Chinese table manners have long taken a kicking from foreigners, as behaviors frowned upon in the West, such as burping, spitting and slurping, are commonplace at the dining table. As always, however, where there is bad there is good. Here we guide you through the often overlooked good aspects of Chinese dining etiquette.
The Lazy Susan
Practically every Chinese meal you go to will be equipped with a “lazy Susan” (a spinning disk at the center of the actual table), a perennial part of Chinese dining. This smart contraption is great for nurturing conversation as guests light-heartedly debate about which way it’s spinning. It also makes it easy to grab a taste of everything without reaching (rude in Chinese culture) and looking greedy. Ultimately, it all contributes to creating a nice relaxed atmosphere.
The Pecking Order
At a formal Chinese meal, guests are seated after the coveted guest of honour. The guest of honour also initiates eating and drinking. Should you find yourself sitting in the prestigious seat of honour (which as a lăowaì, is very possible), you will be enjoying first bites of everything on the constant conveyor belt of food. The most senior figure in the hierarchy, however, is usually the person paying for everything. This makes it nice and clear who’s footing the bill - avoiding the awkward situation when it’s time to pay - although you get extra points ofr pretending you want to pay. This system also has obvious advantages if you’re not top dog. The hierarchical seating arrangement makes it clear who you should be extra polite to in order to build that all-important Guanxi circle.
No Chinese dinner would be complete without a toast, or 10. Toasts are initiated by the guest of honour/or host and generally begin shortly after the first dishes are served. This helps to create a pleasant and jovial atmosphere, even if you’re dining with a bunch of bores. Toasts are typically made by and to the more senior and higher status guests first. They also normally come with a bunch on insincere compliments, but compliments non the less. Toasts provide an easy and judgement-free way for you to suck up to your superiors while getting tipsy. What more could you ask for? Read this in-depth guide on Chinese toasting for more information.
It’s very common to see people serving each other with food and drink at a Chinese meal. Tea is usually served immediately when seated, and you’ll find your cup will frequently be filled by others. This is obviously nice, especially if you’re drinking baijiu alongside, and you can ingratiate yourself to others tapping your index and middle fingers on the table as the tea is being poured. As a foreigner, everyone will be impressed by your cultural awareness, and it’s a great ice-breaker, too. If you’re lucky, you might also get all the best cuts of meat placed on your plate. This is a fantastic way to eat lots of food without looking greedy, and may also mask your poor chopstick technique.
One by One
Unlike in Western culture where we may pile our plates high with everything that’s on the table, in Chinese dining culture you should take each dish separately, one piece at a time. This not only allows you to taste each dish as it’s meant to be, but also ensures that if you don’t like something you only have one mouthful to eat (or hide).
It’s considered rude not to try every dish on the table, so be prepared to eat a lot. As the meal progresses, the host will be very keen to make sure their guests are satisfied and have eaten until they are full. They will therefore keep placing food on your plate. If you’re full and can’t possibly eat anymore, however, it’s easy to convey this message. Just leave some food on your plate. In China, leaving leftovers implies the meal was so good you couldn’t finish it all.
What else do you like about Chinese dining culture? Tell us in the comments below.
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Keywords: good Chinese table manners Chines dining etiquette
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