Cultural & Business Guide

Sharing food, sharing business


Table manners have a significant place in Chinese customs, because the Chinese believe that dining is not only a way to meet basic physical needs, but also serve as the most important Chinese social experience.

Traditional chopsticks

Chopsticks is the main Chinese cutlery. There are some rules to follow when using chopsticks. First of all, when you are at the same table with the head of a Chinese company and older people, every time a new dish comes to the table let them have the honour to help themselves with their chopsticks first. This is a great way to show your respect (or to acknowledge their importance).

When serving yourself, you should first visually spot the piece of food you want to take from the plate (normally the piece nearest you). Then when you use the chopsticks to pick up that food, try to avoid touching other food in the same dish, or poking/turning over/ stirring the food in the dish.

If possible, use the serving chopsticks and spoons rather than your own utensils. Having eaten or taken the food from the plate, always put your personal or public chopsticks back to the chopsticks holder.

Moreover, it is a good idea to let the food rest in your bowl for a little bit before you eat. With such a transition period you will give the other guests the impression of not having food with urgency and that you are not so hungry.

In addition, lifting the rice bowl close to your lips and using chopsticks to shove the rice straight into your mouth (this is the easiest method of eating even for the Chinese), shows the host that you like the meal!

Something to avoid is playing with chopsticks at the table. Additionally, some practices, like using chopsticks as drumsticks, pointing people with chopsticks or using them as part of hand gestures are considered extremely rude. Sticking chopsticks in rice is even worse: it looks like the dishes are being left for the dead as ths view is reminiscent of incenses in the incense burner prepared for a funeral, which is perceived as very unlucky by the Chinese!

The bottom line is that chopsticks are to be used only for serving and eating, not for anything else (pick your teeth/nose, spear your food, or hit your rice bowl to create sound)!

Dining etiquette at a formal Chinese table

A formal dinner normally last from three to five hours, considering that you must wait for everyone to arrive at the location and that the event will not start until all the attendees appear. Taking into account, before anything starts you may have to wait for someone who is going to be late.

Once everyone is in place, the host is finally able to make the introductory remarks and toasts.

A Chinese style banquet (and an appropriate formal Chinese meal) includes some cold dishes to stimulate the appetite at the beginning, followed by a pot of hot soup that is served to help increase everyone’s body temperature. After the hot soup, the taste of entrées begins, where one of the entrées is necessarily spicy (to balance the taste), because spicy entrées with plain rice can make everything else taste mild, light and fragrant.

Since the Chinese believe that even numbers (except for number four) are lucky, the number of courses may vary from as many as sixteen up to even sixty-four (and one hundred twenty-eight for emperor-style feast) on a luxurious banquet down to an average of six to twelve dishes for a normal banquet. Therefore, is not difficult to understand why a formal Chinese dinner is a quiet long social event. The dessert is the final part of a meal. In China desserts can be even in the form of a soup, such as red beans sand, sesame paste, almond tofu, etc. Of course, there are also other types of desserts with western influences, such as pudding, pancakes, ice cream, or simply just seasonal fresh fruits.

The eating strategy is to sample (eat a little bit of) all dishes served. Since Chinese dishes have their own characteristics, you should always taste them individually. For this purpose, it is a good idea to have each dish in your bowl, one by one with rice, so as not to mix the tastes and flavours. Do not forget to give a compliment about the food to the host.

During the meal, you should keep both of your hands on top of the table. Your eating pace should be synchronized with your host (neither too fast, nor too slow). Smoking is usually not allowed even if you have the consent of your neighbors. The best practice is to step outside of the restaurant to smoke if you absolutely have to do so.

If you have any food allergies, do write them on a tag or a piece of paper 我对 xxxx 过敏 Wo dui xxxx guo min (I am allergic to something). Remember to always keep this tag with you and prior to the formal meal (as early as possible), you should show it to your host. In this way, he or she can arrange the food and drink in the meal without any ingredient you are allergic to. This arrangement is necessary to be placed by your hosts in order to avoid embarrassing or harming you in the particular dinner he or she is hosting.

Drinks in a Chinese feast

During a feast, the Chinese host takes a very proactive role, and it is his or her duty to urge the guests eating and drinking freely, so it is definitely common for the host to personally serve guests the food and drinks. The host always turns the glass or wooden tray rotating on the table and takes care of the vast majority of guests by making sure that all the dishes and drinks are easily reachable.

A Chinese meal without tea is not a formal Chinese meal anymore, because the Chinese believe that tea is the most refreshing beverage, and especially for a feast, tea helps washing away grease. In order to fill up the teapot, guests just need to open the lid and leave it on the top of the teapot to show the teapot is out of water.

There is an order when serving tea, which follows age and gender, starting with the oldest to the youngest person, first female then male. After all, if you serve tea, you can pour it in your cup (the maximum recommended amount is approx. 80% of a cup capaity). On the other hand, when you receive tea from someone, you can tap the table lightly, and by doing so you demonstrate your gratefulness to the person serving you the tea.

In China they always say that 无酒不成席 Wu Jiu Bu Cheng Xi, which means that a feast is not a feast without Baijiu 白酒 (strong alcoholic liquor). There are a few points you always have to bear in mind about Chinese toasts, and they are:

  • First of all, try to avoid drinking alcohol on an empty stomach. TO do so, is a very good idea to eat something before the feast starts;
  • During the first half of the feast you should wait your host and the hosting party to make toasts (you should only receive toasts);

Then, during the second half of the feast, if you are up for it, you can reciprocate toast to your host with short and sincere comments, and you had better stay in your seat during your round of toasts (which is opposite to the Chinese behavior: walking around the table while making toasts)

The bottom line is that no matter whatever kind of drinks will be served (tea, alcoholic or non-alcoholic), always remember the Chinese rule of pouring a drink for the others first, and for yourself last.

Do not be surprised that in China in order to indicate that a feast is over, the host of the feast will simply rise up, stand next to the entrance for good-bye greetings to his or her guests. This is a decisive and useful way of e Chinese to bring the occasion to an end and it goes without saying that no guest should leave the feast before the host.

In conclusion, you have to take into consideration that Chinese table manners are decisive for some critical formal occasions, the knowledge and practice of common sense courtesy may help you to relax, avoid embarrassment, and focus on the things that really matters to you!

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