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.
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.