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Chinese Etiquette - Table Manners
Table Manners

Food is very central to the Chinese psyche, and meals are always communal. Chinese people love to eat out at restaurants whenever possible, or invite friends round for dinner

Chinese table manners can vary depending upon which part of China you are in. There are also normal and formal versions, so for this study I will keep things simple, and in cases of Regional differences, will use the Guangzhou Cantonese style

You may find some common practices alarming at first, but usually by the time you have mastered using chopsticks, the reasons for the relevant behaviour have also become apparent. Chinese will also find a few common Western table manners as being barbaric!

Please also read more about types of Food here, and types of Restaurants here

A Normal Table Description
First a brief description for those who have never been to China before

A Chinese table is usually round with a central glass rotator we call a 'Lazy Susan'. A normal place setting consists of: Large dish, small dish, main bowl, tea bowl, glass, chopsticks, toothpick, and a Chinese spoon. There will also be a pack of tissues, normally charged at Y 1 extra

Rice is served as a separate bowl, as is soup. In higher class eateries there will be a rest for your chopsticks, and sometimes larger chopsticks of a different colour (Orange), which are only used for serving, never for eating with

Specialist restaurants may not use a Lazy Susan, but instead have a gas, electric or solid fuel ring set in the table centre. Usually these have a very large cooking bowl with a central separator for different styles, like spicy and coconut milk. This is usually for a communal cooking where you cook the food yourself, although sometimes a very large cooked casserole is served instead. Some restaurants have variations such as individual cooking pots for each place setting

Street bars will be lower class, and use square tables outside which are easy to combine for extra diners. In case of rain they will cover you all with large pop-up shelters. Here the basic items are a dish, bowl, tea bowl, glass, and chopsticks only

Virtually everywhere will have English cutlery, although it may take them a while to actually find it. Because of the way Chinese cuisine is presented to table, you may well find chopsticks are far easier once you get the hang of them

Table Etiquette - Placement and Ordering

This is normally quite simple, with just a few rules for your to remember. You are the Host below, although there are very few special duties involved at table.

1. The Host should arrive first and sit opposite the door (Or direction from which guests arrive)
2. It is normal for the Host or his representative to arrive 30 minutes early. The Host should be at table at least 15 minutes early. Guests will arrive 10 minutes early
3. Normally only tea is served, but you may order beer or soft drinks whilst awaiting the arrival of good friends only
4. Once everyone is present, as Host you should order the food. Select dishes that everyone will like, and not just your personal favourites. After ordering a few basic dishes, enquire if guests would like to select from the menu. You can also go and select live produce, which can be very interesting. Fish are usually chosen this way
5 . There is no seating plan, but you may consider making one, as this can help make for a great evening.
6 . Order at least one more main dish than the number of people present. Ask the girls present to order a dish of Greens they all like also
7 . Tables for 6 or 8 people tend to work best, as you can order a good selection of dishes and know there will be little waste. Tables for 2 or 3 tend to have restricted choice of dishes, whilst tables for 12 or more tend to offer each guest only 1 or 2 items from each dish
8 . Be aware of who are in actuality the most important people present
9 . Offer selected cuts from dishes to honoured people by placing them in their bowls
10 . Soup is normally served first
11. Most chinese order bowls of rice halfway through the meal. A man is judged by how many bowls of rice he can eat (3 is considered very good)
12. Complimentary fruit is served last
13. Otherwise dishes arrive in the order they are cooked. Therefore traditional sweet dishes may often arrive first. To eat a sweet last, order it when the meal is almost completed
14. The most revered dish is normally fish
15. The Host must pay for the meal. 'Going Dutch' is unheard of in China, and doing so will cause extreme offence!. However, lucky money called 'Lai Xi' may be given publicly in special red envelopes, and is considered a compliment - do not open it table!

Table Manners - Eating
There are very few of these, even at formal dinners. Beginning with informal meeting between good friends and progressing, these are:

1. Never cross your chopsticks - this is very bad luck and may cause a famine. Always put them to rest lying side by side
2. Crossing your chopsticks whilst using them to eat is also very bad, this time showing you have no personal skills and are like a small child.
3. Always wash your hands before eating

4 . A standard arrangement is: Large dish, small dish on top, main bowl containing spoon on top of these
5 . Leave the spoon in the bowl always and use the chopsticks only if possible. The spoon will act as a sieve
6 . If there is no chopstick rest, then either place them on a dish or on top of your main bowl when not in use. In Canton, placing them on the bowl is normal and preferred. In other parts of China this is considered common. Do what others are doing
7 . Chinese food is always served complete, and on the bone. These can be a bones nightmare. Spit out bones directly onto the table in front of you, or onto one of your dishes. Shellfish will give you quite a mound, and if you use the dish, this will be replaced with a clean one regularly. In this situation, place the dish separately for this purpose
8 . Never eat anything using your fingers, it is extremely offensive!
9 . If there is no option, like in MacDonald's for example, use a tissue to hold the burger with

More formal:
11 . Use the chopstick rest always
12 . Always only use the serving chopsticks for serving, and always only use the ordinary chopsticks for eating with
13 . Some dishes, like round glazed mushrooms can be extremely slippery to deal with. It is ok to use a spoon for serving these. Request one for the dishes in question, and use your personal spoon to assist eating them as required
14 . Large items like pork knuckles, fish heads, or dumpling can be difficult to pick up because of their width. Consider altering the way you hold the chopsticks, so the gap between them is bigger. You can also stab an item with one of the chopsticks making it very easy to handle. I would not do this at a very formal meal however
15. Never ever touch food directly with your fingers!
16. Wash your hands after a meal, and always wash them after handling money

If in doubt, wait and see what other people are doing and not doing, then copy them
Related Pages: Etiquette;   Tea,   Beer,   Table Manners
This information is as supplied by the Chinese Embassy in UK, as dated 20th June 2008, and/or other reliable sources. This particular page also contains my personal, unbiased, and apolitical observations. Please check this information yourself as it may alter without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
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