Chinese culture is rich in interesting customs and unusual superstitions very different from those in the West. From avoiding facial hair like the plague, to never ever gifting someone a clock, these curious tendencies date back to ancient times. What is even lesser-known, is the importance of mannerisms during formal Chinese meal times. There are considerably strict rules involving seating arrangements, chopstick etiquette and bill settling and having an awareness of how to properly conduct oneself is imperative and can prevent the occurrence of embarrassing situations and cultural insensitivity.
If you’re travelling in China and eat out at local restaurants only in the company of your Western friends, it’s unlikely you will be seriously affected by the traditional dining etiquette. Staff at popular tourist spots are aware that most foreigners are unfamiliar with Chinese table manners and hardly expect you to comply. However, if you are ever invited to dinner by someone local or their family (and this can often be the case as Chinese people are very friendly and keen to share their culture with visitors), then there are some things that you do need to be aware of.
Polite dining mannerisms are said to bring forth good luck and are often thought to be indicative of one’s upbringing and family status. Other practical considerations during meal times are directly related to cultural superstitions usually associated with fear bad luck or even dying!
If invited to a traditional Chinese meal, know that the head of the table is normally reserved for the host, who is usually the person with the highest status. It is often customary for hosts to invite guests to sit next to them so see this as an honour and accept. If this is a really traditional meal, the host will also be responsible for the ordering of the food without you having much say in it. The good news is that the host will also be solely responsible for paying the bill at the end! So be sure to be clearly express your gratitude a few times at the end of the meal.
Most Westerners think they are well-versed in the use of chopsticks due to the popularity of Chinese food in the West- but few know what you should never do with your chopsticks during meal times.
Chopsticks should only be used to grab food. Sticking food with a chopstick is frowned upon and so is ‘digging down’ in the dish for a preferred ingredient as it symbolises begging. Never play with them, point at someone with them or make clicking noises. Even more importantly, never rest the chopsticks vertical inside a bowl as it is reminiscent of incense sticks stuck in bowls of rice during funerals. Neatly leave your chopsticks by the side of your plate if you are taking a rest- or place them horizontally on your plate/bowl if you’re finished eating.
If unsure about any aspect of the eating etiquette simply wait and see how others do it. Be gentle and polite and if in doubt- just ask!