Chinese Table Manners: What You Need to Know Before You Eat
Regardless of whether you’re a hardcore foodie, or the sort of person who wouldn’t dream of eating anything that once had parents, some of the most exciting and inherently memorable moments of a trip through China happen at the dining table. (Until you make it to the Middle Kingdom yourself, you’ll just have to take our word for it.)
But before you sit down to eat, it’s important to understand at least a little bit about traditional Chinese table manners. You might even find yourself more surprised by the similarities between Chinese and Western expectations than the differences.
And so without further ado, here’s what you need to know about dining etiquette before visiting China:
Respecting the Guest
When the guest of honor enters a room, the host stands until the guest is seated. As many meals are served family-style in China, the host orders all the dishes; guests are expected to remain quiet throughout the ordering process. When the meal is served, the host offers a toast. In return, guests are expected to make a toast in honor of the host.
Seating arrangement is one of the most important elements of Chinese dinning etiquette. The guest of honor should face east, or toward the entrance of the establishment. Other guests, meanwhile, should sit around the guest of honor based on importance: The more prestigious guests should sit closer to the guest of honor, and those lower on the hierarchy should be farther away.
If this is your first time traveling to China and you’re not sure where to sit, simply wait until others take their seats and then choose an empty one.
While visiting China, you may notice that many meals are served family-style. To make sharing easy, food is often served on a lazy Susan. If only one dish is brought out at a time, the guest of honor should be served first. You should only serve yourself a small amount of food until each guest has taken some. Once everyone has received their food, you may then begin to eat.
You should expect to be offered tea with nearly every meal while visiting China; tea plays a huge role in Chinese culture, and is used for both refreshment and medicinal purposes.
Always offer tea to others before serving yourself. The spout of a teapot should never be pointed at another person — in China, that gesture is not unlike using your index finger to point at someone. Also bear in mind that when placed on a round table, the teapot shouldn’t be pointed at someone directly to the left or right of the person pouring the tea, but may be pointed to someone across the table.
While visiting China, you can tap the table using your index and middle finger two or three times to show your thankfulness for a waiter or host who pours the hot water for your tea. If you need more hot water, you may leave the teapot lid ajar to signal your server. According to Chinese culture, placing the teapot’s lid on the table may allow “luck” to escape.
Sure, you may know how to use chopsticks. But do you know the proper Chinese chopstick etiquette? Here’s the deal:
It’s acceptable to hold a bowl of rice very close to your face, and and use your chopsticks to shovel the stuff into your mouth. It’s considered impolite, meanwhile, to spear food with your chopsticks.
Also: Anything that’s too difficult to pick up with chopsticks may be eaten with a spoon. Placing your chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate is a sign that you’re done eating. And never rest your chopsticks vertically in rice — most Chinese consider that to be a symbol of death.
Tipping and Paying the Bill
Unlike in the United States, tips are neither required nor expected at most restaurants in China, unless the practice is explicitly posted. If tips are required, they’ll oftentimes be included in your bill.
Should you find yourself going out to eat with a local during a trip to China — especially if that local is acting as your host — tradition generally requires the host to pay for the first meal you share together. Do make multiple offers to pay, but if your host insists on picking up the tab, graciously accept. (If you insist on paying, your host may interpret the move as an insult to his financial status.)
When traveling to China with friends, it’s much more acceptable for one person to pay for everyone’s meal than to split the check multiple ways. Try taking turns grabbing the bill!
And here’s one final dining etiquette tip to keep in mind while visiting China: If you truly don’t know what you’re doing, simply watch, ask, and mimic the locals — they’ll be sure to point you in the right direction.
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