Customs and etiquette in Chinese dining
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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.
Table and place settings
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 of tissues 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-settings.
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. This practice should be used carefully. In more traditional setting, tapping the table or making any sounds with utensils is considered ill mannered.
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.
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.
Manners and customs
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 largely the same throughout the country. There are common rules for inviting guests over.
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.
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.
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 or hong shao rou soft enough to be picked apart easily. Some common etiquette is:
- Avoid holding the chopsticks in such a way as to point your index or (worse) middle finger at the other diners, as this is a sign of anger or censure (仙人指路)
- Chopsticks should always be the same length and held so that the ends are even, a practice popularly explained as due to the former use of uneven boards (三長兩短) in Chinese coffins.
- Similarly, do not leave chopsticks sticking upright out of dishes, owing to a Chinese practice of leaving such dishes for the dead.
- Do not chew on the ends of chopsticks, even if they are plastic.
- Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates.
- Do not bang your chopsticks as though you were playing a drum. It implies you are a beggar or a child.
- Treat chopsticks as extension of your fingers. It is impolite to use them to point at other people or to wave chopsticks around.
- Unless they are disposable, chopsticks will be washed and reused. Consequently, don't use them to pick at your teeth or for other unseemly endeavors.
- Avoid spearing food with the chopsticks.
- One should not 'dig' or 'search' through one's food for something in particular. This is sometimes known as "digging one's grave" or "grave-digging" and is extremely poor manners.
- When not in use, and if the restaurant provides them, place the front end of the chopsticks on the chopstick rests. These are usually small ceramic rests placed near your napkin on the right hand side of your bowl.
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.
- If there are communal chopsticks available, do not use your personal ones in shared dishes. While that is a common practice in China, by having communal chopsticks at the table, your hosts are expecting you to use them. Using your personal chopsticks when there are communal chopsticks available is considered rude and unhygienic, as you are transferring your saliva with your chopsticks. If you accidentally start using the shared chopsticks as your own, as soon as you notice it, quickly apologize for it and ask if it would be possible to obtain another pair of shared chopsticks.
- If there are no communal chopsticks, some hosts prefer you to use the thick end of your chopsticks for the shared dishes. This again avoids transferring saliva into the common dishes.
- If in doubt about the communal chopsticks situation, watch what the others do, using small talk if necessary to stall for time.
- Once the tips of the chopsticks have touched food, do not leave them on the table. Since communal chopsticks may not have their own chopstick rests, you may need to rest it against the edge of the dish. As with personal chopsticks, though, do not place them upright in the food itself.
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 Chinese restaurants in the USA 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.
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