Eating as a family or large group is a big part of Chinese culture and certain rules of etiquette apply. Showing good Chinese table manners is thought to bring luck, while breaking certain taboo rules reflects poorly on your parents who should have taught you better.
While you'll quickly be forgiven for mistakes, you can demonstrate a knowledge of Chinese culture and show more respect by knowing a few rules ahead of time.
The number one rule for Chinese table manners in a big or formal setting is to simply relax, observe, and let others lead the way! Your hosts will undoubtedly understand your nervousness and will do everything they can to ease you into the situation -- the rules of saving face apply to dining as well.
- See the difference: what is authentic Chinese food?
The chair facing the entrance (or east, if possible) is reserved for the person of the highest status or the guest of honor. In a formal setting, the closer that guests are seated to the person of high status -- also usually the one picking up the bill at the end of the meal -- the higher their rank.
Allow the eldest or highest ranking person at the table to lift their chopsticks first before you touch yours. If you are the guest of honor, others may be waiting for you to start!
Surprisingly, you won't see white rice on the table. Rice is often served in individual bowls at the end of the meal, or you can supplement your food by asking your server for an individual bowl of rice; others will do the same so follow their lead.
Even though you may be nervous and would like one, don't expect a beer before your meal -- it will probably come with the food -- and don't drink alcohol alone!
See what to expect from a basic Chinese table setting.
Good Chinese Table Manners
- If you are provided a cloth napkin, place it with the corner tucked under your plate so that it hangs in your lap.
- When taking a break, leave your chopsticks on the side of your plate or bowl; use the chopstick rests if they are provided or lay them even and tidy on the table. Leaving your chopsticks on top of the bowl is a sign that you have finished and the server may remove it!
- It is common to lift your bowl and use the chopsticks to push rice into your mouth.
- Making slurping noises when eating noodles or drinking soup is acceptable.
- Spitting small bones out onto the plate or into an empty bowl is acceptable and preferable to removing them from your mouth with hands or chopsticks.
- If no serving utensils are present, turn your chopsticks around when moving food from communal bowls to your own plate. Don't use the ends that go into your mouth!
Bad Table Manners
- Remember, even though chopsticks are fun for people who didn't grow up using them daily, they are still eating utensils! Would you spin, tap, play drums, or point at something with your fork and knife at home?
- Do not use your chopsticks to point at food or for gesturing in the air while talking.
- Do not leave your chopsticks pointing directly at someone across the table.
- Do not click your chopsticks together to make a noise, use them as drumsticks, or to move anything other than food.
- Do not suck sauce off the ends of your chopsticks, even at the end of the meal.
- Do not spear food that you are having difficulty holding onto. It is acceptable to impale food as a way to tear it apart on the plate, then pick up the smaller pieces as you normally would.
- Do not use your hands to handle food. Lift large pieces of meat with your chopsticks and nibble.
- Do not dig around or pick through your food with your chopsticks to find a special morsel.
Important Chinese Dining Etiquette
While most infractions of basic Chinese table manners will be immediately forgiven, prevent any potential embarrassment of yourself or your host by closely observing the following:
- Passing a piece of food to someone with your chopsticks -- or receiving food by snatching it with your chopsticks -- is extremely taboo. The gesture is too similar to the passing of cremated bones at funerals between loved ones with chopsticks. If you must pass food, put it on the recipient's plate!
- Do not leave your chopsticks stuck vertically in food. The visual looks too much like incense sticks burned at temples or as offerings to dead ancestors.
- When toothpicks are supplied at the end of a meal, use your other hand to cover your mouth while you dig between your teeth.
Chinese Drinking Etiquette
As with eating, drinking is done communally. If beer is ordered, you will receive a glass that will be filled from communal beers, probably at the same time the food arrives. Having an alcoholic drink before the food arrives is unusual, however, you may have tea, water, or juice before your meal.
You can drink water and tea whenever you feel like, but alcohol should not be consumed alone. Drink only after a toast is given, or at the least, lift your glass to someone nearby, make eye contact, and say gan bei which means "empty glass."
When taking shots of baijiu, no matter how fiery, you are expected to empty your glass after the toast! Your glass will be immediately refilled after each toast in preparation for the next one.
Eating with a Lazy Susan
At really large settings you may encounter a 'lazy susan' in the center of a big table. The lazy susan is a rotating surface, usually glass, that spins so that guests can reach all the dishes rather than passing plates around the table as done in the West.
Avoid bumping or turning the lazy susan whenever someone is serving themselves from the communal dishes. Trying to guess the timing of when a dish will come around is tricky, so don't be shy!
Keeping the good or more expensive dishes (i.e., the meat or fish) near to yourself is considered rude. Allow them to circulate the table before you spin them back to your own plate.
- See more about Chinese banquette dining etiquette.
Paying the Bill
Now that the meal is finished, it's time to play a little game that everyone knows is coming: who will pick up the check.
Ultimately refusing to allow your host to pay for a meal, no matter how expensive, is extremely rude and insinuates that they cannot afford to pay. That being said, you should still argue for the opportunity to pay at least two or three times, but always give in and graciously accept the hospitality of your host.
Failing to argue over the bill insinuates that your host owes you something. Thank them many times after it is agreed they will take the bill.
Tipping is not customary in China. In some places, a service charge may already be added to the bill, so there is no need to volunteer to cover the tip out of courtesy when someone else pays.
See more about tipping in Asia.