Dining in China: Essential Etiquette and Customs to Know

Meals in China can be daunting for those not familiar with local manners and customs, but these 10 tips will help you enjoy the rich experience of dining in China.

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Dining in China 101

Whether you’re in China for business, vacation or visiting friends and family, dining is one of the most enriching activities you can do here. China is an incredibly hospitable country and gracious hosts take their duties very seriously. Too much food and too much drink are the hallmarks of a good dinner. Basic universal manners and common sense will get you through most dining situations and your fellow diners will likely be understanding that you’re not familiar with the intricacies of Chinese culture. They will happily help you without embarrassing you. Follow the lead of your host and others, and understand that showing respect is the underlining theme of Chinese table manners. Here are just a few tips that will impress your fellow diners and further your bonding experience.

1: Don't Sit Facing the Entryway

The seat facing the entryway of a home or restaurant is reserved as a place of honor, typically for the oldest guest or the host. If you're not sure where to sit, identify this seat and don't sit in it unless you're invited too, which is an honor. Do not turn down the seat invitation.

2: Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks in a Bowl

Don’t place your chopsticks in a bowl, especially a bowl of rice because it resembles incense used during funerals. Place your chopsticks evenly on the rim of the bowl or plate, or use your chopstick rest if provided, while you take a drink or pass food. Also, don't ever pass or receive food with chopsticks, as this resembles the passing of bones after a cremation during funerals.

3: Don't Get Cross

Don't let your chopsticks cross when resting them as it resembles an X, meaning denial or otherwise having negative connotations. Also, don't rub your chopsticks together as it insinuates that they are cheap and have splinters or are dirty, which is disrespectful to the host.

4: Do Use Two Hands When Passing Items

Aside from preventing accidents, using two hands to pass food to others or to receive an item shows respect and will be appreciated. Rest your chopsticks appropriately before doing so.

5: Don't Double Dip

Chinese dinners are communal, usually the food is placed on a lazy Susan in the middle of a round table. When invited to begin by the host or guest of honor, diners select food from the dish in front of them to place in their bowl or on their plate. The lazy Susan is then rotated to the next selection. Always turn the lazy Susan clockwise, and make sure no one else is reaching for food before turning. Usually, you will have two sets of chopsticks, one for eating and another pair for serving yourself. This way chopsticks that are placed in mouths don’t touch other people’s food. If there are no serving chopsticks, you may request some from the waiter, or simply reverse your eating chopsticks to the thicker end to show others that you’re not using the end that you place in your mouth.

6: Leave a Little

When eating in a restaurant or at a banquet, leaving food in your bowl or plate shows that there was plenty and that you were well fed. Conversely, cleaning your plate and asking for seconds in a private home shows that the host is a good cook and is appreciated. Never dig around for pieces of food that you like, such as picking the meat out of a meat and vegetable dish. Take an equal amount of all food being served, otherwise, it's as if you're passing the less desirable parts to your fellow diners. It's fine to let a dish that you don't want pass by.

7: Do Feel Free to Spit Out The Bones

In Chinese cuisine, meat is normally cut up before serving so that it may be easily eaten with chopsticks. Sometimes a little bone or other parts you’d rather not eat is included. It is okay to place this part on the table near you, or even spit it out onto the table or floor, depending on the restaurant. In some areas, a messy table is a reflection of how good the food is, and is considered a compliment. In a formal setting, use a napkin to transfer the part from your mouth to the table first. For food that is too large or bony to eat all at once, it's okay to hold it in your chopsticks while you nibble on it.

8: Expect to Drink a Lot

Chinese dinners are known for their adult beverage consumption, especially in businesses settings. Dinners are festive and guests bond over toasting. Baijiu is a high-alcohol sorghum wine that is often seen at business dinners. The beer served is typically a lager, and can take some of the sting out of baijiu. Red wine, rice wine and imported liquors are common as well. Dinners usually see many toasts. The toastmaker often calls out Gānbēi, a "cheers" that literally means "dry cup," and all present are expected to finish their drink. If a person is being singled out for a toast, they can usually get away with just a sip, with the toastmaker finishing their drink as a sign of respect. Wǒ jing nǐ yībēi means "I will finish my glass, but you can drink at your leisure," and is often said at the end of individual toasts. When clinking glasses, keep your glass lower than the other person's to show respect. As a rule, don't sip your alcoholic drink throughout the meal; wait until there's a toast. This varies, however, and watch what others do first. If you'd rather not drink, say so at the beginning of the meal. Using the excuse of a health reason is acceptable. It's rude to stop drinking during toasts during a meal.

9: Don't Play With Your Chopsticks

It goes without saying not to use your chopsticks for air drumming or anything other than eating, no matter how light the evening gets or how much baijiu everyone's had. Chopstick should be set evenly resting when you're not eating. Never use chopsticks to point at anything, and don't hold them when you're gesticulating (talking with your hands). Take care not to hit plates or glasses with your chopsticks, as this is how beggars asked for food and it is frowned upon. Don't suck on your chopsticks, even if food is stuck on them. While it is acceptable to use your chopsticks to tear apart food on your plate or in your bowl, never use a chopstick to stab a piece of food when serving yourself or bringing a piece of food to your mouth. Don't drop a chopstick as this is considered bad luck.

10: Don't Pass up the Street Food

Not all dining in China is at formal dinners, some of its best food can be found on the street. Chinese cuisine can be quite exotic to those not familiar with it. Don’t be afraid to leave your culinary comfort zone and give street food a try to really appreciate everyday China. Look for places where you can see the food being cooked, and busy food stops are good because they have a fast turnover of food. Kebabs (chuan), dumplings (jiaozi) and even fried insects are just some of the incredible variety found in markets throughout China.

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