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May 22, 2011

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Unlocking the secrets of Chinese table etiquette

IN China, dining etiquette may seem complicated to foreigners who have recently arrived as there are a number of important rules or customs that are followed. There are different rules for different occasions such as a boyfriend meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time to an important business meeting taking place over dinner.

In business, sometimes foreigners don't understand why a big contract can be signed even though no business was discussed during the meal. It's partly because Chinese people like to establish guanxi (relationship), getting to know one another, giving face to each other and building trust, through eating and drinking, which seems more relaxed and friendly.

For foreigners living and working in China, knowing the rules and customs at the table is helpful in making Chinese friends and doing well in business.

Here are some tips.

Seating arrangements

Chinese prefers round tables as they can accommodate more guests and are easier to make eye contact and conversation. Generally, a host and hostess sit opposite the door so they can greet guests. The seat to the right of the host is reserved for the guest of honor, who is usually the oldest or most important. The seat nearest the door is of least importance since of all the intrusions by waiters serving food and drink. If possible, the host will try to ensure no one sits in this seat. However, when faced with limited space, the youngest person at the table will sit in this seat.

If you are still confused, don't worry, in most circumstances, the host will show you where to sit. If you are the only foreigner at the table, the host will often follow the Confucius saying "to host friends from afar is the most delightful thing," and consider you the guest of honor.

Food serving

When dishes are placed on the table, do not be the first to start eating or you will be seen as not respecting others, especially older people. Chinese emphasize filial piety, therefore, presenting the food first to seniors is always the rule.

During the meal, your bowl may be continuously refilled by the host even though you have said "goule" (enough) again and again. Some foreigners place their hand over the bowl to emphasize they are full. This may embarrass the host as they are merely trying to be polite and show their kindness.

If a plate of fish is served, do not eat the fish head first. Since "head" in Chinese can also mean "leader," the host usually serves it to the guest of honor to express respect.


One of my American friends once complained: "During business meals, why am I always asked by my Chinese partner to drink more and more until I get drunk?"

In China, there's a saying "watch the renpin (dignity) from the jiupin (the way of drinking)." In other words, how much you drink is in direct proportion to your trustworthiness. You will be regarded as more sincere and upright by drinking more.

For example, when a business friend proposes a toast to you, drink the same or more than he does to give him face and respect. If you drink less or refuse the toast, it's like saying "I don't want to be friends with you."

If you can't drink but are still toasted, the best way to deal with it is to tell the toaster that you can't drink, and then drink the wine being poured in your glass. The information you deliver is "I respect you so I drink more than I am capable of."

I know a friend who had drunk a lot of baijiu (Chinese spirit) during a business dinner and he could hardly hold his glass. However, when toasted, he still emptied the wine in his glass and then announced: "My body can collapse but my dignity can't." The day after the meal, the contract was signed.

Besides the amount consumed, the drinks can also be interesting. Two popular ways are introduced.

One is called "sanzhongquanhui," which involves mixing red wine, baijiu and beer. The flavor is very "special." Another is called "hongtaiyang" (literally means the red sun). Put a raw egg in a glass of beer and then drink it. The golden color of beer and red color of egg yolk together creates an image like a red sun.

Some nice drinking games such as "xingjiuling" may also be played. Xingjiuling was quite popular among scholars in ancient China and is still played among a few literati. Drinkers connect idioms, recite or compose a poem, guess riddles and tell jokes.

Pay the bill

It's the final part of the meal and you may have seen two people argue over the bill.

The conversation goes something like this:

"We have already agreed that I will pay the bill. Why do you pay it now?"

"You don't let me pay which means you don't give me face!"

"This time, I pay, next time, you pay."

Finally, the one who failed to pay often repeatedly says, "Next time, the bill is on mine."

Many foreigners do not understand why Chinese fight to pay the bill.

The truth is Chinese are concerned about renqing. Ren translates as people while qing means emotion. The two words together means a person can present a gift to others during social interaction but anticipate a favor in return at a later time.

If I pay the bill, it means you owe me a renqing. Next time, when I need your help, you should return the favor. An old Chinese saying states that returning renqing is more difficult than repaying debt. Thus, no one wants to owe renqing.

If you are a foreigner, try fighting for the bill. On one hand, it shows you understand Chinese culture and customs, and on the other hand, it's a chance to experiencing Chinese-style interpersonal relationships.


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