A few (Western) friends have asked me about Chinese dining table customs and manners. So, I thought that I should talk about this a little bit. I say a little bit only because I don’t think I could ever cover the whole range of customs and rules: too many different regions, ethnic groups and social backgrounds. So here I could only just talk about what I know, how I have been educated / influenced by my education, by my strict parents and my ethnic group’s customs. — Hope this is helpful.
Where should I start? — Firstly, dining customs and manners in Chinese culture are all about ‘respect’ — well, sometimes, my husband (from Spain) thinks it is a bit too much, coz that means you have to be conscious all the time – too tiring. Ok, let me start with the story we all learned when we were very little, it is one of the first stories that we had to know in life — ‘Kong Rong Rang Li’, means ‘Kong Rong giving out the pears’.
The Kong Rong Story
It is said that when ‘Kong Rong’ was three years old, (Kong Rong was a politician, scholar, and writer in the late Han Dynasty period, and a 20th generation descendant of Confucius), one day, the whole family was sitting in the living room, and a big plate of pears was served. Kongrong’s dad asked him to pick up the biggest for himself, then give the rest to the others, but Kongrong said, ‘no, I am the youngest, I should take the smallest one, the biggest one should be given to grandpa.’
The story of Kong Rong giving out the pears has been passed on through generations and even written in the textbooks. It became an example of respect towards others, especially, towards older people. (In China, even somebody is one day older than you, you need to show him/her respect as bigger brother/sister.)
Finding a seat and serving food
So this definitely reflects on the dining table manners — for example, how to find a seat. In the West, dining tables are normally rectangular, the host would seat at one end, whereas in China, since the dining table is traditionally round or square, normally the ‘important’ seats are determined by the direction in which they are facing — back toward north and face toward south, as emperors’ seats.
Certain food is served with similar custom. For example, I already mentioned a few times how to place a fish (with head and tail) towards guests for showing respect. And when a new dish is served, it is normally placed in front of the most respected person (often the oldest person) around the table first.
An English friend recently mentioned to me that when he was in China, he did not like others ‘picking up’ the food for him and putting it in his plate — he knows it was a kind of welcome and recommendation, but things he did not like to eat, now he had to, at least, pretending he was trying. — Ha… Yes, I totally agree. I never liked it either, as if you are ‘forced’ to eat rather than just suggested for a try. But, it is a custom, it shows the sincerity and warmth from the host. No matter how many times you say ‘let me help myself’, you cannot stop them, as for them, if they did not do this for you enough, it means they have not been a good host — this is particularly common in Northern China.
Saying Thank You
Many friends (Western friends) of mine have learned to use their fingers to say ‘thank you’. This is because normally when the table is really big, if somebody poured tea for you (for example) from the other side of the table, and then passed to you by turning the ‘top turnable’ part of the table, so it will be too far for you to say thank you; or the waiter/waitress served you a drink, you don’t want to speak out to disturb others talking, you would make almost like a ‘loose’ fist, then use the joints of index and middle fingers to knock at the table couple of times — means that you are saying thank you. But this is a relatively newish custom. It is said, however, that it originated long time ago, when the officials would kneel down in front emperor to show respect.
Passing things over the table
If somebody does pass you a drink (or a gift off the dining table) in person, the other person is supposed to stand up and receive it with both hands — this is a ‘forever custom’, I don’t remember how many times my parents blamed me for not behaving properly, I used to always either forget to stand up or using both hands. (Oh, btw, you know, if it is gift, you are NOT supposed to open it in front of the people who give to you, which is a really bad manner — how different it is to the Western custom!)
As for drinking — the actual custom is bad, particularly bad in Northeast China. Northerners are famous for drinking a lot, and pushing each other hard to drink more. I am saying ‘pushing’ because they would keep on filling up your glass, and every time they would come up with a ‘say’ for ‘cheering’, which you cannot simply refuse. For example, the most common one is ‘if we are in good friendship, let’s have a sip’; ‘if you consider you have a very strong, meaningful friendship, let’s see its bottom’ — to drink off. — How can you say we are not friends, then not drink? So many people end up really drunk.
Ha… Funny, no? And a bit annoying, to me at least. Back in history, it was more common that people would make up a poem or painting when being a bit drunk. Anyway, you ever have chance to experience this, and do not want to drink this way, tell the people on the table at the very very beginning, otherwise, it is difficult to escape later on. :)))
Sharing the same plate of food is a Chinese custom that makes my friends from other cultures a bit uncomfortable or confused. Well, I can see their points, but it is a custom. In many occasions, there will be spoons served along with the dishes, so you can use the common spoons to bring food to your bowl. However, good manner is to use your own chopstick start picking food from the edge of the dish first, never pick up the centre, or choose the pieces, which might involve touching the other pieces that you are leaving others to eat. In fact, this is one of the main judgements for if a person has very good eating manner or not.
Finishing all the food?
And should you finish the all plates in front of you? — Depends. If you are with close friends and family, yes, this means that you are not wasting, and respecting others’ labour, but if you are invited to a very formal dinner, then no. Always leave a little bit food on the plates, otherwise the host would panic and think that the food was not enough, or others might think you rarely have the chance to eat, that’s why you are eating for all. — Ha.. This is a secret, never a real, publicly admitted manner, but it is from ‘inside’ story’, so very useful.
Making noise when eating
One last thing, actually I have been asked many times why Chinese make noise when eating. Ha… This is not really a Chinese custom, rather a Japanese or Korean custom. My Japanese and Korean friends told me that especially when eating noodles, you need to make some sounds, which shows how much you enjoy the food. Where in China, it is not considered a very good manner, however, people are used to it. It sounds strange, but, hey, if we are in Rome, we do as Romans do. :))
— So now, I have got to finish this post, and get ready for a formal English dinner with my English dining table manners. :))