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Chinese Mealtime Etiquette

Chinese Mealtime Etiquette – how to be a good host or guest

Chinese people love their food, and their way of eating is very relaxed and communal. However, there are a few things you need to know to be a good host or guest.

Basic Pointers on Chinese Mealtime Etiquette
  • Compete to pay the bill, but let the host win.
  • Finish the rice, not the dishes.
  • Don’t leave your chopsticks stuck in the rice bowl.
  • Don’t blow your nose too conspicuously.
  • Fill your neighbour’s teacup
  • Mind your phallic napkins (see below).

The Chinese way of eating is for each individual to have their own bowl of rice while the dishes (cài) are communal. Serving spoons and/or a knife and fork might be offered to you; if they’re not and you need them then it’s not bad etiquette to ask.

How much to eat. Finish the rice in your bowl if you can, it’s fine to refuse a second bowl if offered. Don’t feel obliged to finish all the cài, if you do the host might order more.

The Bill. It’s usual for everyone to try to pay the bill, but etiquette dictates that whoever did the inviting should pay in the end. This is implicit in the language, to ‘invite someone to eat with you’ is the same as ‘to pay for someone to eat’. Don’t suggest the idea of splitting the bill or offer to pay for your share.

Waste. Things like shrimps are picked up and torn apart with the hands. According to the style of the restaurant, you’ll be expected to drop bones, shells etc onto a small plate, or straight onto the table. Some restaurants have throwaway tablecloths for this very purpose. If in doubt, slow down a bit and see what everyone else is doing to establish the correct etiquette.

Chopsticks. It is bad etiquette to leave your chopsticks vertically plunged into the rice bowl when you’re not using them, it looks like an offering of incense to the dead. There might be a special chop stick holder, if not lean them on the side of the bowl.

Nose blowing. Some people find it rude to blow your nose at the table, and the idea of a handkerchief is repulsive to them.

Holding the rice bowl. Some people think it uncouth and bad etiquette to hold your rice bowl with your palm beneath the base because it looks like you’re begging. Grip it from the side or on the rim. Don’t worry too much about this though, a lot of Chinese people seem never to have heard of it.

Being a good host. If you’re the host (ie the one who did the inviting and will pay the bill), it’s good etiquette to encourage your guests to eat plenty and try a bit of everything.

Napkins. In restaurants’ private rooms napkins are often folded into intricate sculptures. The phallic one, often facing the door, marks the host’s place.

The teapot. Fill up your neighbour’s cup with tea when you fill your own, and leave the pot so that the spout does not point directly at any one individual.

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