EATING AND DRINKING CUSTOMS IN CHINA
Socializing around food and mealtimes is very important to the Chinese. Much of Chinese family life revolves around the dinner table. Chinese will often stop whatever they are doing, no matter how important, when it is time for a meal. On the weekdays the main meal is eaten in the evening. During the weekend it is often eaten around lunchtime. The Chinese are also stubborn about not going anywhere before having breakfast, which often begins at 9:00am and ends around 10:00am.
Traditionally, Chinese believed it was impolite to talk too much while eating. A good meal was regarded as too special to be spoiled by conversation. When one Chinese-American reporter for the Washington Post, wanted to discuss politics at dinner, one of her relatives told her, "Why don't you save your energy to digest some of this nice good food. Nothing is going to change because you make a lot of noise."
Instead of having food served on individual plates, the Chinese eat from a common dish in the middle of a round table or from several dishes placed on a large lazy susan on a round table. Diners are expected to place food on a small plate or on a bowl of rice in front of them but often they plunge their chopsticks into a shared dish and eat straight from that. When eating Chinese reach across one another, pass dishes, pour each other drinks and put food on each other’s plate.
Chinese food is served in courses. A typical Chinese meal consists of rice, one to four meat or fish main courses, two vegetable dishes and one soup. The courses are often eaten one at a time. Soup is usually served after the main course instead of before it. Sometimes drinks aren't served. Soup is used to wash down a meal instead of drinks. The Chinese are not big on desserts. Meals are often capped off with fruit not cake, pies or ice cream.
Chinese usually eat from a bowl or small plate. When eating from a bowl they place spoonfuls of the main dish and sauce on rice in the bowl and bring the bowl close to their mouth and scoop the food into their mouth with chopsticks. This is quite different than the way the Japanese eat. They generally eat the main dish separately from the rice and eat the rice plain with chopstick from a bowl that sits on the table. Koreans eat their rice with a spoon.
Primary Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti. Also check Chinese Business Etiquette, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China by Scott Seligman (Warner Books, 1999). International etiquette expert: Mary Kay Metcalf of Creative Marketing Alliance in New Jersey.
Links in this Website: CHINESE CUSTOMS Factsanddetails.com/China ;BAD MANNERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN CHINA No. 1 Factsanddetails.com/China ; BUSINESS CUSTOMS IN CHINA No. 2 Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PERSONALITY TRAITS AND CHARACTERISTICS Factsanddetails.com/China ; REGIONAL DIFFERENCES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE SOCIETY, CONFUCIANISM, CROWDS AND VILLAGES Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE SOCIETY AND COMMUNISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; JAPANESE CUSTOMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE HOME, EATING AND DRINKING CUSTOMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan
Good Websites and Sources: Kwintessential Kwintessential.co.uk ; Oriental Style ourorient.com ; Etiquette and Protocol protocolprofessionals.com ; Common Customs of China jobmonkey.com : Gift Customs Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; U.S. China Business Solutions uschinabiz.com ; Bad Manners article on the subject osdir.com ; U.S.A. Today article usatoday.com ; Eating and Drinking Customs : Everyday Eating Customs cuisinenet.com ; Chinese Food Culture asiarecipe.com ; Drinking Customs sytu.edu.cn ; How to use chopsticks makemysushi.com ; Chinese Chopsticks Etiquette culture-4-travel ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette orientalfood.com ; Chinese Banquet cuisinenet.com
Wang Li on Chinese Mealtime Hospitality
Wang Li (1900-1986), a respected Chinese linguistic and social observer, wrote in 1943: ‘Mealtime in China is the best demonstration of our cooperative spirit. Ten or twelve people can share a dish and a soup. At banquets, we emphasize a synchronous use of chopsticks. Each person simultaneously places food in his mouth, with only a few chewing out of rhythm.’ [Source: translated and post by Julian Smisek the MCLC List]
“An old joke goes like this: once upon a time, a foreigner asked a Chinese person, I hear you Chinese have banquets where 24 people share food around a table. Is this true? The Chinese person replied: It true. Astounded, the foreigner exclaimed, But many of the dishes would be too far away. How can the chopsticks ever reach? To this, the Chinese person replied, We just use three-foot-long chopsticks. But doesn’t that cause problems? the foreigner asked. How can you bend the chopsticks around to put food in your mouth? The Chinese person said, We help each other out. You feed me, I feed you!’
“Besides demonstrating our cooperative spirit, meals in China also conform to economic principles. In the West, each person has his own plate of food, and so uneaten food becomes trash. What a waste! We Chinese often have ten people sharing one dish. A dish that one person dislikes is often what another person especially enjoys. Everyone is provided for. As a result, food is rarely left over at Chinese banquets. And if there are leftovers, the total amount is not nearly as much as is left over at Western style dinners.’
“Chinese people are quite satisfied with these two advantages. The sages, however, are not satisfied. In their opinion, eating without first offering food to others reduces us to birds and beasts. We must constantly offer food to our guests. At first, we can offer food passively making guests be the first to try a dish, and telling them to eat more of the best food. After that we must step up to an active offering of food. That is, we put food on the guest plate, in the guest bowl, and even directly in his mouth. In fact, active offering is born out of passive offering. When confronted by a delicious dish, I should not eat it or should eat less so that you can eat more. But, as a gentleman, I realize that you too are a gentleman and are not eating more so that I can.”
“Although one finds the custom of mealtime hospitality everywhere, the most famous incarnation is practiced in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There, the men quite casually place food directly on your plate, while the attentive women place food in your bowl. Usually, it the hosts who first offer food to guests, but once the host has started, his friends and family can pitch in.’
“Mealtime hospitality is without a doubt a virtuous custom, but within it, there does exist a problem. France has a saying that I like: there no accounting for taste. The meaning is simple: Taste in food and clothing varies from person to person. There no fixed standard for what good and what bad. From this we see that what tasty to a host may not necessarily be what tasty to his guest. Because people have different opinions about various ingredients and cooking methods (especially amongst people from different parts of the country), it rather easy to misjudge what someone considers to be the best dish. Forcing a guest to eat food he doesn’t like isn’t polite it awkward.’
Table Manners in China
Even today polite Chinese don't start eating until the eldest person at the table picks up his chopsticks or spoon and no one is excused from the table until the eldest person has finished eating. When offering a plate, dish, glass or bottle to someone who is older than you, you show respect by using two hands to present the object. Many of these customs have fallen out of use of have been altered by modernization and Westernization.
The Chinese eat very fast. After finishing a meal, Chinese often get up, thank each other, say goodbye and leave abruptly. Chinese consider it somewhat rude to eat in front of non-eating people, or to eat while walking down the streets. The latter custom dates back to a time when eating in public was considered mean to people who didn't have enough to eat.
Among the “don’ts” listed in an etiquette guide for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 are gesturing with a chopstick, drinking coffee from a spoon and eating and spitting pumpkin and watermelon seeds at sporting events.
In the old days, when three generations shared the same house, the grandparents ate separately. Even today, in many villages men eat first and women eat second
Slurping and Finger Licking in China
Chinese often make loud slurping noises when eating noodles. Making noise is not considered impolite, rather it is considered a compliment and an expression of enjoying the food. In some situations, a particularly loud slurp means you've finished eating. Some restaurants fill up quickly during lunchtime, and there is huge cacophony of slurping while people are eating, and after ten or fifteen minutes everyone gets up and leaves, and the restaurant is quiet.
Dishes with fish and chicken are often full of bones. The Chinese often spit out bones—and seeds and skin and anything else they don’t want to swallow—on the floor or table cloth. It is not frowned upon to make a big mess. Chinese are notorious for spitting on the floor of restaurants.
Chinese consider it uncouth to lick your fingers or blow your nose when eating. If you use a toothpick cover your mouth while you do it. People are expected to eat all their rice. Leaving small amounts of other food behind is okay. Chinese associate serving too much food with being a good host. Putting salt on food can be taken as an insult to cook.
Chopsticks, Spoons and Forks in China
Never drop your chopsticks. This is a sign of bad luck. Never stick them in bowl of rice so they are stand up. This signifies death. Chops sticks set across the bowl indicates you are finished. Chopsticks and serving spoons are both used to take food from serving bowls. Chinese chopsticks are usually round and come detached as opposed to Japanese chopsticks which are often squarish and come attached. Often people eat and serve themselves with the same chopsticks. Some Westerners get worried about germs.
Chopsticks have been around for as long as anyone can remember as a way to pick up prepared food. The Chinese word for chopsticks is kwai-tsze, meaning "quick ones." The word chopsticks comes from an attempt to say kwai-tsze with English pronunciation. While Europeans struggled over how to cut and eat their food during dinner, Asians avoided this problem by cutting food into bite-size pieces in the kitchen so all they had to do was pick it up at the dinning table.
The Chinese use special ladle-like spoons to eat soup but otherwise use chopsticks for almost everything else. Knives are used only in the kitchen. They are not used as eating utensils because most Chinese food is soft or cut into bite size pieces.
A Communist party secretary once encouraged Chinese people to use knives and forks instead of chopsticks on the grounds that Western utensils were more sanitary and the custom of eating from a common bowl helped spread disease. The idea was not embraced. These days many people regard disposable wooden chopsticks as an environmental hazard and people are encouraged to use reusable ones whenever possible.
Restaurant Customs in China
Splitting the bill is considered crude and barbaric. Being the one that pays it is considered an honor. According to Chinese custom the person that extends an invitation or the highest ranking person present is the person who pays. When there is a friendly argument over who pays, the most respected individual is expected to win out. The American-born, Taiwan-raised film director Bertha Bay-Sa Pan told the New York Times, “When the bill comes you have to put up a good fight to pay it, even if you don’t have enough money. Old-school Chinese never go Dutch.”
It is considered tacky for the host to pay in front of his guests, so usually what he does is excuse himself under the pretext of going to the bathroom and pays the bill privately. If a couple of friends meet by chance on the street and decide to go to a restaurant the two will vie with each other over who pays. The "loser" who doesn't pay often suggests going to another place and then paying the bill there.
Tipping is not practiced in China.
Chinese sometimes appear rude to service personal at restaurants, hotels and stores—shouting and ordering people around. This kind of behavior is considered acceptable.
Banquets in China
The Chinese love banquets. High-ranking party officials often attend several banquets a week and foreigner tourists on package tours are often treated to a banquet shortly after their arrival in China. It is considered an insult if food isn't left behind and too much rice is consumed (at a banquet rice is regarded as a filler).
Chinese usually arrive early at banquets and greet all the guests starting with the host. Being late for a formal banquet is considered extremely rude. The Chinese commonly welcome guests to a banquet with applause. Guests are expected to sample every dish. The honored guest is expected to try a new dish first. Other guests then follow. The guest of honor is often identified with a folded paper dragon at his place setting. He or she is expected to be the first one to leave.
Most banquets last for about two hours and include a dozen, a dozen and half dishes. The serving of fruit and/or tea signifies the dinner has come to an end. The guest of honor should then make a motion to leave, thanking his or host/hostess and depart. Other guests have to wait until the guest of honor leaves before they can leave.
"The formal progress of a Chinese banquet," wrote Theroux, "depends on little speeches: a word of welcome from the host, followed by something grateful from the guest—that is at the beginning; and afterwards, more formal pleasantries, some toasts, and a very abrupt end. No one lingers, no one sits around and shoots the bull. All the Chinese banquets I attended concluded in a vanishing act."
In some places it is customary to slaughter a cow and drink a toast of chicken blood to declare battle against some scourge.
Drinking Customs in China
Chinese usually don't start drinking until someone offers the toast "gan bei"—("dry glass," the equivalent of "bottoms up"). Koreans and Japanese use the same word for their toasts. The word originated in Japan.
When drinking, one should not drink from the bottle. It is considered impolite to pour a drink for yourself and when pouring a drink for an older person make sure to use two hands (a sign of respect). If you want a drink yourself the polite thing to do is fill someone else's glass and they in turn will fill yours. In some situations, it is rude to turn down a drink that is being offered to you. To avoid drinking too much keep you glass full. To avoid being rude accept a drink the first time it is offered to you by a particular individual. The second time he offers, it is acceptable to politely say no.
Some Chinese are fond of playing the "finger game" (two players fling out numbers on their fingers and make guesses to how many) with the loser taking a drink.
The Chinese generally look down on drunkenness. The don't get hammered as much as the Japanese and Koreans. Chinese especially look down on daytime drinking.
Toasts in China
The Chinese are very big on toasts. Gam bei is heard after every course and guests are often asked to have one drink with every person who is considered a host. There is Chinese proverb that goes: "if you leave a social meal sober you did not truly enjoy yourself."
A host usually begins the toast after the first course by welcoming all of his guests. Toasts can be offered to the whole table or people sitting around you and they are usually ushered in with "gam bei." Even though gam bei toasts are offered through the night, you only have to empty your class on the first one when people drain their glasses and show each other the empty glass (ladies are supposed to take only a sip). The Chinese generally don't touch glasses with each other during a toast.
The Chinese often drink shaohsing (red rice wine) when making toasts and beer between toasts. It is not customary for guests to drink only when making or receiving toasts. The first toast is frequently a general one, with everyone drinking together, usually as soon as the first dish is presented. After this it is general practice for all at the table to toast others, starting with host/hostess toasting the guest of honor.
It is not necessary to give a short speech when making a toast but is common to specify the kind of toast. The most usual toast is gam bei. Other toasts include sui bian ('drink as you please"), sui yi ("drink a little"), or ban bei ("drink just half the glass"). The whole table often drinks together when new dishes arrive.
Partying Customs in China
Chinese like to party in one big group rather than breaking up into small groups and circulating like Westerners do at a cocktail party. When Chinese do divide into groups they tend to divide into separate groups of men and women). Taking turns singing is a popular activity, with one person playing the role of "emcee" and calling on the others to participate one by one. If you attend a party like this it is a good idea to have a song ready in the case you are called upon to sing.
Drinking, Business and Banquets in China
Ritualized drinking is big part of conducting business and getting things accomplished in China. Banquets are a standard welcoming gesture and prerequisite to getting down to business. Restaurants often have special banquet rooms with private bathrooms and tables with place setting with three glasses: one of beer, one for wine and one for baijiu.
Hosts lose face if their guests are perceived as not having a good time and the key to making sure they do so is making sure they get enough to drink. An executive at a baijui maker told the New York Times, “It’s like a form of communication between people. It would be disrespectful to not drink with a guest.”
Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Alcohol certainly greases the wheels of business in the west, too, but people can usually stop after one or two glasses. In China, the opposite is often true: it is much easier to refuse an initial drink than to stop once you have started. Foreigners are not immune to the pressure—one friend recalls being poured half pints of baijiu by an overly hospitable local official, who paused briefly to vomit before topping up his glass again.”
Drinking to develop and cement relationships has a long history in China. "When one drinks with a friend, a thousand cups are not enough," runs one traditional saying. That does not mean bingeing has been the norm: in the 1980s, a study of Chinese classical poetry concluded that heavy drinking had been in and out of favour over the years. Experts have suggested that Chinese habits—consuming alcohol with food, playing drinking games and toasting in a highly ritualised fashion—served to regularise alcohol intake and limit drunkenness.
Officials drinking and feasting during lunchtime banquets is a big problem in China. Ordinary Chinese are outraged because cadres are often so drunk after lunch they can not do their jobs and the money to pay for the banquets often comes from public funds.
One taxi driver in Xinyang, a city of 7 million in Henan Province where the problem is said to be particularly bad, told the New York Times, “Sometimes you’ll go to the civil affairs bureau after lunch and they are sleeping or playing cards. Sometimes you can’t even find anyone.” A Communist party chief, who is appalled by the custom, said, “Service is not always a priority for government workers after a few hours of slugging down shots.”
Binge Drinking Among Working Men in China
In the last few decades, consumption has soared, fuelled by increased personal freedoms and rising incomes. "Excessive drinking, frequent drinking [five to seven days a week] and binge drinking behaviour have reached epidemic proportions among current drinkers in China," warned a study published in the journal Addiction last month. The authors, led by Li Yichong of the National Centre for Chronic and Non-Communicable Disease Control, found that only 56 percent of men and 15 percent of women drink. But of those, 57 percent of men and 27 percent of women binge.
Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Bingeing and excessive drinking were most common in men aged between 35 and 44; and frequent drinking increased significantly with age, whereas in "Anglo" cultures alcohol consumption usually peaks in the late 20s or early 30s, the paper noted. The government has pledged to tackle driving under the influence—police caught half a million drunkards behind the wheel last year—but bingeing does not otherwise seem to lead to much anti-social behaviour in China. You won't see people urinating on the street, or the equivalent of beered-up rugby lads pulling down their trousers for the delectation of passing women.
So the main issue is the damage that drinkers are doing to themselves. China is still some way off the cirrhosis death rates seen in Britain or Japan, according to World Health Organisation figures. And in more cosmopolitan and educated circles, over-indulgence is often regarded as somewhat déclassé—suggesting that perhaps heavy drinking may fall out of fashion again. Anecdotally, friends suggest that people are increasingly willing to make excuses on health grounds or to surreptitiously dilute their baijiu with a mineral water bottle hidden under the table.
Binge Drinking and Getting Ahead in Life in China
Binge drinking is becoming increasingly common among Chinese professionals—often it's even in the job description. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “Peter Chi knows he has to cut back on his drinking. It is not much fun at the best of times, and the worst have included hospitalisation—after drinking fake alcohol—and the numerous evenings where he has passed out at the table.” "No one likes binge drinking, but it's not under your control," he complains. "Of course I don't like it, but there's nothing I can do." [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian August 22, 2011]
Chi, from north-eastern Liaoning province, is not an alcoholic. Nor is he a party animal, despite his four-times-a-week binges. But as a respectable headteacher in his 40s, he feels he has little choice but to indulge—or risk harming his career. In the west, binge drinking is associated with young men and women spilling out of pubs and clubs in the early hours of the mornings. But in China drinkers are older and—in many cases—drinking not just for fun but for career reasons. "If I drink, it doesn't necessarily help me get promoted. But if I don't, it's less likely that I will be. So I must drink, even if it's not pleasant at all," Chi explains. "People want to show they are forthright and try to get along with others — It's very normal to get an order to drink from bosses."
In fact, some job adverts explicitly demand applicants who can hold their alcohol. "Candidates with good drinking capacity will be prioritised," says one for the Hunan Zhike Public Security Engineering Company, an alarms and surveillance technology firm that is seeking a business manager. "The job is to develop business through establishing closer connections with our clients. Drinking is a big part of the work," explains the recruiter, adding that the successful candidate will need to handle 250 to 500ml of baijiu at a time.
China's reluctant drinkers worry about what all the heavy drinking is doing to them. "Health is a big concern of mine. Even if things seem OK right now, there'll definitely be problems when I get to 30 or 40 if I keep drinking like this," says Bruce Wang, a young businessman whose work involves regular boozing sessions with clients. "I get drunk a lot It's impossible to feel good about it."
Image Sources: 1) sushi fan; 2) Taiwan touris office; 3) Cushman Wake
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated February 2011