Table Manners in China

Living in Sichuan for almost two years, I had to learn a lot about the dining etiquette of China. Expected table manners vary according to the formality of situation, and some ethnic groups might have their own specific rules. Nonetheless, dining customs are mostly universal across Mainland China, especially in the majority culture.



At formal banquets, seating is hierarchically organized. Tables are round, with the most respected seat being farthest from the door (or sometimes, easternmost), and functioning much like the head of a rectangular table in Western culture. The honor of the remaining seats corresponds to how close they are to the most respected seat. Even at family dinners, the seating order will be hierarchically organized with elders receiving the most respected places.


Shared dishes

In Chinese households dishes of prepared food are normally put in the center of the dining table. Each person will typically have their own bowl for rice or noodles. However, you should get accustomed to sharing your meat and vegetable dishes, or even taking your noodles from a central bowl. People will move food from the central bowl into their own bowls a little at a time. While you don’t want to take too much food from the central plates at once, it’s also not good to eat every bite directly from the central bowls. Though this tradition might at first feel uncomfortable if you’re used to having your own plate of food, it lends a warm, communal atmosphere to meals.



A few basic rules about using chopsticks:

  • It’s considered rude to leave your chopsticks sticking upright out of your food or bowl. (If there’s no chopstick rest, place them horizontally across the top of your dish or bowl when not in use.)
  • Don’t do anything with your chopsticks you wouldn’t do with a fork or knife (pointing, picking teeth, reaching, etc.)
  • Technically, it’s rude to spear your food with your chopsticks, although as a laowai (foreigner), doing so in my case usually just evoked laughter. Still, avoid doing so at a formal meeting.
  • Don’t dig through your food.


Toasting and Drinking

Drinking occurs within an intricate set of toasting customs, especially at formal banquets. It might be easiest to explain from experience. At the formal banquets hosted by my school, the president of the college would take the highest seat, surrounded by the vice president and the dean of the foreign languages department, then supervisors, and finally teachers. Two things would happen then. Firstly, the president, supervisors, and an occasional brave teacher made toasts to the whole table, basically thanking everyone. On top of this, throughout the meal, each person at some point would get out of their seat and go around the table toasting each other person individually, starting with a toast to the president. Plus, you can always toast someone near you. These customs were exactly the same at government banquets I attended.

If this all sounds like a lot of drinking, it is. You might even end up with as many toasts as the number of people at the table squared!  If you’re drinking beer or red wine, you can just take a sip. With baijiu (the traditional hard liquor), you’ll often be encouraged to gānbēi! (empty the glass). However, if you feel you’ve had too much to drink, it’s acceptable to toast or accept a toast with a cup of tea. If you don’t drink at all, you might encounter some pressure to drink, and might consider making a physical or health-related excuse.



Generally, it’s considered rude to split a bill, at least among the older generations. While it’s good, and even expected, to softly protest when a friend offers to pay for a meal, when they insist, gracefully accept their offer,– and pay next time! Paying for the meal is considered an honor. For this reason, don’t be surprised when you’re expected to (or “allowed to”) pay for everyone’s meal on your birthday!



Tipping is not at all expected, but appreciated. I recall once being chased to the end of the block by a server who thought that I had accidentally left behind money, but once I explained that I wanted to leave it for her, she was quite happy.

Why Learn Chinese?

The answer to this question largely depends on you and your interests. Some of our students learn Chinese because of the opportunity it affords in business. Other students want to learn to speak a common language with the almost 1 billion Mandarin Chinese speakers alive today. Chinese language also offers a deeper insight and connection to one of the oldest and most unique cultures in the world. We can, however, give an overview of a few of the top reasons many people decide to learn Chinese, and perhaps why you might be interested as well.


Lesson Medium

1. New Job and Business Opportunities

American Chinese speakers find jobs in customer service, travel, post-secondary education, business, and other fields.

China’s economy has been steadily growing since the late 1970s. The current GDP of China is reportedly 9.24 trillion U.S. dollars. This is up from about four billion in 1990. Over 20% of global manufacturing takes place in China, though this sector is being replaced by the service industry as the new center of growth in the Chinese job market alongside the swift growth of China’s consumer economy.

It is fairly common knowledge that China’s workforce, unprotected by U.S. labor rights, manufactured many American-sold goods at a low cost. However, as the wages of workers in China rise, the next generation of Americans will be interacting with a new rising class of specialized workers in service and other professional jobs.

However, less than 1% of Chinese people speak English fluently. College students that are not English majors often have only a very rudimentary understanding of English. Therefore, for people in international business, learning basic Chinese can open up a world of opportunities. Additionally, for people thinking about teaching in China, a working knowledge of Chinese is naturally essential for navigating one’s community and daily life there.

2. Personal and Cultural Connections

For those with Chinese ancestry, learning Putonghua (Mandarin) can be a way of getting in touch with the culture of their family. Other people may be moved to learn Chinese because of their Buddhist or Taoist faith, and a desire to study their religion with greater depth. The original texts of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, for example, are all in Chinese. With a history of over 8,000 years and over 55 distinct ethnic groups, China holds people’s fascination as one of the major world civilizations.
Knowing a foreign language will allow you to bond with people from places far away and speak with people you never thought you would be able to speak with.


Photo by Rob Web

Photo by Rob Web

3. Traveling

Some websites claim that learning Chinese allows one greater opportunities for travel in other East Asian countries. This is not always true, even in popular tourist destinations like Thailand. Nevertheless, China is a massive territory that now includes Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet. You will find a large percentage of Mandarin speakers in all of these areas. Countries such as Singapore and Bali, while remaining independent, still have sizable populations of Chinese speakers. China itself is a massive country with ancient Silk Road deserts, lush forests, icy mountains, unique wildlife, sprawling modern cities, and ancient architecture. It is an almost inexhaustible resource for travel.




4. It’s an adventure that will enrich your life, and it’s not as hard as you think.

Chinese isn’t as hard a language to learn as people often suppose. People often worry, for example, about the differences tone makes in pronouncing otherwise homophonic words. However, there are only four basic tones in Mandarin: up, down, bending, and high. These tones can be thought of as a simple second alphabet with only four characters. Moreover, Chinese language has no tense, gender, or honorific articles.

Anyone can learn Chinese if they have sufficient motivation, and everyone can put it to a unique use.

10 Apps and  Tools to Help You Learn Chinese Faster

Learning a new language is difficult, and it’s even harder without the right resources. When you take a class at Hong Tu we will help you master the language through a combination of lessons and materials to help you outside the classroom. If you want even more tools to help you in your pursuit to learn Chinese, here are 10 apps that we have found useful.




Cost: Free for Basic

Platforms: App Store, Android, Google Play, Amazon App Store



Pleco is a staple favorite among Chinese students, teachers and travellers. Simply put, Pleco is a comprehensive language dictionary. It provides both traditional and simplified characters, and has additional plug-in features for purchase. This app is ideal for looking up unknown characters found in readings, finding different word variations, and a single-character reference while traveling.







Cost: 15 day free trial; $15/month or $120/year for basic, $30/Month or $240/year for Plus

Platforms: Website, App Store, Android Expected Soon



FluentU is a great resource for someone learning or maintaining Chinese who is not enrolled in courses. Focused on entertainment-based learning, FluentU provides video and audio tracks in Chinese with the ability to have both English and Chinese subtitles. With the option to choose between traditional and simplified characters along with the ability to select the difficulty level, this tool is ideal no matter what stage you are at. A basic subscription provides unlimited listening and watching, while the Plus package provides a “Learn Mode” with additional features.  




Google Translate Chrome Extension

Cost: Free

Platforms: Google Chrome

Website: Chrome Web Store


Anyone who speaks more than one language will caution you from using a full translator, especially when translating Chinese. Keeping this in mind, the Google Chrome translator plug-in is a great tool for when you run into trouble reading Chinese online.  Get the meaning of individual words or sentences in real time as you are reading online. While you can translate entire pages, you will quickly notice the translations are less than perfect.






Cost: Free with in-app purchase options

Platforms: App Store, Google Play



Do you ever find yourself reading Chinese text and come across a tough character you get stuck on? CamDictionary might be able to help. This app allows you to take a picture of a character to find the meaning instantly. While it doesn’t work 100% of the time with strange fonts, it’s a great tool to have in your pocket for homework or reading in general. If you only use a couple searches a day, the free limited version should be enough to get you by. If you find you are using it more frequently, you can purchase unlimited searches for a couple dollars.





Mandarin Typing

Cost: Free

Platform: Apple and Android Products


Although this isn’t exactly an app, this smartphone language feature is one not everyone is aware of. Whether you are just starting to learn Chinese or you are an expert, being able to write and type in Chinese on your phone is crucial. In addition to communicating with friends and family in Chinese, this feature makes looking up unknown words and characters much easier. Along with the ability to type out the pinyin for characters, most software also allows you to draw in characters in the event you don’t know how to pronounce them. In both Apple and Android devices, just go to the Languages and Keyboards section of your settings, and add in the language and the options you would like to use, such as simplified, traditional, pinyin or drawing.






Cost: $14.99/month

Platforms: Web, App Store and Google Play



Skritter is another great resource for those learning Chinese. With a large focus on writing, reading and tones, Skritter enhances essential skills needed to learn Chinese quickly and efficiently. Although this service comes with a steep price tag, they boast an impressive amount of features and support, which includes a money-back guarantee. Try a free demo of the service to see if it is right for you. Cater the software to your skills and preferences when you sign up for an account to get the most out of your purchase.






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store and Google Play



One of the hardest parts about learning a new language is getting motivated to put in the time in effort. ChineseSkill helps this by using games and activities to help you learn. Choose either simplified or traditional characters and take off! Enhance your character writing, vocabulary and pronunciation while playing games on your phone. With such a high rating, you know the app is not only fun to use, but educational as well!






Cost: Free

Platforms: App Store, Google Play



Anki is a flashcard and quiz based service that allows you to keep track of what you know and what you need to work on. While other services, such as Pleco, also contain similar features, Anki software is flexible, allowing you to add exactly what you do and don’t want on your list. This is an ideal tool for someone enrolled in courses or studying for an upcoming exam. Check out AnkiWeb for lists, quizzes and flashcards that former users have already put together.





LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent

Cost: Free for basic

Platforms: App Store, Amazon App Store, Google Play and Windows Phone Store



Single word dictionaries are very useful, but if you will be traveling to a Chinese speaking country, you may need a little bit more. The LearnChinese Phrasebook by CodeAgent provides useful and common phrases. The App provides characters, tones and pronunciation for whatever phrases you may need. The basic version will get you through most scenarios such as introducing yourself and transportation, but you can also purchase the pro version for expanded topics.





Popup Chinese

Cost: Free

Platforms: Web



If you are looking for a service with range of tools to learn Chinese, but don’t want to pay expensive costs for other services, you might want to look into Popup Chinese. The website contains videos, podcasts, stories and other media content that you can download and take with you. A community forum allows you to ask questions, and a tests and tools section allows you to test yourself and track your progress. Popup Chinese not only allows you to choose between simplified and traditional characters, but also has an option for learning Cantonese as well.  

Hopefully these apps can help you on your journey to mastering the Chinese language. Tell us, which one will you try first?

Three Reasons Chinese is Hard and What to Do

Three main challenges stand between you and learning Chinese. If you do a few things right, you can not only make it easier but make it an adventure as well.
Chinese boyThe challenges are 1. Many people are intimidated by learning such a difficult language 2. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the tone you use changes the meaning of the word. 3. The writing system is complex and overwhelming.

Here are three reasons why learning Chinese can be difficult and what to do to make learning easier.

Reason # 1 – The mental challenge.

Intimidating. Scary. Impossible. Do those words run through your mind when you consider learning Chinese? There is no question that learning Chinese can be daunting. There’s no alphabet. You have to memorize thousands of characters. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word?! Any one of those might make a weaker person start looking for Spanish classes on Craigslist. The intimidation factor makes it even harder to learn Chinese. It’s there when you open the book or turn on your computer. It silently seeps in when you think about studying vocabulary. It slows you down.

You might have good reasons for learning Chinese. You may want to study for the business opportunity or to prepare for a trip China. You might like Chinese culture or be interested in Chinese history or medicine. Maybe you are adopting Chinese children. Those are great reasons to learn Chinese. But if you just have good reasons, you will fail. Many people do.

How to overcome the mental challenge.

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” – Theodore Roosevelt

The difficulty is exactly what makes it special and important. Anyone can learn an easy language, but how many of your friends speak Chinese? Don’t you have just a little extra respect for anyone who speaks reasonably well? It takes grit to stare down intimidation and take on a remarkable language like Chinese. Are you up to the challenge?
If you want to learn Chinese, you have to take on the intimidation first. 1.2 billion people speak Chinese and you can, too. But most of them learned as children. So what? Many people learn to speak Chinese as adults, and so can you. Start by making learning Chinese your next adventure. It should and can be fun. You will learn about a new culture that is very different and exotic.

Understand that while it is difficult, much of the language is easy to learn. Verbs don’t conjugate. There is no I am, you are. It is all I be, you be, he be etc. The verbs don’t change form for past or future tense. You simply add words or time to change the sentence. “I gave him the ball yesterday” directly translates to “I yesterday give he the ball.“ Notice that it is he and not him in the last example? That’s because you don’t need to change pronouns due to case. There are more examples of why Chinese is actually much easier than you think to learn. Now, let’s talk about two more challenges and what to do about them.

Reason # 2 – Chinese is a tonal language.

28683357_sI love talking about the 4 Chinese tones with someone unfamiliar with the Chinese language. The tone you use changes the meaning of the word. Mā means mother but mà means scold. Their eyes get big and they look impressed. The truth is you already use all of these tones to change the meaning of what you are saying in English. Chinese has four tones plus an unstressed tone. The first tone is flat like a note you might hear from a tuning fork. The second tone rises like asking a question. The third tone drops and rises. The fourth tone drops and sounds angry. There is a fifth tone is unstressed, much like an unstressed syllable in English.

Chinese children study the words mā má mǎ mà. That sounds like this:

How to master the Chinese tones.

Getting the tones right isn’t impossible, but it isn’t easy either. First, when you learn vocabulary, you must must must memorize the tone for each word. If you don’t have the tones memorized, learning how to hear and use the sounds won’t make a difference. Now, start listening. Carefully. Your next step is distinguishing between the tones when you hear them. Play the tones above over and over. Start mimicking the speaker. Don’t be bashful. Take on the accent just like you might mimic an English or German accent. Revel in the middle school thrill of mocking a teacher once more!

Once you can make the correct sounds for the same word, start practicing for different words. Download the Pleco app on your phone. Look up each vocabulary word and then play the tones. Back to mimicking and mocking you go. Do this until the sound of the word feels natural.

Your next challenge is using tones in a sentence. You can’t speak Chinese word by word. The words and tones must flow with one another. You have to learn to transition from a fourth tone to a first tone and from a first tone to a fourth tone. To do this, we need to memorize how to say sentences. Take recordings of sentences and start mimicking the speaker again. It might help to break the sentences down into shorter phrases. Keep practicing until you master the tones. If you find this difficult, don’t give up! You already use tones in English without thinking, you soon will be doing the same thing with Chinese tones. All it takes is familiarity and practice.

Reason # 3 – You need to learn 3,000 Chinese characters to read a newspaper.

Chinese Writing Art

Most Chinese people know about 8,000 characters on average. If you want to read the newspaper, you only need to know between two and three thousand. It isn’t as bad as it seems.

First, if you just want to master basic conversational Chinese, you probably don’t need to learn to read or write Chinese characters. You might want to learn to recognize a few that could be important for a trip, but that’s it. The reason for this is pinyin, which is a way to write out characters using a western alphabet. This is how Chinese language speakers type in computers and cell phones. You’ve already seen an example, mā,  in the section of this post on tones. Pinyin will serve you well for the first year, which may be all you need to study.

Second, if you want to get past the basics, you will need to at least learn how to read Chinese characters. Some people feel this is best done by writing them, but it certainly takes less effort to learn to read than to learn to write. Realize that while the number of characters is daunting, you don’t need to master all of them.

How to start learning to read and write

To master reading or writing Chinese, start by learning 11 basic strokes used to write Chinese characters and the rules about stroke order. Second, you need to start learning basic characters. There are apps like Skritter or this memory game that will help. Third, set a goal and a schedule. Practice for a few minutes every day. If you want to read the newspaper, you need to learn 2 to 3 thousand characters. Fourth, learn Chinese radicals, which are components that can be put together to write Chinese characters. There is a nice list of radicals on Keep at it and you will soon be reading the paper or writing short essays.Chiense boy learning


Chinese isn’t the easiest language to learn, but its reputation as a difficult language is a bit overdone. Don’t let this reputation deter you from getting started. Once you start, take the tones seriously. Memorize and practice each word until it comes naturally. You don’t have to learn to write, but if you do, create a plan and practice daily. Good luck!