Traditional and modern culture in China
Chinese Dining Etiquette
Zhōng gúo jìucān lǐyí
In today’s Chinese language and culture class, we will learn about the Chinese dining etiquette and table manners!
China, along with many other Asian countries such as Japan, is known as a culture of etiquette and politeness. Food is also a central part of the Chinese culture, and so there are many important rules and customs to be aware of when eating a meal in China.
When ordering food at a large social gathering, there are several important social rules.
Firstly, guests are generally provided with a number of menus to share amongst those on your table – it is important that everyone has the opportunity to browse the menu and suggest some dishes, rather than one person taking control. However, it is the host who makes the final decision and actually places the order with the restaurant.
Dishes are always placed in the centre and shared between everyone at the table – you do not order dishes for yourself as an individual (although everyone will generally be given their own bowl of rice). Therefore, you should order dishes which are relatively inexpensive and popular, so everyone can enjoy them.
If anyone at your table has specific dietary requirements or allergies, it is polite to only order food that everyone will be able to eat in order not to limit their choice of dishes from the table. If your friend insists that you do not restrict your order to meet their dietary requirements (e.g. if they are a vegetarian but the restaurant has an excellent selection of meat dishes they wouldn’t want you to miss out on), you should ensure that any dishes they cannot eat are not placed directly in front of them to avoid offence.
When eating with guests in China, it is important to be aware of the social rules around seating arrangements.
Where you are seated is an important indication of your social status, with the most important seat reserved for the main guest, elder or boss. In general, the best seat is located on the left side of the table, to the East, or facing the door. At organised events, a seating plan is prepared in advance and eat seat labelled with the guest’s name to ensure everyone sits in the correct place.
Similarly, the order in which you sit is also important – the most senior individual or guest of honour should be sat first, before everyone else may sit. This order of prominence (most to least senior) is also important in other activities, such as starting the meal or making a toast.
In larger rooms, the location of your table is also a key indicator of social status or honour. The best table is always at the front of the room and in the middle. The host may decorate this table differently, particularly for traditional events such as weddings, in order to emphasise the value placed on the guests who are invited to sit here.
When you are in China, you should try your best to use chopsticks rather than requesting a knife and fork. This shows a willingness to accept local culture and customs. Additionally, most restaurants will only have chopsticks and spoons available, and using a knife may be seen as threatening your host.
If shared dishes come with their own chopsticks or spoon, you should use this rather than your own in order to avoid contaminating the dish with your germs. Always place the food first on your own plate or bowl of rice before then picking it up to eat, to avoid looking greedy eating directly from the shared plate.
However, in many restaurants or when eating in a small group, shared utensils may not be provided. This is why it is also important in Chinese table manners not to lick your chopsticks nor place them fully into your mouth – instead, delicately take the food off using your teeth. Never use your chopsticks to stab food like a skewer stick.
Finally, when resting your chopsticks you should place them horizontally to the side of your plate or on a chopstick rest. Never stab them upright into your rice bowl, as this resembles the burning of incense at a funeral – bringing bad luck to your table and host.
As in many western countries, you should also do your best to be polite and elegant when eating food.
In China, you should not make loud noises, slurp soup or burp at the table. These are not seen as appreciating the food, but instead quite uncultured bad manners. Similarly, you should avoid talking when there is food in your mouth.
When eating, you should be considerate of others. Do not eat all of your favourite dish, instead allow others to enjoy it too. When serving rice or special delicacies, take the initiative to serve some to your elders or guests too – this is an important gesture of respect and gratitude.
If you need to wipe your mouth, clean food out of your teeth or remove small bones from your mouth, always do so subtly and delicately. Hide your mouth with your hand or a napkin, and avoid placing discarded food in clear view on the table.
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