10 Tips on Chinese Table Manners

Enjoying a Chinese meal or banquet is one of the best ways to spend time and share food and drink with family and friends… whether just for two, ten, or more guests.  Here are ten tips keep in mind:

1.  As a guest, never begin to eat or drink before your host does.  Same as in Western etiquette you always wait for the host to initiate the beginning of each course.  In Chinese etiquette the host will always begin each dish by serving the chief guest and one or two other guests nearby.  Then he will invite everyone to please help themselves.  You’re then allowed to begin serving yourself, but not without offering it to others first.

2.  Do sample a bite of every dish.  It is considered rude not to sample a bite of every dish.  Your host will be looking at you to see your fortitude.  Here’s a dish I know you will all want to try.  It is one I heard about from one of my students.  I was a delicacy prepared just for him of an exotic plate of marinated, deep-fried scorpions, completely intact with their stingers, on a bed of lettuce and rice.  Sounds good right?

3.  Always offer someone else food or tea before you serve yourself.  You would be considered a pig and without manners if you serve yourself first.  If you want another cup of tea or food, simply offer it to others before pouring or taking another helping for yourself.

Primarily for tea pouring, if you want another cup of tea, never serve yourself without serving other guests first.  However, if your dining partner is immersed in a conversation with another dinner guest, do not interrupt by asking if they want more tea, just pour it.  Generally, your dining partner will have noticed your kind act, and will signal a thank you by placing his/her index and third finger together on the table and tapping twice as a thank you.  All this without interrupting the conversation.

4.  Serving dishes are not to be picked up or passed around. You may reach across others to get to a dish and to reach for food with your chopsticks, using the reverse side not the side from which you eat.

At times the host is given an extra pair of chopsticks for just this purpose to serve others.  Most banquets now use Lazy Susan tabletops and serving spoons.

5.  Finishing all of your food may be an insult to your host, since it can mean he did not provide enough food and feed you enough, especially after seconds.  Leaving a bowl completely full is also rude.  If you don’t want any more food or any more tea or Chinese wine, etc. leave a small amount in your cup, glass, or plate., it gives you the out to say, “Oh, no thank you I still have some.”

6. Never be the one to take the last piece of anything.  It’s considered bad luck and shows your greed and being too hungry.  It is the host’s responsibility to monitor the various dishes and encourage the guest to take the last piece of something before the dish is removed from the table.  A common phrase is to say, Please take the last piece so as not to waste it.

7.  When laying your chopsticks down, do not lay your chopsticks parallel on the top of the bowl or leave them sticking in the bowl. It is considered rude and a sign of bad luck.

Instead you are to leave your chopsticks on the chopstick holder.  You may also leave it resting diagonally on the plate, which is perhaps closest to western etiquette. Do not drop your chopsticks; it is considered bad luck.

Sticking your chopsticks straight up in your rice bowl is rude, since they will resemble the joss sticks used in religious ceremonies.

8.  Business is not generally discussed during a meal.  Good topics of conversation include Chinese art, food, and sights. Inquiries about the health and well-being of family members.  As in all cultures, conversations are to be kept light and general, not heavy politics or religion.

9.  As toasts are performed throughout a dinner, use both hands to show utmost respect.  Customarily the host will begin the dinner with a toast of welcome, and then after the second or third course, the chief guest might say a few words and propose a toast, thereafter, toasts are free for all to propose.  Generally initiated by the hosts side. Small toasts among two or three guests are also appropriate. It doesn’t always have to be among the entire table. You can toast with soft drinks, tea, or the brandy, wine or beer you might have.

Toasts are performed with the utmost respect using both hands around the cup or glass, raised to shoulder height, make eye contact with the host and all, smile, and taking a sip or “bottoms up,” similar as in Western culture.   If one hand is used it must only be the right hand and the Chinese do not typically clink glasses.

10. The serving of fruit signifies the end of the meal. Generally, guests do not linger much past the end of the meal. The host encourages guests to take whatever food is left uneaten home.  The guest of honor should be the first to arrive and the first to leave.

Happy Practicing!

ACTION ITEM:  If you have other Chinese table manners to add to this list, please let us hear from you by replying to this blog.  If you enjoyed this tip, check out others at www.AdvancedEtiquette.com/blog and sign up to receive them at no charge each month.  It’s our way of staying in touch and being of service.

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