Chinese dinner table etiquette: A novel in one part.

Chinese dinner table etiquette: A novel in one part.

The seat of honour.

It has been a weekend of firsts for me. My first taste of century egg, first chicken foot, first frog, first panda pig (although I didn’t realise it at the time, despite the meat being so tender it virtually dissolved in my mouth), first jellyfish and first hairy crab (which I didn’t have to kill myself!). More importantly, I got to experience three distinctly different dinners with the generous people of this country. As the current project nears its end in Shanghai, we had the obligatory celebration parties. Friday with the client and top management (it’s a great industry to be in when the client pays for dinner!), Saturday  with the rest of the staff – everyone from the laundry lady to the mechanic and finally, last night, with the client, his family and friends. What a fantastic experience! Even though this was not my first night out with the locals, it was the first time I made a point of observing the similarities and differences in traditions, manners and customs between these three very different groups of people. Dinner in China can be a bit daunting. It is often held in a private dining room in a restaurant, which really puts you in the spotlight a bit. There are no crying babies or waitresses dropping things to distract other people when the pork you just tried to pick up goes skidding across the table like a little soy sauce covered bobsledder. And when you are there with the “important” people, it gets even more nerve wracking. Where do you sit? Where will the boss sit? What rituals should you follow? Will you be expected to bow without falling over or catch a fly with your chopsticks to prove your worth or spit on the floor to fit in? What if you comment that you’re a fan of Toyota and single-handedly bring an end to all future business dealings? But I realised very quickly that none of this is important. Food is a great equiliser and our hosts (and by hosts I mean of the country and not necessarily of the meal) were more concerned that we were having a good time and enjoying what they had ordered for us than whether we could handle our chopsticks like a boss. That said, learning a little bit about what to expect and what is expected of you when attending a dinner is just good manners. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

For the most part all the general rules of polite behaviour apply and where you are and who you are eating with will determine to a great extend which customs you should honour. The more formal the occasion, the stricter the protocol. On Friday night when the client was entertaining business associates, most of the procedures below were followed. On Saturday night… well… if people are falling off their chairs drunk then you can be sure no one gives a crap whether you took the last crab for yourself and on Sunday with the family and friends, it really was just like your average family dinner at home. You’d have Aunt Marge who would glare down her nose at you if you put your elbows on the table, but you’d also have loud Uncle Al who spits his bones out straight into his plate and chews with his mouth open. When in doubt, take your cue from the people around you and err on the side of propriety. Here are (quite) a few things to remember:

Meeting and greeting:

– As with any dinner, show up on time and dress well. You will feel more comfortable delicately spitting out that piece of pickled jellyfish into your napkin when no one is watching if you’re wearing heels and something pretty when everyone else is in jeans than if you’ve got your favourite T-shirt on and everyone else is in cuffs and collars. (Obviously if you’re a guy then don’t do the heels and something pretty, unless your host is a lady boy.) As a rule of thumb, if you’ll feel comfortable wearing it to the NG church, you’re probably okay.

– When you enter a room, greet the oldest person first. Remain standing when you are being introduced to someone and don’t take it personally if they don’t look particularly impressed with you as many Chinese are taught not to show too much emotion. Conversely, if you are greeted with applause, don’t assume it’s cause you’re awesome. Just applaud back.

– A good old fashioned handshake is completely okay – no bowing needed. Despite having zero personal space the Chinese are not physical people. Do not hug them or pat them on the back. But as with all good parties, this becomes a moot point when the baijiu starts flowing and the “I love you man” hugs are initiated by your Chinese friends.

– Use the person’s title before their name when addressing them, unless specifically told not to. Even if they’re just introduced as John, you call them Mr. John. Keep in mind that when being introduced to someone, the family name will be mentioned first. So Cheng Gordon becomes Mr. Cheng unless he tells you to call him Gordon. This applies everywhere, no matter how informal the event or what rank the person occupies in the company.

The seating arrangements:

– Wait to be told where to sit by the host and wait for the guest of honour to either sit down first, or to be told by the host to sit down.

– The guest of honour will be given the seat facing the door. This is known as the seat of honour. At more formal occasions that seat’s napkin might also be folded differently to the rest. At a round table the seats on the left hand side of the seat of honour are second, fourth, sixth, etc in importance, while those on the right are third, fifth, seventh and so on in importance, until they join together. At a square table, the right seat facing the door (or East if there is no clear main entrance) is considered the seat of honour.

Utensils and crockery

– Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can probably use chopsticks to some extent. (They’d also make useful utensils for digging yourself out from under a rock, come to think of it). Even though your host will probably organise knives and forks to make Westerners feel more comfortable, it will be appreciated if you make an effort to fit in with the Chinese way of doing things.

– Never use your chopsticks to pierce food as you would with a fork, but you can use them to break up bigger pieces of food as you would with the side of a spoon. When you aren’t using them, place them on the rests provided  (if none are provided, you are probably in a place that supplies disposable chopsticks so you can use the wrapper they came in to make a makeshift rest). Never stick them standing up in a dish (it is a harbinger of death) and never lick them (unless you are trying on purpose to be suggestive, in which case you better know your audience). Don’t pretend you’re Travis Barker and use them as drumsticks. Don’t use them to make walrus teeth. Don’t use them as sharp poking devices. Just eat with them. Of course, if you’re at the type of party where someone is already dancing on the table, then feel free to play a tune on the table top to provide the beat.

– When you have finished eating, place the chopsticks across the lowest part of your plate, facing left. I found that, as with Westerners who seem to have forgotten how to use their knives and forks to indicate that their meal is done, this doesn’t really happen here either. But it’s the polite thing to do and it makes the server’s job easier, so listen to your mother.

– It is completely acceptable to lift bowls to your mouth when eating rice, noodles, soup or anything else that is messy and can be slurped or shovelled into your mouth. You should hold your bowl with your thumb on the mouth of the bowl with the first finger, middle finger and third finger supporting the bottom of the bowl. Don’t slurp from plates.


– When food is placed in the centre of the table (usually on a revolving tray), it is intended to be shared by everyone at the table. Do not start dishing up until the host or guest of honour has started, or until you have been told to do so by one of them. It is an honour to have someone dish up food for you (especially if it is the host), so be sure to thank them with the necessary respect when they do (also, be sure to come hungry because this tends to happen a lot!). If you are full, leave a little food in your plate otherwise more will be served to you. It is considered an honour to the host to declare that you are full as it indicates that you have been fed well. It is good manners to serve food and tea to those around you before serving yourself. An extra set of chopsticks will usually be placed with the dish to be used for dishing up. Never use your own chopsticks to dish up from a communal dish unless a spare set has not been provided. If you are serving for someone else, use their chopsticks to do so.

– More expensive dishes such as veal, abalone, and rare fish (please forgive me creatures of the Earth!) will be portioned by the servers and served individually to ensure that every person gets a piece. And while on this subject, be prepared for topics of conversation that are generally considered off limits in polite Western circles, such as the cost of the meal. Guests as well as the host will go on about how expensive some of the dishes are. I suppose this could aid in helping you understand how much you are being honoured and appreciate what you’re eating more, but hearing that the 500ml bottle of rice wine opened especially for us cost in excess of RMB5000 (US$800) made it taste no less like rocket fuel. (I don’t actually know what rocket fuel tastes like, but this stuff would power one.)

– You should try everything that is offered to you and you should do it without pulling a face. This is easier said than done. YOU try not pulling a face the first time you have to put century egg in your mouth! Fortunately the guests also tend to get more of a kick out of watching you trying what they know will be weird to you at the less formal dinners and will probably take photos when they think you’re not looking. At a posh dinner, if you really can’t stomach that fish eye, accept it graciously, try and cover it with a bit of bok choy or something and just leave it on your plate. I firmly believe in trying everything at least twice, but even then the left side of my plate is eventually a graveyard of uneaten weirdness. Fortunately, in a good restaurant your plate will be changed for a clean one fairly often.

– Rice or a large pot of noodles is normally served at the end of the meal only, the idea being that you fill up on that should you still be a bit peckish. If you are I suggest a deworming tablet because you are certainly not eating for one then! At most dinners they will order at least the same amount of dishes as the number of guests, plus one. Unless the plus one will result in an uneven number of dishes as that is considered bad luck. Serve the rice or noodles into the little bowl provided, so that it’s easier to eat.

– Do not put bones in your bowl or plate. Place them on the table or in a special bowl for that purpose. Ditto with shells. A typical Chinese table looks like a tiny pet cemetery after a meal with bones and shells everywhere. Last night, bones were being spat straight into plates, so take your cue from fellow diners on this one or just avoid anything with bones (which is virtually impossible).

– You will never find salt and pepper on the table and asking for it is considered rude. Small bowls of soy sauce will most likely be provided and is either used as a sauce dribbled over your food or as a dipping sauce.

– Don’t take the last piece of food from a communal platter. Even though Emsie Schoeman would tell you to leave it as a sign that there was enough food, when in China serve it to someone else. If someone is attempting to give you the last of something, they are trying to honour you.

– Dessert is not really eaten, but you may be served mooncakes or fresh fruit at the end of the meal. Sweet dishes such as lotus root with glutinous rice are served with the rest of the dishes.


– The host begins eating and drinking first, but tea will be served to you the moment you sit down and you can quench your thirst on that so long, so step away from the wine until the boss has his first sip. The host will also be the first to make a toast. Chinese women are not expected to consume alcoholic beverages, but the times they are a’ changing. And even if they haven’t, I tried the damn century egg, so I’m having my wine. Tea cups will never be allowed to run dry so if you don’t want yours refilled leave a little in the bottom. Tapping your teacup is a way of saying thanks.

An evening of toasting.

– Drinking is an important part of Chinese entertaining and is a universal ice breaker. The drinking officially begins after the host offers a short toast to the group. Thereafter, the rest of the evening is spent “honouring” each guest by toasting them. Individuals, couples or groups will spend the entire evening moving around the table to drink with everyone else at the table and you are expected to return the favour. So do the math. You will drink at least twice with each person. In fact, you should honour the same person twice in one evening as it is considered good luck for that person. So that’s four times per person. When you are toasting with 56%vol baijiu this is bad, bad news indeed. If you can’t move around the table, simply making eye contact and raising your glass is sufficient. When toasting with the whole table, glasses are tapped on the table top before drinking as a substitute for clinking glasses. When toasting with an individual, touching glasses with your rim lower than theirs is a sign of respect.

– If the toaster says “gan bei” then it’s bottoms up, so try and keep your glass on the empty side. Yeah right. Good luck with that.

– Do not pour your own drink and feel free to tell the host when you feel you have had enough. Expect such pleas to fall on deaf ears at the more informal parties (it’s sort of like a Friday night braai back home really). If you are not a drinker, claim that it is so for health reasons rather than moral ones. While it is not advisable to get drunk at a posh party, inebriation is encouraged at the informal ones and the booze will typically not stop flowing until at least one important guest has fallen over (I have not been able to verify the veracity of this statement, but after witnessing this for three years running, my husband guarantees me it is so. And as we had to carry one of our party up to his room on Friday night, I have to believe it is true).


– Respect rank and seniority. Serve food to the more important guests first. Again, this falls apart at an informal dinner. There, just about the only rule is to not be stingy when filling the guy you’re clinking with’s glass.

– If you are going to smoke, offer a cigarette to others. It is not customary in China for smokers to first ask whether smoking is okay before lighting up. Just smile and hope your asthma inhaler still has a few pumps in it for when you get home.

– Use an open hand instead of a finger to point and gesture.

– Burping, spitting and other yucky bodily functions: This is one thing that I will never get used to here. Dainty little ladies burp like troopers and just about everyone spits wherever they please. You are not likely to encounter spitting at a posh dinner, but don’t be surprised if someone hucks one back and spits right there on the dining room floor at a more informal evening. Burping and slurping are not considered rude and will even be used as an indication that someone is enjoying their food with gusto. I’m not sure what our char’s excuse is for letting them off every two minutes while she’s cleaning.

As for the rest, eat with your mouth closed, don’t stuff your mouth too full and generally follow the usual etiquette for polite eating. Remember that your hosts are also quite aware that you have different customs, so they’re probably far less concerned about your getting it right than you are. What matters to them most is that you enjoy the evening, show your appreciation and honour your fellow guests.

Flick through the gallery for images of some of the stranger dishes you might encounter at a Chinese dinner party. Rest assured that the good old standby’s such as prawns, ribs, stir fries and recognisable vegetables will also be in plentiful supply. I have not necessarily used the names off menus (you probably won’t even get to see one anyway, as the host will order), but with names like “Impregnable chicken wings”, “The wild germ hates soup with crisp skin” and “The chicken has no sexual experience” (petit poussin to you), the menu won’t help you much anyway. Hosts are sensitive to our different eating habits, but you should still expect to encounter a few doozies, especially when eating with the average guy on the street.

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