don’t pass food from one person to the other using the chopsticks.
- As the host, always ensure your guests’cups are filled or at least have some drink.
- Serve the other person before yourself its only courteous. If you wish to take another cup, serve the other person next to you before filling your cup again. A good example is tea. If you want more tea, pick the kettle and follow the rule.
- Once you finish serving the tea and you are placing it on the table, ensure the sprout is facing no one. Its sprout should face outward from the table. It’s considered a bad habit to make it face someone.
- When toasting drinks and looking to clink the other peoples drink, ensure you as the younger one should have your rim below that of your elders.
- Alcoholic drinks are served throughout the meal. The host should, therefore, insist that the guests drink because this is a sign of the friendship. Don’t worry if you don’t take alcohol as you will just insist on the host that you are ‘unable to drink.
- For anything that the host insists on you to do at the table is only a show of hospitality and generosity. Therefore, you should always be polite while answering them.
- Another thing is that the guest will knock the table as a sign of gratitude for you serving the tea.
Other dining taboos
Today we are lost in technology and we tend to use our phones more times than we should in a day. You may find yourself using your phone during dinner and that is a taboo here. Don’t concentrate on the tv while eating. Focus on your company and the food you are eating.
If you are in the restaurant and you have finished dining you should ask to pay some amount for the meal. If, however, the host wants to pay for it let them do it because insisting will mean that you think the host can’t pay for your meal.
Time to leave the table
If you are caught up in a rush and have to leave before you finish eating, let the host know why you must leave. Be sorry about it and appreciate the invite.
When it’s time to leave after you have all finished. Express your gratitude to the host before leaving.
Chinese meals are all about fun and love while the table manners mostly call for gratitude. When invited for the dinner, be aware of the basic dos and don’ts to avoid offending your host as well as embarrassing yourself. Otherwise, enjoy your meal.