Introduction to Chinese Dining Etiquette

When you think about Chinese cuisine the first thing that comes to mind is eating rise with chopsticks, right? As Chinese cuisine is unique, so is the Chinese table for dining. There is no other dining etiquette like the Chinese one. And most importantly, it's a tradition that is highly respected and implemented even today, without any changes. Here are the basic things you need to know when you sit on the Chinese table:

  1. Lazy Susan - Chinese table can be found in any shape, but the most common one is the round shaped table. When you sit on a round Chinese table, you are going to notice a smaller round shaped circle in the middle of the table that can be rotated. That's the Lazy Susan table. Now, what you should know is that in Chinese dining, dishes are shared communally. That's why the Lazy Susan serves for. All dishes are placed on the Lazy Susan and than everyone rotates it and takes whatever they want.
  2. Where to Sit - The most important thing to remember when you sit on a Chinese table with Chinese people, is to respect the sitting arrangement they have. It goes like this: on the chair facing east or the entrance, sits the person of highest status or a foreign guest of honor; others with higher status then sit in close proximity to the seat of honor, while those with lower positions sit further away. The host takes the least prominent seat, generally the one nearest the kitchen entrance or service door.
  3. Dining Procedure - Usually, only one person orders for the entire table, and that's the host. He orders a few dishes and then asks the guests to each order an additional one. If you are the one that has to order, remember to order an even number of dishes. The odd number of dishes is reserved for funerals, thus bringing bad luck. The second thing you need to learn is how to handle chopsticks. Chopsticks are a must, and as hard as it is to eat with them, you are going to have to learn. They are considered as extensions to your fingers, so don't point them directly at anyone; it's extremely rude. Moreover, don't put them in upright position on the food, as it will resemble to the dishes with incense that honor the dead. When the food comes, it's placed on the lazy Susan. The most senior person takes first and then the table is rotated so that everyone fills their plates. It's important not to put too much in your plate; you must consider that all the people at the Chinese table have a chance to fill their plates. Another important thing is, if a specialty is served, then the guest of honor is the first to taste it, and then the lazy Susan is rotated clockwise.
  4. Toasting - Generally, water and non-alcoholic beverages are put on the Chinese table for dining. Alcohol, wine mostly, is served when a toast is to be made. Mainly, these are modest toasts, with a sip of wine or a swallow of beer, but a baiju toast is often ending with a Ganbei, which is an exhortation to drain the glass.
  5. Eating Fish - Fish on a Chinese table is another deliciousness the Chinese cuisine has to offer. The important thing to remember when served fish in China, is to never flip it over once you're done with one side. Why? Because by Chinese fisherman's beliefs, the fish symbolizes a boat, and flipping the fish means flipping their livelihood over. So, when you're done, just use your chopsticks to get the backbone out of the fish and you can keep eating.
  6. Tea - A lot like the English, tea is a centuries old custom in China. When pouring tea for someone, always grab the teapot with the right hand and place the left one on the lid. This means that you care about the person you're pouring tea for, as not to let the tea be spilled on them. Once poured, it's polite to express verbal gratitude for the tea. Or, you can use your index and middle finger to tap on the table. This also means 'thank you', and is a custom that origins from the time of early imperial China.
  7. Paying the Bill - Splitting a bill with a Chinese host is the most inappropriate and rude thing you can do ever! This indicates that you don't respect the host at all. It means you think that he isn't capable of paying the bill by himself, or that you don't accept his hospitality. Now, you should offer to pay the bill, a few times even, as to show that you aren't expecting the host to pay because he owes you something; but at the end, you should always let him take care of it entirely.

So, sitting at a Chinese table to wine and dine is not as relaxed as you thought. Especially the part when you have to learn how to handle chopsticks; eating with these things can be sooo hard! But than again, having the opportunity to be a part of a tradition that has remained unchanged for so long, is certainly a great honor; so make the most of the experience by knowing the Chinese dining etiquette.