China Travel Tips: Table Manners
Every culture has its own set of customs when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t do at the dinner table. Below is CLI's list of Chinese table manners that will help you further immerse yourself in Chinese culture.
The guest of honor or most important person at the table sits facing the door. This is called shangzuo (上座, the seat of honor). On either side of the guest of honor are other VIPs. This way the VIPs can see everyone as they come to the table. The host will often sit directly across from the guest of honor to help serve.
Serve Others First
Whenever you scoop rice, pour a beverage, or take a napkin from the packet of napkins, check to see if the people next to you need the item you're reaching for before you serve yourself.
Tapping Your Fingers for Thanks
When you serve someone a beverage, the individual will often tap one or two fingers on the table very gently to show their appreciation. This does not mean "stop pouring"; it means "thanks".
The story behind this is that long ago an emperor wanted to experience life outside the palace, so he dressed in civilian clothes and was escorted by his guards. While outside, the emperor poured a drink for his servant. The servant wanted to express his gratitude, but didn’t want to reveal the emperor’s identity by bowing, so instead the servant made a bowing motion with his fingers.
When pouring alcohol, including beer, liquor/baijiu, and sometimes even wine, fill the cup or glass to the absolute brim. However, water, juice, or soda should fill the cup or glass close to the top, but not completely.
Whenever clinking glasses to cheers, the lower you strike someone else’s glass the better. This results in an amusing struggle to see who can go lowest. The person striking lowest is showing respect for the other person by expressing a sense that they are "below" that person.
When someone "cheers" with you, it is almost always a "ganbei!" (干杯！Bottoms up! -- literally "dry glass"). If you are uncertain, watch to see how much the other person drinks and don’t stop until they do. Glasses are small for this reason. Of course, this often results in pressure to drink more than you may want. If you find yourself in this situation, it is socially acceptable to wave off calls for a "ganbei!" with your own lighthearted retort of "Banbei! Banbei!" (半杯！) -- a humorous call to consume a "half glass" rather than "drying the glass" -- in which case you may drink a small amount.
Try to have an individual cheers with everyone at the table. This often means you will need to stand up and walk around the table. If there are many tables, try to share a cheers with each table.
If any dish is served with communal spoons or chopsticks, be sure not to use your own utensils to grab food; use the communal ones.
Which Bowls to Use
The small plate is often used for scraps (e.g. bones), but some people like to eat from it too. In many particularly bendi (本地, local) restaurants, you may see scraps discarded directly on the tabletop or even on the floor.
The tiny dish is for a spicy pepper/soy sauce mixture called lajiao jiang (辣椒酱).
The small ceramic cup is for your Chinese tea.
The small transparent glass is for beer, juice, soda, or any other beverage.
The spoon is for your own use, or it can be donated to a dish to be used communally.
Most eating is done from your bowl. Some people keep their bowl on the table, while others bring the bowl to their mouth.
Things to Avoid
Just like your mother taught you, don’t point with your utensils; the same goes for chopsticks.
Finish the food in your bowl (not including rice) before you add more.
Don't leave your chop sticks in your rice bowl, especially not sticking up vertically (this resembles and is associated with funerary customs).
Don’t spin the lazy Susan if someone is taking food from it. And when spinning do so slowly so as not to knock anything over.
Wait until the end of the meal to serve rice unless someone asks for it earlier. Rice is the cheapest item on the table and it's very filling.
Don’t openly pick things from your teeth. Cover your mouth with your other hand when you are using a toothpick.
Splitting the bill (or “AA” as they often say in Chinese) is rare in China. Usually the person who invites pays. It is still polite to take out your wallet and make an effort to pay even if you know you will be denied.
If you really want to pay but know they won’t let you, sneak off after the food is served and pay when no one is looking. Another option is to pay for KTV, drinks, or dessert after dinner. If none of this works, at least say, "Xia ci wo qingke!" (下次我请客！Next time is on me!).
Eating is a large part of Chinese culture and many business deals and friendships are formed over a meal. These tips will help you as you travel about in China and dive further into Chinese culture on your own.
To find out more about Chinese eating habits, check out our article on Guilin rice noodles, explore the ins and outs of surviving as a vegetarian in China, or delve into the history of spicy food in China with our post on chili peppers.