2 Nov 2013
Just when you thought you knew manners .
Common in Australasia .
Customs and etiquette in Chinese dining are the traditional behaviors observed while eating in Greater China. Traditional Han customs have spread throughout East Asia, but sometimes evolved differently – especially following the Communist revolution that produced the PRC. Even within Mainland China, there are many customs and protocols involved in formal dining, applying to almost all aspects of the experience, from guest seating to paying the bill.
In most traditional Chinese dining, dishes are communal. Although both square and rectangular tables are used for small groups of people, round tables are preferred for large groups, particularly in restaurants, in order to permit easy sharing. Lazy Susans are a common feature.
A basic place-setting consists of a small teacup; a large plate with a small, empty rice bowl; a set of chopsticks, usually on the right of the plate; and a spoon. Additions may include a chopstick holder; a large water or wine glass; and a smaller glass for baijiu. At homes and low-end restaurants, napkins may consist oftissues or rolls of toilet paper on the table or need to be provided by the diner. High-end restaurants often provide cloth napkins similar to western dining as part of the place-setting. In all settings, toothpicks may be provided at each setting or in a communal holder.
Wide variations exist throughout China, but the vast majority of full-course dinners are very similar in terms of timing and dishes.
Snacks are the first items presented. Two or more small dishes are brought to the table, holding boiled unsalted peanuts, salted roasted peanuts, pickled vegetables, or similar dishes. These may be consumed while ordering or while waiting for other dishes to arrive.
Tea is almost always provided, either in advance of the diners' being seated or immediately afterward. It can be consumed at leisure throughout the meal. (Water is sometimes served, but tea is the default beverage.) A verbal thank you (谢谢, xiexie) may be offered to the server pouring the refill or, if in the middle of a conversation where it would be rude to interrupt the speaker, the table may be tapped twice with two bent fingers instead.
Other drinks are not typically ordered in advance of the food and are usually served by the pitcher or large bottle, to be poured into the glasses on the table. Bottles of beer and baijiu will similarly be opened and left on the table among the diners, to be shared among their glasses. In many areas, it is common to offer alcoholic beverages only to the adult men among the diners, although women may request to be served as well.
See also: dim sum
This typically consists of many dishes, usually roughly one dish per person. White rice is provided in small bowls and food is often consumed over it, flavoring it with their sauces. The rice is consumed little by little along with the other dishes and not separately, unless the diner remains hungry after the last dish has been removed.
A soup may also be served as one of the dishes. At small meals, especially at home, it may replace the diners' beverage entirely.
Near the end of the meal, a starch dish – noodles, Chinese dumplings, or baozi – is sometimes served.
Sweet after-dinner desserts are not a part of traditional Chinese meals but are becoming more common, especially among younger diners and among the Shanghainese, who are well known in China for their sweet tooth. Digestive or palate-cleansing snacks such as red bean soup or small watermelon slices remain more common at formal Chinese dinners, though, and many restaurants do not even offer dessert.
Manners and customs
Eating is a dominant aspect of Chinese culture and eating out is one of the most common ways to honor guests, socialize, and deepen friendships.
Proper etiquette is very important to traditional Chinese people, who feel good manners invite luck and boorish conduct shame. Although many Maoist programs aimed to curtail traditional social practices, today table etiquette is again taken as an indication of educational status, so that (for example) a child misusing her chopsticks at a formal dinner might embarrass her family, who are responsible for teaching her.
Although individual households may have their own house rules, the Chinese traditions used to welcome guests are the largely same throughout the country. There are common rules for inviting guests over. When the guest of honor enters into the room, the hosts stand until the guest of honor is seated. The host then orders the dishes brought, and the guest should be silent. When the dishes arrive, the meal begins with a toast from the host, and the guests then make a toast in turn in the honor of the host. The guest of honor should be the first one to start the meal. The best food in a dish should be left for the guest of honor.
Seating arrangement is one of the most important part of Chinese dining etiquette. The seat of honor is the one in the center facing east or facing the entrance. Those of higher position sit closer to this position and those of lower position sit further away. The seat to the guest of honor's left is slightly more prestigious than that to his right.
During the Qing dynasty, the arrangements could be quite complex but were generally ordered (1) members of the imperial government, (2) members of the local government, (3) other local leaders (such as heads of trade associations), and (4) other commoners. Today, when a family holds a banquet, the seat of honor is for the guest with the highest status and the head of the house takes the least prominent seat.
See also: wine in China
Water and other non-alcoholic beverages may be consumed at anytime. However, in formal settings, alcohol should be consumed during toasts. A modest toast may be followed by a single sip of wine or swallow of beer, but a baijiu toast is often ended with Ganbei! (干杯): an exhortation to drain the glass. Ideally, glasses are refilled immediately following a toast in preparation for the next.
During the first toast of the night, particularly when addressed to everyone present, all stand. Women and children do not normally drink alcohol, even when the toast is being made with baijiu, but participate in the toast with whatever beverage they have.
If the guests are few in number, or are seated at a small table, touching glasses is common. At a large table or when the toastees are too great in number or too far away, this is impossible and simply raising a glass is acceptable. A variant is to tap the bottom of the glass against the table, whereupon the toastee will do the same. This acts as a substitute for touching glasses.
Toasts and counter-toasts continue to be made throughout the dinner. At large settings, it is customary for the guests of honor and host to visit each table (or be visited by each table) for a personal toast. If the guest of honor is not elderly or of considerably greater status, the other guests may sometimes collude to toast him individually in order to cause him to become drunk.
A lazy Susan is a circular rotating tray placed at the center of a table and used to easily share a large number of dishes among the diners. A lazy Susan can be made from many materials, but most often are constructed of glass, wood, or plastic.
It is typically for all the dishes for a course to be brought out together and placed around the lazy Susan. If the dishes come out one at a time or if there is some special delicacy, they are typically served to the guest of honor first and then rotated clockwise around the table. The host will often wait to serve himself last. Dishes should typically not be removed from the lazy Susan and placed on the table: at most, one should hold the dish aloft while serving and then return it to its place on the tray.
One should try to avoid moving the lazy Susan even slightly when someone is in the act of transferring food from the dishes to their plate or bowl. Likewise, it is impolite to hoard or use up all of a dish until it has been offered to everyone and the other diners clearly do not care for it. For this reason, it is common to take a smaller amount from the dishes on the first round and to keep the other diners in mind when taking a larger second helping.
See also: Eating utensil etiquette
Since chopsticks (and spoons) are used in place of forks and knives, Chinese cuisine tends to serve dishes in bite-size pieces or employ cooking techniques that render dishes such as fish orhong shao rou soft enough to be picked apart easily. Some common etiquette is:
At most formal meals, there are likely pairs of communal serving chopsticks (公筷, gongkuai). These are sets of chopsticks specifically for shared dishes only. Often, these will be distinct from the putongkuai (regular chopsticks) in that they will be longer and more ornate. There will sometimes be one set of communal chopsticks per dish or one set per course. The ratio varies.
Unlike the many nations in the West, a hand must be placed over the mouth while using a toothpick in order to conceal the action. Not doing so is considered rude. Used toothpicks should be placed on a part of your bowl or plate that you do not intend to use again later. They should not be left on the tablecloth for the waitress to then have to pick, nor thrown on the floor. Throwing toothpicks on the floor is rude to the restaurant. Throwing toothpicks on the tablecloth is inconsiderate to the servers.
In most restaurants in Chinese countries, there is no tip required unless it is explicitly posted. Usually, if there is a tip required, it will already be on your bill. In western countries, in Chinese restaurants though, tips are usually expected. If you are not certain, ask the waitress or watch the other customers.
Guests should not truly "split the bill" with the host. A guest who "split(s) the bill" is very ungracious and embarrassing to the host. If you do not accept the host paying for the bill, it is implying that the host cannot afford it or you do not accept the friendship or hospitality of the host. However, it is expected for the guest to offer to pay for the meal multiple times, but ultimately allow the host to pay. It is also unacceptable to not make any attempt to "fight for" the bill. Not fighting for the bill means you think that the host owes that meal to you somehow. Therefore, if you are the guest, always fight for the bill but never win it on the first meal in your host's hometown. After the first meal at your host's hometown, and sometime before you leave, it is customary to bring the host's family to a meal out to thank them for your stay if you did not bring initial small presents for them when you arrived. For that meal, you may pay, but you must request your host's attendance and cooperation with allowing you to cover that particular meal.
If you and an acquaintance are on a business trip, it is acceptable to split the bill, but more common to rotate who pays for the meal, with meals of similar cost. Though it is a rotation, there is still the same mock-fight for the bill. The difference is that you may say, "Fine fine, since you are my elder, this is fine this time, but the next meal, I cover." Or something to that effect and pay for the next meal. This rotation does not have to be a meal necessarily. For example, you may rotate a meal and a game of golf. The key to the rotation being viewed as acceptable or not, is the enjoyment both parties actually get from the activity, and the approximate cost. Golf would not be an acceptable rotation if the other person does not enjoy golf, is rather bad at it while you are excellent at it, etc.