Chinese dining etiquette

Chinese dining etiquette are a very important part of time-honored table culture. In China, dining is more than just a way of satisfying one’s appetite but the most important means of social interactions.

Chinese Dining Etiquette

Contributing Reporter,
Sun Jie
Levic, a 28-year-old student from the Netherlands, remembers the first time he attended a dinner party in China as if it were yesterday. Being shortly in China, he was still trying to learn how to use chopsticks in efforts. However, he tried hard at the dinner party only to pick up a few pieces of vegetables, which frustrated him to give up by sticking chopsticks in the bowl. Someone next to him whispered to him that he should put them on the chopsticks holder instead because “It’s taken as ominous to leave chopsticks stand in the bowl of rice in Chinese culture.” Levic was totally puzzled.

Perhaps even for foreigners who have been in China for a year or two and grasped the Chinese dnning etiquette, they might still stay dimmed in knowing its intended meaning, let alone for Levic.

Chinese dining etiquette

Dining, in China, has always been regarded as a matter of importance. Early in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770BC–221BC), some Confucian scholars put forward the idea that “food, drink and sex are man’s primary desires”, pinpointing that food is one of the essential instinctive likes of human beings. Coupled with this psychological identification, “eating” in China becomes a must when it comes to the distinctive flavors of the eight major traditional styles of Chinese cuisines. The vast choice of Chinese cuisines has compelled people to pay more attention to the finer details of dining, creating customs with its associated social connotations and bringing about the distinctive etiquettes of Chinese dining.

Chinese dining etiquette are a very important part of time-honored table culture. Dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046BC–256BC), a set of well-established etiquette system for dining had come into being. After its propagation and exaltation by Confucius, it became one of the most important ways for Chinese imperial courts to show the greatness of the Chinese. As time passed, Chinese dining etiquette has been further perfected and has become a very important part of the Chinese way of life. In China, dining is more than just a way of satisfying one’s appetite but the most important means of social interactions.

Chinese dining etiquette
Round tables allow all of the diners to focus at the centre of the table, which makes it more convenient for friends to chat with each other.

No banquet without hustle and bustle

Dining tables in the west are mostly square. Diners will sit face-to-face around a table, on which several cold dishes may be placed. If there are more people, the dining table will be replaced by a rectangular one and all the dishes can be passed around the table. However, this method of sharing food is not suited to Chinese cuisine with its soups and sauces. When you walk into Chinese restaurants, you’ll find most of the tables are round. Round tables allow all of the diners to focus at the centre of the table, which makes it more convenient for friends to chat with each other; around the table, all the dinners could share the food easily for the same distances from the dishes, which makes a more lively atmosphere.

The desire for hustle and bustle is psychologically derived from the desire to share. Chinese people have always believed “food is the most important thing in the world.” As a matter of fact, apart from sating one’s hunger, dining in China is also one of the means of upholding traditional customs and fostering relationships. A banquet can be hosted for celebrations as well as for mourning. On such occasions as the Spring Festival, a wedding, or the birth of a baby, Chinese people will get together for a dinner, to drink and chat, to share their happiness. On the other hand, if a family member passes away, the family will also host a banquet for the relatives and friends present at the funeral in memory of the dead, to share their sense of grief, and to express their gratitude to those who have come for the comfort of their support.

Chinese dining etiquette

Chinese people like to be amongst a noisy and lively crowd. During the Spring Festival and other traditional holidays, there are always lion or dragon dances. No matter if it is at a wedding or a funeral, there is always a racket from trumpets and cymbals. It seems as if only this kind of noise and excitement can reflect the depth of their feelings. Even at dinner, a noisy and lively atmosphere is also preferred. Popular restaurants are always crowded with lively voices and ablaze light. For instance, in some old Beijing specialty restaurants, there are always doormen waiting outside to greet the diners. They used to say “So nice of you to come! Please come in!” Nowadays, they will say “Welcome to our restaurant!” Once inside, you’ll find people chatting, urging each other to drink and playing drinking games. Sometimes, in order to create a lively atmosphere, the owner of the restaurant will even invite a local Peking opera singer or a storyteller to liven things up.

For the Chinese, to have an enjoyable meal is to eat heartily, make friends, indulge in frivolous banter, drink and even sing. In other countries, Christians are accustomed to saying grace before a meal to thank God for their bread and salt. However, Chinese people are mostly atheists. With a drink in hand, many feel they are in control of their destiny. For each meal, the host will prepare each dish with care and give each a suitably apt name; during the meal, the host will talk intimately with friends about their lives.

To some extent, how people dine reflects the circumstances in which they are in. Chinese meals seem to manifest the simplest ideals: sitting around the same table, enjoying the same food and everyone gets a share. Moreover, the dining table in China can provide a cohesive force during social interactions that can bring people closer together, especially on a psychological level. Dining in China is more of an occasion for people to get to know each other, to build relationships than the mere act of consuming food.

Chinese dining etiquette

History beyond the banquet

The five thousand years of Chinese history can be appreciated at the dining table. For instance, there are dishes called ‘Braised Dongpo pork hock’, ‘Kung Pao chicken’ and ‘Lamp shadow beef ’. There is even a soup called ‘Pearl, Jadeite and White Jade soup’, a name given by Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398), the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), to a soup made of leftover rice, green vegetables and tofu. Such traditional and poetic names of the dishes sufficiently give you a sense of history at a dining table. What is true of dish names is no less true of Chinese dining etiquette.

The ancient Chinese proverb “Without a pair of compasses ( 规/guī/) and a T-square ( 矩/ jù/), you can’t draw a circle and a square properly” gave rise to the phrase 规矩 ‘rules and regulations’. The etiquettes of dining are equivalent to the rules and regulations at a dining table. Since ancient times, in fact, there has always been a formal procedure for hosting a Chinese banquet: a host invites his guests with a written invitation and waits for their arrival at the door on the day; when the guests arrive, both sides exchange greetings before the host leads the guests to the table; when the guests are seated, the host proposes a toast to the guests to start the dinner, and the guests then thank the host in the same manner; when the banquet is finished, the host sees the guests off at the door where the two sides bid adieu to each other. This kind of banquet etiquette is still highly regarded today, but practiced in a simplified form.

At today’s banquets, the most venerable person or the host is usually seated at place of honor at the table, which is the central seat farthest from the door. The seat facing the honor place of the table is often reserved for a second host. The guest of honor and the second guest of honor are seated left and right of the head of the table respectively. Others will take their seats in turn. Of course, the rules are flexible. If there is a relaxed atmosphere, the person seated at the head of the table may assign each guest to a seat. By allocating seats, seating arrangements is more of a sort which shows the status of those present.

Such are the Chinese people, who like to eat and know how to eat well. If the food on the table is nothing but color, smell and taste, then we shall find personal relationships and culture around the table.

Here comes the issue of sticking chopsticks in a bowl of rice again. In modern times, Chinese families are no longer superstitious, but some superstitious ideas have been handed down in the form of regional customs. Certain traditional families sometimes believe that some dining practices are taboo and may bring bad luck. For instance, sticking chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice can be regarded as a ritual for mourning the deceased. In ancient times, Chinese people would worship their ancestors by sticking the incenses vertically in an incense burner.

There are also some interesting dining customs. For instance, Chinese people do not start a meal when there are only three or seven dishes served, because in ancient times, the condemned criminals usually had three dishes before their execution, and similarly a funeral banquet usually had seven dishes. Today, some traditional coastal people still believe that when one side of a fish has been finished, the other side must not be damaged while it is turned over. Otherwise, it has the connotation that their boats will capsize. One should also avoid tapping chopsticks against the rice bowl, because it is not only regarded as being impolite, but also considered as” no enough food to eat in the future” by the elders. In ancient times, beggars often begged for food by tapping their bowls.

What makes dining in China more interesting is the presence of traditional customs, which is a more important ‘seasoning’ than ginger, garlic or scallion, and you only need a little to bring out the true flavour of Chinese dining.

Chinese dining etiquette

Philosophy of drinking at a banquet

China is not only the birthplace of rice wine, but also a country of wine. In China, to drink wine is not just to satisfy one’s taste for alcohol. Wine is a cultural custom used to liven up the atmosphere and show certain etiquettes.

Wine is indispensable at a Chinese party because it can create a lively atmosphere. Once the banquet starts, the host will lift his glass and propose a toast — usually one or two incisive statements adding some ancient poems or quotations, and some confidential words — to express his gratitude and good wishes to the guests. This is of course to encourage the guests to drink and liven up the atmosphere. Whatever you drink, liquor, red wine or a soft drink, as long as you lift your glass, you can be a part of the lively atmosphere.

Chinese dining etiquette of drinking of a banquet is mainly reflected in the toasting. The person who proposes the toast should fill other peoples’ glasses first and then his own. This conforms to the Chinese practice of putting others’ needs ahead of one’s own. Moreover, the glass should be filled to the brim so as to express one’s whole-hearted sentiments. If you are the host, you should stand to propose the first toast to the guests, usually one by one according to their seating order; if you are a guest, you should lift your glass and express your gratitude to the host in return. With the clinking of glasses, a personal bond would be formed and at the same time etiquette observed.

Drinking etiquette also keeps pace with the times. Some have changed into a completely opposite way. For instance, in olden times when whole chicken, duck or fish dishes were served at table, the head or the tail could not to be directed at the head of the table. In present times, however, as an extra pretext for drinking, the head or the tail of such dishes are deliberately directed at the head of the table. This would pave way for another round of drinking: “fish-head wine” followed by “fish-tail wine”. To have fish head and fish tail signifies: “May there be fish (or surplus) every year” ( 鱼 /yú/ ‘fish’ and 余/yú/ ‘surplus’ have the same pronunciation) in Chinese. People have adopted this practice to liven up the atmosphere and for good luck.

On a Chinese dining table, the delicious dishes exceed your expectations; around the dining table, Chinese dining etiquette always makes you feel pleasant and relaxed. This is just like how dishes are served in China — cold dishes are served as appetizers at the beginning, then a few vegetarian or meat dishes are served with plain rice; after that, a delicious soup is served; finally, some refreshing desserts. The courses are arranged and served logically: Vegetarian and meat dishes are well balanced, sweet and savory tastes are all catered for, resulting in a balanced yet flavoursome meal.

Chinese dining etiquette is as important as how food is served; if either is out of place, you are unlikely to enjoy the meal. Such are the Chinese people, who like to eat and know how to eat well. If the food on the table is nothing but color, smell and taste, then we shall find personal relationships and culture around the table.

More about Chinese Cuisine in ConfuciusMag:


Confucius Institute Magazine 28P

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 28. Volume V. September 2013.

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