SOCIALIZING DURING MEALS 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. Unity and cooperation are reflected in mealtime customs. A dish is never served to just one person, either at home or in a restaurant. Each person has his or her own plate, but everyone at the table shares food. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Probably the most popular way for family and friends to spend time together in China is around a banquet table. A Chinese meal is as much about socialising as it is about food. An important and easy way to stay in touch with past colleagues, schoolmates and childhood friends is to invite them to meals. Enjoying a meal together is the most common way for family, friends and colleagues to get together. A meal involves a great deal of celebration. Mid-way through shouts of gombei will begin as people start to challenge one another to drinking matches. It is thought to be inhospitable to let the glass of the person next to you go empty. Accompanied with the drinking is laughing, joking, story-telling and teasing. At the end of the meal, it is a point of pride to wrestle the bill from the waiter and pay it. Winning the right to pay the bill demonstrates your goodwill and affection toward the people that shared the meal with you.” [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
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."
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: ““That very few foreigners can ever bring themselves to give Chinese invitations in a Chinese way, goes without saying. It requires long practice to bow cordially to a Chinese crowd as one goes to a meal, and remark blandly, “Please all sit down and eat," or to sweep a cup of tea in a semi-circle just as it is raised to the lips, and addressing oneself to the multitude, observe with gravity, “Please all drink." Not less real is the moral difficulty of exclaiming at suitable situations, “K'o-fou, k'o-i'ou," signifying, "I can, may, must, might, could, would, or should (as the case may be) give you a k'o-fou;" or of occasionally interjecting the observation, “I ought to be beaten, I ought to be killed," meaning that I have offended against some detail of the rules of etiquette." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
Websites and Sources: Etiquette and Protocol protocolprofessionals.com ; Gift Customs: Chinatown Connection Chinatown Connection ; Eating and Drinking Customs: Chinese Food Culture asiarecipe.com ; Chinese Banquet Eitiquette orientalfood.com ; Book:“Chinese Business Etiquette, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China” by Scott Seligman (Warner Books, 1999).
Eating Customs in China
A typical family dinner consists of rice or noodles, soup, and three or four hot dishes. At a formal dinner, there will be more dishes and several cold appetizers. 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. [Primary Source: "The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners" by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Bragant]
Food is cut into bite-size pieces while it is being prepared, so is not necessary to cut at the table. Hence you don’t need a knife. In many parts of China, people hold a bowl of rice up to their mouths with one hand and use their chopsticks to shovel food into their mouths. Drinking soup directly from the bowl is also an acceptable custom. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: When eating Chinese food, it is customary to take only one or two bites of food at a time, and continue taking small portions as the dish passes you. You should first put the food onto the plate before putting it into your mouth. It is acceptable to dip the food down to just touch the dish and then put it in your mouth if you are in immediate need of a bite. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
In eating ‘family style’, each person uses his or her own chopsticks to pick food out of a common serving dish. In a more formal environment, there are dedicated chopsticks and serving spoons that accompany each dish. You should use these to serve others and yourself, and then eat with your own chopsticks. If you would like to serve another person food using your chopsticks, the polite thing to do is to turn them over and use the end that you are not eating from to serve the other person. To show thoughtfulness to the people eating with you, especially if they are older or in a position of respect, it is usual to serve them before serving yourself. In a formal situation, everyone will wait for the guest of honour to take the first serving before they begin eating. If the person who seems to be taking charge of the meal spins a dish toward you and offers it, you are being honoured as a guest and should take a serving so that others at the table can also begin eating. If you would like to show your respect to someone else sitting at the table, instead of putting a serving on your own plate, put it on his or her plate instead.
Rice or noodles accompany most meals, and they are usually served as one of the last dishes, eaten to ‘fill the empty corners of your stomach’. Many visitors to China prefer to have rice as an accompaniment for their meals, as it allows them to enjoy the sauces and combines starch with meats and vegetables in a way that they are more accustomed to. If you are with an aggressively well-mannered host or hostess, the only way to stop them from continuing to stuff food into you is to feign an inability to finish what is on your plate.
Proper Serving and Eating of Food in China
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.
Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: The Chinese know enough to bring their food on the table in the condition in which it is to be used. We do not. A Chinese official who had been honoured with an invitation to a dinner at the British Consulate, ' narrated afterwards, how the English " Great Man" stood up at the head of the table, and with a gigantic sword cut into the huge mass of beef, that was placed before him. Ranks of servants stood all about, and like the visitor, watched the proceeding, and all of them were too used to it, to appreciate the exquisite absurdity of the performance. Is there any good reason why a host should pass a practical examination in the presence of his guests, as to his knowledge of comparative anatomy? Is it sublime duty of the civilization of the nineteenth century” to be “cordially invited to take the seat of honour, and dissect a dead goose, not infrequently, as we know, with the result of depositing it in the lap of the lady sitting next, who of course smiles, and says it is of no consequence! Nothing of this sort ever takes place in China, , and for this reason alone, we are prepared to maintain that in eating, in cooking, and in carving, the Chinese are more civilized than we. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
Tea Etiquette in China
Chinese express thanks for a serving of tea by tapping bent fingers on the table. After someone pours you a cup of tea you should tap the table lightly twice with your first two fingers. For most Chinese this is an unconscious act and there is no need to pause conversation and acknowledge this subtle form of thanks. In southern China, tapping two fingers on the table can be a general expression of thanks but often done when drinking tea to show gratitude for a refill. Some people in northern China, however, may not be familiar with this gesture.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: “Tea in China is typically served loose leaf, which means that as it is poured, you will have floating tea leaves in your cup. The trick in drinking tea with loose leaves is to wait until the leaves have settled into the bottom of your cup before trying to drink it. Gently blowing on the leaves at the top of the cup to move them away from where you are sipping is an acceptable strategy. Inevitably, you will end up consuming a few leaves and stems. If so, either swallow happily (many great dishes are made with tea leaves) or if you have little sticks of stems in your mouth, discreetly transfer them to your hand or a napkin as you would the shell of a nut. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
“When used in a restaurant, pouring is a cross between an athletic event and an art form. There is usually one person who is the designated server of the hot water that streams from the very long spout of this pot. It is used to pout hot water into cups of ba bao cha, eight treasures tea. To pour, the server pumps the pot with a gentle rocking motion until it has enough momentum built to shoot out the spout and create a hissing hot stream into your tea cup.
“After the waiter or waitress has pouted the first round of tea, the teapot is placed upon the table. It is customary to pay close attention to the cups of those sitting nearby and to pour fresh tea for them as their cups empty. When the teapot runs out of hot water, signal to the waiter or waitress to add water by placing the lid of the pot upside down and at a slight angle on top of the pot of tea. The waiting staff knows this is a signal to refill the pot. They will typically just add hot water to the pot, using the old leaves. Whether in your teacup or in a pot on the table, one batch of tea leaves is usually good for up to three rounds of tea.
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.
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. 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.
Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: The Chinese are very adept at putting whole pieces of food in their mouth, bones and all, and to dissect the part you can eat from what you can’t, depositing the non-eatable back on their plate or the table. When eating chicken, ribs or shellfish, it is common for Chinese to end up with a mountain of bones or shells in front of them. At a better restaurant, the wait staff will continually clear your dirty plates, replacing them with clean ones. In a home-style restaurant, this may not happen unless you ask for new plates. At the end of the meal, most Chinese use toothpicks to clean their teeth. The proper way to do this is to discreetly cover your mouth with a slightly cupped left hand while the right hand holds the toothpick, so that the use of the toothpick inside the mouth is not visible. [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]
Slurping, Burping 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. In China, burping is viewed as a sign of enjoying one’s food and is considered a compliment and expression gratitude to the chef.
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.
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 generally not practiced in China and can be seen as offensive. While tipping has become more common in restaurants in cities, it is generally not seen off the tourist trail. Tips are typically only given when doing tour-related activities or at hotels. [Source: Talia Avakian, Business Insider, September 3, 2015]
Chinese sometimes appear rude to service personal at restaurants, hotels and stores — shouting and ordering people around. This kind of behavior is considered acceptable.
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. You should also never never have chopsticks in your hands when making a gesture. 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 food writer Bee Wilson wrote: “There are forks culture and chopstick cultures, but all the people of the world use spoons.” 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. China can not produce enough wooden chopsticks to meet its needs and at least for a while relied on a U.S. supplier in Georgia to make up for its shortfall.
The Kuaizidian Chopsticks Store, located near Yu Garden in Shanghai, has over 1,000 kinds of chopsticks made of 20 different materials, ranging from plastic, wood or bamboo to silver and porcelain. Some feature carvings while others are exquisitely painted. There are even some with portraits. Popular items include chopstick made from ebony and ruby wood. A set of 10 pairs of ebony chopsticks sell for around $60. Hard chopstick made from fragrant rosewood decorated with flower patterns sell for about $400. It is said Chinese emperors used chopsticks made rosewoods. Offering advise, a clerk at the store told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Since you use them every day, chopsticks that fit comfortably in your hand are best.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2014]
Chinese Government Demands Four-Year-Olds Eat with Chopsticks Only
A number of Beijing preschools have forbidden forks and spoons and demanded that that kids four and older eat with only chopsticks.Yingzhi Yang and Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Administrators at a number of Beijing preschools “have banished forks and spoons and are insisting that kids four and older eat with chopsticks — and only chopsticks. The rigid requirement has raised the hackles of some parents and stirred debate about parenting, educational guidelines and even cultural purity in the globalized 21st century. [Source: Yingzhi Yang and Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2016]
“The requirement has not just sprung out of blue. Guidelines from China’s Ministry of Education say that 3- and 4-year-olds should use spoons skillfully; 4- and 5-year-olds should be able to use chopsticks to some degree; and by 6, children should use chopsticks skillfully. An administrator at Beijing’s Golden Apple Kindergarten, who declined to give her name, confirmed that her school was among those requiring chopsticks starting at age 4. "They are able to, and should, manage chopsticks at that age, ” she said. “Learning to use chopsticks is also helpful to nurture kids' hand-eye coordination."
“Though the fork and spoon are unlikely to ever drive the chopstick to extinction, preserving the primacy of the simple utensil seems to be getting more attention these days as China has become more globalized. The issue surfaced last year on a reality show about parenting, “Dads Come Back.” The 3-year-old daughter of former Chinese gymnastics star Li Xiaopeng was criticized by viewers because she only used spoons to eat. (The girl’s mother, who is Chinese American, also was attacked for speaking English, not Mandarin, on the program.)
“The Chinese government has even taken steps to strengthen the chopsticks’ status as an essential Chinese cultural symbol. In a public service TV commercial that aired before the Chinese New Year Gala in 2014, a little girl who appears to be about 4 is seen at a family dinner gathering struggling tearfully to use chopsticks to eat rice. Her mother encourages her to keep trying and tells her gently, “We are Chinese, so we all use chopsticks.”
Chinese Parents Complain of Hungry Four-Year-Olds Due to the Chopsticks Rule
Yingzhi Yang and Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Several mothers complained to the Beijing Morning Post this month that their children were coming home hungry because they were unable to eat enough at lunch because they weren’t proficient with chopsticks. "My daughter has been required to use chopsticks since she turned 4, but she was not good at it, ” one mother, surnamed Xiao, told the paper. Her daughter, she said, was introverted and when she saw classmates being able to handle chopsticks, she felt peer pressure and became anxious. "These days, I'll give her a good amount of food before school, so she can eat lighter at lunch at kindergarten and then I’ll give her more for dinner at home." Another mother, surnamed Sun, told the paper that she was now serving her child a meal immediately after school to make up for her small intake at lunch and was doing practice sessions with chopsticks at home. [Source: Yingzhi Yang and Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2016]
“Parents who have complained about the utensil regulations have come in for withering criticism online, with some commentators even questioning the very “Chineseness” of any youngster who is clumsy with chopsticks. “How can you get anxious by using chopsticks?” one critic wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter-like micro-blogging service. “You are Chinese!” Said another: “If the kids don’t learn to use chopsticks now, they will lose face by not being able to use chopsticks to eat hot pot when they are grown-ups.” (Hot pot is a popular Chinese dish in which food is cooked communally in tabletop cooker — a sort of cheese-less fondue.)
“Some child development specialists, though, said the schools’ lack of flexibility was cause for concern. “The guideline is just a general goal for children, but it shouldn’t be cause to disrespect kids’ individual differences, ” said Wang Ronghui, a childcare expert in Guangzhou. “Hand development among kids can vary from one to another. I’ve seen the hands of some 4-year-olds being only as developed as some 2-year-olds, ” she added. Too much pressure on the youngsters, Wang also suggested, could harm their mental health. Wang said parents need to evaluate their priorities. “No cultural heritage is as important as children’s health, ” she said. “Kids need to have enough food to eat.”
Smart Chopsticks Can Detect Gutter Oil
In 2014, the Chinese search engine giant Baidu unveiled a prototype pair of chopsticks that purportedly could detect whether food was dangerous to eat. Sky News reported: “The internet firm revealed a prototype of the device at its annual developers' conference in Beijing. It says the battery-powered chopsticks are fitted with sensors which can detect "gutter oil" — illegally reprocessed cooking oil which can contain carcinogenic compounds. “Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo said: "The light will flash red if the TPM (Total Polar Materials) level in oil is above 25 percent, indicating that the oil has been re-used beyond a level deemed safe." [Source: Sky News, September 5, 2014]
“Mr Kuo said the chopsticks can assess acidity levels and the temperature of oil. He added that the idea behind the device originally began as an April Fool's video. A video of the chopsticks shows the electronic utensils being placed in three different cups of cooking oil. The sensors can also detect the pH level of food and can be linked with a smartphone app to display full findings.
“Poor food safety is a major concern in China. One of its worst food scandals saw six children die and some 300,000 fall ill after the industrial chemical melamine was illegally added to dairy products in 2008. Gutter oil is made by reprocessing waste oil or by dredging up leftovers from restaurants. In 2013, authorities in China arrested more than 100 people for gutter oil production. Twenty people were jailed, two of them for life.
Image Sources: 1) sushi fan; 2) Taiwan tourist 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.
Last updated September 2021