The Etiquette of Dining in Modern China (1) ~ The Taboos You Must Know!
The Etiquette of Dining in Modern China ~ The Taboos You Must Know!
(Compiled by Glenda Gao from GoGo Mandarin)
Chinese dining etiquette has traditionally been quite elaborate given the interest
of the Chinese in all things edible. Although contemporary Chinese dining
etiquette does not employ all those traditions, there are still numerous customs to
be observed bearing in mind how much importance the Chinese attach to eating
as a socially interactive experience. Whether you are the host or a guest,
mastering the niceties of Chinese eating and drinking is a must. The following
pieces of guidance can be used in both formal and informal dining situations.
Shaking hands: The host and guests will often shake hands either prior to being
seated at the beginning of the meal or when bidding farewell at the end. The
usual order for shaking hands is: host with the guest of honour, followed by the
oldest attendee, the boss, ladies, juniors etc. Because some Chinese ladies are
not used to shaking hands with men it is best for men to wait to see if the lady is
going to extend her hand in greeting. If not, then it is safest simply to make a
small bow as a sign of greeting. Some Chinese men do not shake hands in the
same firm manner as westerners which may give the impression that the
Chinese counterpart is not genuine or does not really care about the occasion.
In fact, a loose handshake is simply a sign that they do not want to appear as
being domineering and aggressive.
Seating: The seat opposite the main door of the dining area is traditionally the
seat of honour （usually occupied by the host), but if there is no doorway the
seat of honour can be the one facing the east with the most important guests
seated on the host’s left and right and with the least important attendees seated
directly opposite the host (usually the host’s assistant). If one arrives early, one
should seat oneself by the doorway. Generally， one should only sit down after
the older people, the guest(s) of honour and any ladies present have been
seated. If you happen to be the host you may come across situations where your
Chinese guests refuse to sit at honoured positions (out of modesty) and on such
occasions the host may have to gently press the guests a couple of times (and
sometimes more) before they will eventually accept the seat. Of course, if you
are a guest, you can show similar courtesies to display your familiarity with
Dining etiquette: When starting the meal it is customary to wait for the host to
pick up his or her chopsticks. Of course, if you serve those next to you
unprompted, you will convey an impression of friendliness and sophistication. If
there are no serving chopsticks on the table it is permissible to use the thick end
of your own chopsticks (i.e. the end that does not make contact with your own
mouth). Before pouring tea for oneself one should always pour tea for others,
especially those seated right next to you. If anyone pours tea for you it is
customary to touch your tea cup or gently tap the table with the knuckles of your
index and middle fingers to signal thanks.
When serving either oneself or others, one should always choose food from that
part of the serving plate nearest you. One should not take food from the middle
of the plate or from sides of the plate facing other guests. Nor should one pick
over the food on the serving plates choosing certain items and not others.
Picking up items of food and then putting them back on the plate displays distinct
lack of breeding in the Chinese mind. When eating remember to keep your
elbows in so that you do not end up hitting those people seated either side of
you. Some foods such as crab or prawns can be eaten with the hands but
remember – never lick your fingers, because this is considered a sign of gluttony
and lack of upbringing. Many people in China (particularly the older generation)
tend to make a slurping sound when they eat which shows that they are enjoying
the food. But this custom is less prevalent with increasing numbers of Chinese
who have studied in the West or have been exposed to Western culture.
Toasting: When toasting, the first to be toasted should be the honoured guest or the oldest
at the table. Normally, one person will not toast many people together but many people
can toast one person (often the practice at wedding parties). When giving a toast one
should stand up holding the glass in both hands with the right hand holding the glass and
the left hand placed on the bottom of the glass. To show respect, many Chinese will
place their own glass slightly lower than that of the person they are toasting, the point
being to convey the idea that the person you are toasting is worthy of much respect.
Sometimes this can lead to a rather comical situation where both parties end up in a
competition to see who can place their glass the lowest! However there is no need for
such displays of respect if you are toasting someone significantly younger than yourself.
At formal business dinners one may (irrespective of whether host or guest) leave one’s
seat during the meal to toast other attendees representing the other side individually and
have a few quiet words with them one-on-one following which, one returns to one’s seat
to prepare for the next toast. But remember that once you have started this process you
must make sure that you approach and toast each and every person representing the other
party because, believe me, the Chinese attendees will be keeping count and will be keenly
aware of who has been toasted and who has not and your gesture will be greatly