Historically, the Chinese often viewed their country as a cultural entity rather than a landmass. The relationships between people were based on the highly developed system of standards of behavior that addressed every aspect of life. Table manners are the very important part of the Chinese etiquette. There are hundreds of forms of correct behavior at table that have their historical explanation.
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The seating arrangement is the first thing that should be considered. As a rule, the hosts sit nearest to the door because they take care of foods and dishes. The guest of honor sits the opposite to the host, and eldest guests sit closer to the host. However, guests may vary in their closeness to the host, and even the young ones may be seated in better seats (Zhao and Wang 19).
For the several thousand years since the pottery was first used to contain food, the Chinese ate separately with individual portions. Communal dining became popular only during the times of the Song Dynasty (Zhao and Wang 18). At that time, they adopted a new furniture with tables, stools, and chairs, and it was more convenient to sit around the table dining together. Besides, more and more new dishes appeared, and the traditional style of serving could not be adapted to them. Thus, the individual dining was gradually replaced by the communal dining.
It is important to wait until the host or the eldest person begins eating and encourages others to eat. The younger guests may help the elders; a young person putting an item on the plate of someone older is considered to be very polite and serving (Newman 109). At communal diners, the host usually puts food on the guest’s plate, and it is rude to refuse the treat. Besides, the Chinese do not use the eating ends of chopsticks to serve someone or themselves from a common dish: the clean top ends are used for this purpose. Thus, the guest should not be worried about the hygiene (De Mente 77).
When one takes food from the common dish, they should consider such proportions that everyone else will be left with an equivalent amount. Although it is commonly known that taking the last piece of food is impolite, it is appropriate to take the remains when a new dish is served because then the desirability of the remains is diminished (Cooper 182).
One should refrain from making noise while chewing (Cooper 182). However, the slurping sounds are not considered impolite when eating soup. On the contrary, when sucking the air in, a person cools the dish and avoids burning the mouth. The sound of slurping is indicative that the soup is liked (Newman 110). When eating, it is important not to take large mouthfuls. In general, a person should try to maintain the same pace of eating as others at the table (Cooper 182). It is impolite to eat everything on the plate because the host will consider that the food that he serves is not enough for a treat. When a person has their fill, they should not announce that they do not want any more food. In the Chinese etiquette, such phrase is considered as a veiled request for a second helping. The best way to show the satiety will be a small amount of rice left in a bowl or on a plate (Wenzhong et al. 30).
It is important to know how to eat with chopsticks since the Chinese use them practically for each kind of food except soup that is eaten with a porcelain spoon and the Peking duck that they eat with hands (De Mente 77). The etiquette does not allow sticking the chopsticks upright in the rice bowl because the Chinese use this action only at funeral dinners to honor the dead person. Instead of poking the chopsticks into the rice and leaving them in the upright position, one should place them on a special holder near the plate or bowl (Chai and Chai 247).
It is inappropriate to lick the chopsticks, or even let them touch the tongue if a person uses them to pick the food from a common plate for health safety reasons. When eating from common bowls and plates, one should take care not to “dig” in the food, and if the piece has suddenly fallen, a person should pick it because when one’s chopsticks touch the food – it is theirs (De Mente 77). In addition, one should know how to hold the chopsticks. Although it is pardonable for a Westerner not to know how to do it properly, at least they should know that stabbing the food with the chopsticks as though it were the big toothpick is impolite (Chai and Chai 247).
The Chinese system of rules and norms is one of the most enduring and ancient in the world. Quite often, a person is judged by how closely they follow these rules because, in the Chinese view, the etiquette is connected with culture, morality, and even nationality (De Mente 77). Dining is the significant part of life since people use shared dinners for various purposes: to greet, to honor, to negotiate, to show the supremacy, etc. Knowing the customs and etiquette in Chinese dining will show a person’s civility and help them to gain respect from others.
Chai, May-Lee, and Winberg Chai. China A to Z: Everything You Need to Know to Understand Chinese Customs and Culture. Penguin, 2014.
Cooper, Eugene. “Chinese Table Manners: You Are How You Eat.” Human Organization, vol. 45, no. 2, 1986, pp. 179-184.
De Mente, Boye Lafayette. Etiquette Guide to China: Know the Rules that Make the Difference! Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
Newman, Jacqueline M. Food Culture in China. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Wenzhong, Hu, Cornelius Grove, and Zhuang Enping. Encountering the Chinese: A Modern Country, an Ancient Culture. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010.
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Zhao, Rongguang, and Aimee Yiran Wang. History of Food Culture in China. SCPG Publishing Corporation, 2015.