Chinese Table Manners: Basic Dining Etiquette

Three businessmen toasting at a banquet in China

Hans Neleman / Getty Images

 

Don't play and point with those chopsticks.

An ill-timed ​faux pas at a Chinese banquet could hinder the forging of new deals or friendships. The rules of Chinese dining etiquette are pretty straightforward, but there are a few times at the table when you should proceed carefully.

Demonstrating good Chinese table manners is thought to promote health and good fortune. On the other hand, breaking certain rules can reflect poorly on your parents or teachers—they should have taught you better.

As usual, the number one rule for understanding Chinese table manners in a formal setting is to simply relax, observe, and mimic someone who knows more than you do! Your hosts will understand your nervousness, and they'll do their best to help prevent any loss of face to all parties at the table.

Where to Sit

The chair facing the entrance (or east, if possible) is known as the "command seat"—the Eastern equivalent to "the head of the table." Sitting there without being offered the seat of honor is cheeky; better to wait for your host to indicate where you'll be sitting. The command seat is usually reserved for the person of the highest status as determined by age, social standing, or occupation.

Sometimes the guest of honor (you...gulp!) may be asked to sit in this spot. Don't turn down the seat if it is offered to you.

In a formal setting, the closer that people are seated to the person of highest status, the higher their rank. But don't covet the big chair too much: The highest-ranking person is usually expected to cover the check!

Getting Started

The head of the table sets the pace for the meal. As a general rule of thumb, don't sit, begin eating, or anything else before they do so first.

Allow the eldest or highest-ranking person at the table to lift their chopsticks first before you touch yours. If you happen to be the guest of honor, others around the table may be waiting for you to begin!

You usually won't see a communal bowl of white rice on the table. Rice is often served in small, individual bowls. You'll be taking food and sauces from the communal bowls around the table and placing them atop the rice in your personal bowl. The rice is consumed a little at a time with food from the other dishes, not by itself. If you want more rice, ask your server for it; others will probably do the same.

For hygienic reasons, don't reach into the communal bowls with your chopsticks. Use the serving utensils. If none are provided, you may have to turn your chopsticks around and use the other ends to put food onto your plate.

Do not dig around or pick through the dishes of Chinese food for specific morsels or ingredients you prefer—doing so is considered especially rude. Take a little from the side of the plate nearest you.

Although a drink may help you relax, don't expect a beer or something stronger to come before your meal—it will probably arrive with the food. Tea may be served before and after the meal. If you are served alcohol, don't drink it alone in a formal setting. Instead, wait for a group toast to enjoy.

Tips for Good Chinese Table Manners

  • Show respect to others: Keep your smartphone silenced, off the table, and out of your hand.
  • If you are provided a cloth napkin, tuck the corner under your plate so that it hangs in your lap.
  • When taking a break, leave your chopsticks to the side of your plate or bowl. Use the chopstick rest if one is provided; it should be on the right. If there is no rest, lay your sticks in a tidy manner (parallel with ends even) on the table. Leaving your chopsticks on top of your plate is precarious—it's a signal you have finished eating. An attentive server may prematurely remove your plate!
  • You may lift your rice bowl to mouth level with one hand and use chopsticks to push rice into your mouth. Doing so is perfectly acceptable. The same applies to soups; you can sip directly from the soup bowl.
  • If invited to someone's home for a family-style meal, serving utensils might not be present. Turn your chopsticks around when moving food from communal bowls to your own plate.
  • Try to avoid handling food whenever possible. Don't use your hands to eat. Lift large pieces of meat with your chopsticks and nibble. Even whole pieces of fried chicken are usually lifted with chopsticks and then nibbled.

Chopstick Etiquette Mistakes to Avoid

Remember, even though chopsticks are fun for people who didn't grow up using them daily, they are eating utensils! Would you spin, tap, play drums, bang together, or point at something with your fork and knife at home? Doing any of these things will brand you as an uncivilized amateur.

  • Do not use your chopsticks to point at food or for gesturing in the air while talking. This is an easy mistake to absentmindedly make while complimenting a particular dish.
  • Do not leave your chopsticks pointing directly at someone across the table. Angle them slightly.
  • Do not click your chopsticks together to make a noise or to move anything other than food.
  • Do not suck sauce or grains of rice off the ends of your chopsticks, even at the end of the meal.
  • Do not spear and lift food that is too slippery to handle. When necessary, it is acceptable to impale food only as a way to tear it apart on the plate. After breaking up food on your plate, pick up the smaller pieces as you normally would.

Other Important Mistakes to Avoid

Although most infractions of basic Chinese table manners will be immediately forgiven, these next three rules could make the difference between a good experience or ruining someone's meal.

Prevent any potential embarrassment to yourself or your host by closely observing these important rules of Chinese dining etiquette:

  • Passing a piece of food to someone with your chopsticks (or receiving food by snatching it with your chopsticks) is extremely taboo. The motion reminds people of a funeral rite that involves passing cremated bones between loved ones with chopsticks. If you must pass food, put it on the recipient's plate and then allow them to pick it up.
  • Do not leave your chopsticks stuck vertically in food. The visual looks too much like incense sticks burned at temples, often for dead ancestors. Vertical chopsticks are used as a symbol of death.
  • Toothpicks are often supplied at the end of a meal. If you use one, cover your mouth with your other hand. Unlike the first two rules, this one has nothing to do with death—it just prevents a gross spectacle!

Chinese Drinking Etiquette

As with eating, drinking is done communally and follows some loose rules of etiquette.

If beer is ordered, you will receive a glass that will be filled from communal bottles. Beer is often poured at the same time the food arrives. Having an alcoholic drink before the food arrives is unusual, however, you may have tea, water, or juice before eating.

Alcohol should generally not be consumed alone in formal settings. Watch to see if anyone else is sipping solo, and don't begin drinking before the senior person does. Try to drink only after a toast is given. At the least, lift your glass to someone nearby, make eye contact, and say gan bei which means "empty glass."

If things take a turn for the serious, you get talked into drinking baijiu, a distilled spirit with an ABV between 40-60 percent. When taking shots of baijiu, you are generally expected to empty your glass after each toast! Thankfully, the glasses are small, but they do add up quickly. Hold on, and enjoy the cultural ride.

Your glass will probably be immediately refilled after each toast in preparation for the next one. If someone pours beer for you, try to return the favor by topping off their glass at some point. Good luck!

Eating With a Lazy Susan

The lazy Susan is a rotating surface (often glass) in the center of the table that spins. This allows guests to reach all the dishes scattered around a large, round table rather than having to pass lots of plates around. Tables furnished with a lazy Suzan add another dimension to the experience.

First, Avoid bumping or turning the lazy Susan whenever someone is serving themselves from the communal dishes. Trying to guess the timing of when a dish will come around is tricky, so don't be shy! At a busy table, being too passive may mean not getting to try that delicious-looking dish just out of reach. Just don't spin the dish away from the guest of honor if they haven't yet tried it.

If bad timing prevails and you accidentally end up fighting someone for control of the lazy Susan, share a giggle with them then wait your turn. You should cede control to people who are older or higher in "status" than yourself.

Keeping the best dishes (e.g., the meat or fish) nearer to yourself is considered rude. Allow them to circulate the table before you spin them back within reach.

The host often fills their plate last. Take only small portions until you're certain everyone has gotten to try every dish.

Paying the Bill

Now comes everyone's least favorite part. When it's time to pay, you'll need to play a necessary little game that is important: Who will pick up the check?

Ultimately refusing to allow your host to pay for a meal, no matter how expensive, is extremely rude. Doing so insinuates that they cannot afford to pay. That said, you should still argue at least two or three times for the opportunity to pay or contribute. As mentioned, it's a little game; think of it as a dance of politeness. Regardless, always give in eventually and graciously accept the hospitality of your host.

Failing to argue over the bill insinuates that your host owes you something. Thank them many times after everyone has agreed they will take the bill.

Unlike in the United States, the recipient of a nice meal shouldn't offer to help with the tip as a courtesy. Tipping is not customary in China. Leaving gratuity can sometimes cause confusion or embarrassment. In nicer restaurants, a service charge of around 10 percent may already be added to the bill. If you really, really feel the need to reciprocate, you can do so at a later time by bringing a nice gift the next time you see your hosts.

No, there won't be any fortune cookies arriving with the bill.

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