Chinese Dining Etiquette - A brief introduction

Every time I visit Asia I learn something new, and my recent trip to Hong Kong was no exception. When my Chinese host invited me for a ‘Seafood Extravaganza ’ I was very excited to say the least and can honestly say that I wasn’t disappointed!

My host arranged a boat trip to visit the islands surrounding Hong Kong… we enjoyed the beauty of the volcanic rock formations, the beach of an uninhabited island and an abundance of food all washed down with champagne. The Grande Finale was a traditional Chinese dinner which really was a Seafood Extravaganza! I was escorted by my host and waiter to the nearby fish market to choose a variety of seafood for our meal, which the waiter then kindly carried back to the restaurant to be prepared by the Chef… that was a new experience for me!

I am fairly accustomed to the various styles of Asian dining but there are always new things to experience and learn. Although this was a unique dining experience, it can never to do any harm to understand some basic dining etiquette before visiting a new country.

Here are are a few basic tips which should help you navigate a traditional Chinese meal.

Seating Guests are always seated at round tables and for formal occasions the guest of honour will be seated furthest from the door, typically facing the east or the entrance. Elders and any guest of honour will be treated with precedence.

Ordering One way or another, the host with typically order for his guests. He may allow guests to look at the menu and take suggestions from them or he may just order a variety of dishes without consultation. This is a display of hospitality and without doubt there will be no shortage of food!

Food Multiple dishes are placed on a circular turning board (Lazy Susan) in the middle of round tables and everybody shares all of the dishes (using serving cutlery or serving chopsticks). As with Western cultures, the more formal the meal the more courses are served. With most typical Chinese meals you can expect soup, fish, meat, rice and fruit.

  • Tea Pots are brought to the table almost immediately and are replenished throughout the meal. It's considered polite to pour tea for those around you.

  • Nuts Served alongside pickles at the start of the meal, it’s considered elegant to eat these with chopsticks… which may be a good idea for calorie control but rather time consuming. As ‘double dipping’ with chopsticks is to be avoided at all costs the alternative option is to save some in your spoon (see photo) and eat with your individual chopsticks… Chinese peanut etiquette…who knew?! Depending on the formality of the occasion it may be acceptable to use your fingers.

  • Fish The traditional Chinese way of serving fish is fully intact (this represents prosperity and harmony). The head will be pointed towards the guest of honour. Don’t make the mistake of flipping the fish over though, many traditionalists believe this to be bad luck, so just remove the backbone to access the other side). The head and tail should remain intact (not to break up good fortune).

  • Rice This is always eaten from individual bowls which may be lifted by one hand and held at chin level while eating.

  • Noodles Same as for eating rice, some slurping is accepted (the same applies for soup).

General table manners

  • Hand towels are served before the food arrives and again after the meal. In more formal situations finger bowls are offered.

  • Serve yourself using only the serving chopsticks or serving cutlery, not your personal chopsticks, no double dipping! It’s important to remember to alternate between using the serving chopsticks to transfer food from the communal dish to your own bowl and then swap for your personal chopsticks to transfer the food to your mouth…. Phew… imagine doing this when sharing peanuts!!

  • Don’t lift serving dishes, they should remain on the table.

  • Reaching across others is rude, when used correctly the circular turning board prevents this.

  • Passing is done by using the turning board or by using both hands.

  • Ending the meal Formal meals end with a final toast although typically at less formal occasions in restaurants you can expect a plate of fruit such as sliced oranges to arrive.

Warning – as a sign of hospitality a Chinese host will continuously encourage their guests to eat more. If you clear your plate he will replenish it… again and again (and again)! So if you have had enough, leave some on your plate… I can guarantee he won’t be offended!!

Of course, just as Western Dining Etiquette is complex, similarly Chinese Dining Etiquette can be confusing. So for more information about Cross Cultural Social, Dining or Business Etiquette or for your own Cultural Briefing contact me … do you know your Chopstick Etiquette??

Julia Esteve

The Etiquette Consultant