Tips for Chinese table etiquette
There is an expression in the Middle Kingdom that says 'the table is China'. Food is the beating heart of Chinese culture and will be the first topic or conversation among friends old and new. So much so that a standard greeting is 'Have you eaten?'. Chinese customs and social niceties have developed and endured over thousands of years. Many aspects of table manners can be traced back to the imperial court itself.
One legend has it that chopsticks were popularized by an emperor who, under fear of an assassination attempt, decreed that no knife or sharp implement be present at the table and instead, all must eat with chopsticks.
A lesser known affectation is to tap the table with two knuckles or fingers while someone pours you a drink. To Western eyes it could be offensively read to mean 'hurry up', and feels very alien when you try it out. In fact, this practice also starts with the tale of an emperor. The story goes that a ruler was travelling in disguise with his troops and dined with them as an ordinary soldier. The emperor had to be treated the same in order not to risk exposure. Still wanting to show respect, but unable to bow, members of his entourage would pay homage by 'kneeling' with two fingers knocking upon the table.
Not to worry, there's no risk of catastrophe if you don't know protocol when it comes to table manners! The Chinese are not at all easily offended. However you will find even the smallest nod towards these customs will go a long way and will be greeted by much warmth and (usually loud) enthusiasm. So read on for more tips and pointers.
Tables are almost always round and the main host or most important guest will usually sit facing the door. Their most valued guests will sit at their right and left respectively, the second most important host will often sit opposite the main host. After that, the order becomes more fluid. It's worth noting that these rules are not always followed and are certainly not compulsory, but it's a nice gesture to wait for your host to seat you, or wait until they sit, before choosing your spot.
This aspect of table life is probably the most tricky. Meals can get pretty loud and boisterous in China! Expectations and behaviours vary from place to place and of course are changing as fast as China itself. Firstly, it is true that if you are female you can often fairly easily excuse yourself from any drinking you don't feel comfortable with. Also, if you don't drink outright, for religious or personal reasons, or you are driving, the Chinese are usually pretty understanding about it and won't pressure you if you state kindly that you are not drinking alcohol. The tricky part can come with the middle ground.
Drinking can form the basis for excellent hospitality, camaraderie and building of business relationships in China. You will rarely see anyone at a meal sipping their drink at their own pace as Westerners tend to do. Emptying your glass too quickly or drinking alone could show either you don't want to drink with the others, or it can embarrass your host, appearing as if they have not topped up your drink quickly enough. Conversely, drinking slowly can leave you with a full glass while others have an empty one, showing perhaps you don't think the drink is good, or you don't want to socialize with them.
Where you can really win fans in China is by standing or going over to toast hosts and guests. It's a sure sign of welcome if you're on the receiving end, and a great way to show your respect if you do so. You should follow the person's lead for how much to drink: if they sip, sip, if they empty their glass they may expect you to do so as well (again, don't feel pressured to empty your glass if you don't want to). Part of the intricate social dance is to make sure no one is left out, so if you see two people toast, you may notice straight after that their complementary party members (eg. if one person toasted you, their partner may follow by toasting your partner) will offer a toast.
If you want the Chinese to adore you, watch how the group you are with does it a couple times, then copy. Don't be at all shy about using soft drinks or water to toast with if you are not comfortable with the pace of drinking (but avoid toasting with your tiny tea cup). Where it can get rowdy is when groups get a little over enthusiastic. You may see men competing in good humour to get another more and more drunk. You might also find someone very keen to keep pouring you large drinks. There is a kind of pushiness you sometimes come across in China which seems serious to us (think of two people loudly arguing over the bill, where each is trying to pay for the whole meal, and seeming very angry at their friend trying to pay) but is really just a way of showing friendliness and good manners. Be comfortable, confident and warm about your own limits and you should have a grand time.
If you can use them, great! And expect everyone to compliment you on your skills. If you want to come across as particularly classy, try to hold your chopsticks as much towards the top as possible. If you can't use them, have no fear. You will often be offered cutlery, or if there is none available you can easily get along with a Chinese porcelain spoon.
More and more people and restaurants are adopting the hygienic practice of having a separate set of serving and eating chopsticks. So each central dish might have a pair to serve yourself with, then you will have your own pair for your rice bowl. Be careful not to accidentally eat with the serving chopsticks! Also, don't be afraid to start this set-up yourself at a meal if you like the idea, as there are always enough chopsticks to do so, and no one should take offence.
You have probably heard before that it's not polite to leave your chopsticks sticking into your bowl. This is fairly true. Also, avoid pointing them directly at people, resting them straight on the table (lay them across your bowl if needed) or using your chopsticks to reach across other people to get at food.
People only ever order individual dishes at noodle bars or for street food. At a meal it is common for the host to pick a variety of dishes that are set out in the middle of the table. Each person has their own rice bowl (which may come pre-filled or you might serve yourself) and you tuck in to whatever dishes take your fancy. It is usual to take little amounts rather than pile up your bowl. Try not to take the very last morsel from a dish as the host will take this as a sign that you are still hungry, and may order more food. Your hosts will often place some morsels in your bowl for you, which is considered good manners and a way to make guests welcome. Do say thank you and eat what you are given if you can.
A whole series could be written on this topic. And we may well follow up on it! But the key thing to remember is just enjoy. Chinese food is amazing, varied and exciting. Chinese people love sharing it with guests so sit back and soak up the hospitality.