Getting to know Chinese Table Manners
Because the Chinese have developed an exquisite cuisine and regard food as being most important in a man’s life, they do not greet each other with “How are you?” but instead they ask, “Have you eaten?”
This greeting is often given without a particular desire to know whether the person has eaten but rather whether he or she is feeling quite well.
The Chinese not only created countless ways of cooking but also invented chopsticks to eat with. The oldest chopsticks were found in a grave dating back to the 13th century BC. A pair of chopsticks can be made out of ivory, plastic, bamboo or wood.
Chinese Table Manners
Many traditional table manners are still observed today. It is best if the table used for a Chinese dinner is round. Once everyone is seated and the food is served the guests wait for the host to invite them to eat by saying “qi kuai” (let start to use the chopsticks). Some still practise calling the names of people dining with them as a form of courtesy.
Do's and Don'ts
The bowl of rice is held with the left hand and brought close to the mouth while the rice is lifted into the mouth with the chopsticks which are held in the right hand. One should not make any noise when chewing the food.
While waiting for the next course of food one should place the chopsticks neatly on the chopstick rest and avoid crossing them or putting them on the rice bowl.
Whenever one attends a wedding dinner one should bring a present wrapped in colourful or reddish gift wrap (never black because it represents grief) or cash in a red packet (never in a white envelope because it is a colour for mourning).
Presents must symbolize good luck or blessing such as gold pendants with symbols of luck (never a clock as the word for clock sounds like zhong, meaning die).
When one is invited to a Chinese New Year party one should dress cheerfully (never completely in black because black is a solemn colour) and bring one’s hosts oranges and new year red packet for luck and good wishes.
Whenever tea is served one should say “thank you” or make a gesture of thanks.
If you wish to take a drink of wine at a formal dinner, you must first toast another diner guest regardless of whether he or she responds by drinking. If you are toasted and don’t wish to drink, simply touch your lips to the edge of the wine glass to acknowledge the courtesy.
It is incumbent upon the host to urge the guests to eat and drink to their fill. This means ordering more food than necessary and keeping an eye out for idle chopsticks.
It is polite to serve the guest of honour the best morsels, such as the cheek of the fish, using a pair of serving or “public” chopsticks or with the back end of one’s chopsticks.
If you have had enough to eat, yet your host still plies you with food, or if you do not wish to indulge in fish lips, sea cucumber or duck web, graciously allow your host to place the delicacy on your plate; leaving food uneaten indicates you do not care for it.
It is socially acceptable in China to spit bones on the table, belch, slurp soup and noodles and smoke while eating.
Rice can be eaten by raising the bowl to the mouth and shovelling the grains in with the chopsticks in a rapid fanning motion, even though this may resemble a Beijing duck force feeding itself.
Chinese banquets commonly have 12-20 courses in succession and can last for hours, but the dinner is over when the host stands up and offers the final toast; one is expected to leave immediately thereafter.
The spoon should not be used at the same time as the chopsticks.
Toothpicks should not be used during the meal but rather at the end, and always whilst covering the mouth.
Don’t point with your chopsticks and don’t stick your chopsticks into your rice bowl and leave them there standing up, for in this position they resemble incense sticks set before a grave.
Don’t use your chopsticks to explore the contents of a dish. Locate the morsel you want-on top of the pile, not buried in the middle of it- with your eyes and go directly for it with your chopsticks without touching any other pieces. A wait-and-see-attitude is recommended if you wish to land the white meat, the wing or the chicken heart.
Chatting at the table over coffee after a meal or retiring to the drawing room is not part of Chinese etiquette.
Formalities in Reception
•When the guests arrive at dinner, they must present a gift to the host. This gives a good welcome thanks message to the host. It is very important for the guests to appear in front of the host as he needs to know how many guests are arrived. This is because he must know about the number of guests as he did the seating arrangement.
•If in case a stranger is invited to a dinner, the job of the host is to get familiar with him. To make him feel comfortable, a warm welcome is necessary.
•When you are going on dinner, keep a tight check on the time. Never be late as it is considered as rude in the Chinese culture. The host of the dinner prepares everything at least 15-20 minutes before. Hence, it is important to arrive on the time so that everything remains good during the whole time.
•If you are a low-ranking guest, you can decide on bringing a gift for the host. However, if you are a high-ranked guest, you can choose a bottle of quality wine.
Inviting the guests:
This is the one of the most important parts of the manners in the Chinese culture. The respect and dignity of the guest is considered to hold the prime importance. If a guest is not invited in a certain manner, it thought that the host has undermined the traditions which might result in the cutting off the relations and connections with the host. Therefore, the invitations are made very carefully.
Although there are some minor variations are found depending upon the personal preferences regarding inviting a guest. However, there are some standard rules which should be followed in this regard. First of all, the arrival of the guest into the dining room is welcomed by the standing ovation of the host. It is considered ill-mannered on the part of the host to get seated before the guest does.
The Equities of Seating Arrangement
The way Chinese people get seated is also an interesting part of the table manners. Yes! This might surprise you that a typical seating arrangement is a sign of etiquettes in the Chinese culture. Therefore, it is ensured to leave the best place on the dining table for elders. If a group of people is having meal, the respectable members are given the place at the head of the table while the rest take their seats accordingly.
Equities of Seating Arrangement
The guests are requested to sit on the assigned seats by the host when they reach the dinner place. In the Chinese tradition, the seating arrangement follows some strict rules and it’s complicated. The first thing that is required is to see who the guest is. Usually, the first place and importance is given to the oldest member of the family. In the American Wild West, the guest of honor is named as “Wild Bill Hickok Seat.”
The first seat that is given to the most respected person of the family gives the best view of the room. If in case there is not seat at the entrance of the room, then the “seat of honor” will be the one facing the eastward position of the room.
The next rule that governs in the seating plan is linked with the ‘social ranking’ of a person. This rule will be applied even if the dinner is of family get-together. They do it to maintain closeness between the family members and the host of the dinner. In banquets, the seating arrangement is followed on the basis of religion.
The person with the highest rank gets a closer seat to the ‘guest of honor.’ However, there is no fixed ranking between the seats on the left side and right side. This provides a huge flexibility to the guests.
The first seat is given to the ‘guest of honor’. After that, the seats on the left side of the chief guest and numbered in even like two, four, and six. On the right side of the chief guest, the seats are numbered in odds like three, five, and seven. Hence, the most prestigious eats after the ‘guest of honor’ will be number two and three.
In a banquet function, the guests occupy several different tables. At this point, the ‘guest of honor’ takes the center table. This way he is visible to everyone and he is becoming a center of attention. The tables that are on the right and left side of the chief guest are filled by the ordinary guest. Here, the ranks of guests are kept in the mind again. The one with highest rank point will get a closer table to the “guest of honor” and it goes on like this.
The host of the banquet event will try to be in touch with every ranked guest so that a good environment will prevail. He will make sure that every guest is attended in the best possible manner. The good thing about Chinese tradition is that etiquettes are being followed whole heartedly. This way, there are no chances of any accident or un-unusual events. This is the best example of the world’s most civilized nation.
In case of a teacher dining with the students, teacher is given the seat of honor with students surrounding the teacher. If the dining table is rectangular, the elder member sits on the shortest side with his face towards the front door. The rest of the people would get seated in the descending order of their ages. However, if you are dining on a round table, the elder member should be seated on the inside seat.
Offering to others:
It is not only the duty of the host to offer the dishes to the fellow members but it is regarded as good manners if you make an offer of a particular to your partner before you take a share for yourself. This indicates that you have come from an educated background and know how to socialize around.
What is Lazy Susan?
The rich culture of China is a matter of interest on account of many reasons. It has some very unique features which are quiet unusual and surprising for the foreigners. Yes! This is to refer to the Lazy Susan. It is a round rotating disc in the centre of the dining table. . There are different materials to make the tray or the disc. However, the most commonly used are wood and glass.
The idea behind the Lazy Susan is to ensure that all the participants have equal extent of accessibility to the served meal. Since the disc can be rotated only if it is round, you would find circular shaped dining tables in most of the Chinese people. The basic purpose of the Lazy Susan is to make everybody realize that each one is honored. This is one of the signs of hospitality and equality.
During the meal, it should be considered that you are not rotating the Lazy Susan for yourself when someone else on the table is serving himself from the main bowl. It is recommended to wait until he gets himself the sufficient quantity of the dish so as to show respect. Also it so happens that while rotating the disk, some of the dish falls off which again leaves a very bad impression on the fellows.
If you want to have something second time, you should wait until the dish takes a complete round so that everyone gets his due share. Also, this is strictly against manners to fill the plate to the maximum. Always serve yourself with a small quantity as you can surely take it second time. Rotating the Lazy Susan backwards is yet another bad habit which should be avoided.
One of the best Chinese table manners is that the host is supposed to be caring if everybody has tried every dish served on the table. Despite the facility of the Lazy Susan, It is expected of host to offer the special dish to all the members present. This is just a simple gesture of showing your concern and respect for others. For guests, it is suggested to politely decline if you do not want to eat something.
How to use Chopsticks?
The use of chopsticks is a must in the Chinese cuisine. It is not only important for you to use the sticks but you should be aware of the correct use of the chopsticks otherwise you would be regarded as an ill-mannered and ill trained person. Therefore, you must have an at least a basic idea about the correct method of using the chopsticks in order to avoid embarrassment.
Firstly, you should be worried about the fact that you hold the stick at the middle or at the top. But what is important is that the ends of the sticks should be maintained at the same level. That implies that one stick should not be lowered than the other. The basic use of the chopsticks is for eating purposes, they should not be used for moving the utensils on the table.
How to use Chopsticks?
If you are not using the chopsticks, you are expected to place them tidily. Since they are used for eating, it should be considered that they are not mishandled. Therefore, after finishing your meal, always place the chopsticks side by side neatly. Another important thing is that it is indecent and ill-mannered on your part if you point at someone with the chopstick as they are to be treated as spoons.
Just like ordinary spoons, the chopsticks can be re-used after washing. However, there might be some disposable chopsticks. Therefore, if they are not disposable, you should be courteous enough to use them only for eating purposes and the things like biting at the ends or tooth picking are highly discouraged. Always try to act respectfully during the meal. If you hit the stick in your plate, this would be childish.
The way the chopsticks are placed in the plates also holds importance in the Chinese culture. Yes, if you do not know how to place the sticks in the plates, the food would be considered to serve the dead people. Similarly, sticks should not be used for trying to find certain special ingredient in the dish. This habit is normally associated with digging of one’s grave which is obviously shameful.
Since Chinese culture is extremely rich and they value the various etiquettes, they have created standards for themselves. This shows that they promote mutual respect and brotherhood in all possible ways which is one of the reasons for their success in the modern world of the 21st century.
In the Chinese dinning etiquette, there are many do and don’ts. They have spent thousands of years in developing these set of values for their society. If you can learn all these etiquette, you won’t find any difficulties as a ‘dinner guest’ in China.