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Chinese Eating Etiquette

by Gary Bloom, Travel Writer and WTA Member

The good news about eating in China? Many of your motherís rules donít apply. A big Chinese dinner, at home or even at a fancy restaurant, often resembles a food fight. When things get going, chopsticks are clicking and food is flying as items are plucked from the dozen main courses at the center of the table and placed in someoneís bowl, not necessarily their own. 

Oh, if it were really that much fun. Though their eating etiquette may be different, the Chinese have as many, probably more, rules than we do. Perhaps the most difficult for us is learning to use chopsticks. But even after weíve seemingly mastered these and are able to get the food from the main dishes to our bowl and then to our mouth, weíve probably already offended our hosts with our lack of manners. So hereís a few simple rules on eating Chinese:

  • Hold chopsticks toward the top, between your thumb and first finger, and about a half inch apart with your middle finger in between the chopsticks. They should come together only at the tips when picking up food. Most of us want to hold chopsticks like a pencil, near the bottom, but holding chopsticks toward the top ends gives you a better angle and increases your leverage.
  • A common mistake westerners make is taking an entire main dish, or most of it, for themselves. Donít grab all the shrimp because itís your favorite or the most expensive. 
  • Donít pile food on your plate first and then begin to eat, unless you were born the year of the pig. Take only a small amount at a time from the main dishes.
  • Donít use your chopsticks for pointing or poking, no matter how funny the joke is. The lower tips should be kept pointing downward.
  • Donít use your chopsticks to forage through the main dishes. Take whatís on top and easiest to reach.
  • Itís tempting to use a single chopstick to stab a piece of beef or fish; so much easier than trying to pick it up the correct way. Five year olds are allowed to do this, but not adults.
  • Donít play with your chopsticks because then you wonít have any food to eat, according to Chinese superstition. 
  • As in the west, using your fingers to eat is frowned upon at formal Chinese diners. But it is okay to hold your bowl close to your mouth and use your chopsticks to shovel in food. 
  • If youíre a guest in a Chinese home, donít be surprised if your host chooses some delicacies for you, whether you want them or not. And yes, you have to eat them if you donít want to offend the host.
  • At a formal banquet, tables with the red cloths are usually for the guests of honor.
  • Donít stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. This is only done with a bowl of rice placed at the family altar for a deceased relative. 
  • After the meal, donít leave your chopsticks in the bowl. This also has death connotations. Place them flat on the table along side your bowl.

Where are the knives? Well, there arenít any. At a traditional Chinese dinner at a home or a restaurant there are no knives at the table. To cut a piece of beef, chopsticks are inserted into the middle of the piece to be cut and pulled apart. Fortunately, meats are heavily marinated and slow cooked in small portions, so this is not as difficult as it seems.

Many of these rules are based on ancient Buddhist and Confucius beliefs, and apply not only to China but much of the rest of Asia. You can learn a lot about Asian culture at the dinner table. And you donít have to travel to all the way to China to use what youíve learned. The next time you eat out at a Chinese restaurant or at a Chinese friendís home you can show off your chopstick skills and worldly knowledge.