An American expat asks us:
I have important business meetings that often involve having dinner with Chinese business people. I don’t want to offend them, so I was wondering what are the dos and don’ts at the banquet table?
Table manners play an important role in making a favorable impression. Here are some tips that will help you avoid the pitfalls of appearing impolite and boost your personal status at the dinner table.
In China, dining tables are usually round. At a small table for five to six people, the seat facing the door right across from the host’s seat is normally offered to the main guest or the oldest guest with the highest status. At a table for more than 10 people, the host may sit beside the main guest to make it easier to talk.
The main difference between Chinese and Western eating habits is that in China dishes are placed on the table and are shared by everyone as opposed to each diner having their own plate. A typical Chinese meal includes cold dishes, main courses, soup, rice, desserts and fruit.
Chinese are generally proud of their food culture and the hosts may end up ordering more dishes than necessary to show their hospitality.
On occasion, a passionate Chinese host may even place food into your bowl or plate. It is polite to eat what you are given. But if you are offered a dish you absolutely dislike, finish the other food on the plate or in your bowl and leave the rest.
Generally, leaving a little food indicates you are full.
Drinks play an important role at Chinese dinner tables. Alcohol and other beverages are both served while eating, and the host may encourage guests to drink to show friendship.
A toast is raised at the beginning of the meal by clinking the rim of each other’s glasses. When tapping glasses, putting the rim of your glass below the other person’s is a sign of respect.
The host will pay the bill after the meal. Splitting the bill, or going Dutch, as is often done in the West, is not commonly accepted, especially at a business dinner or formal occasion. If you want to show your gratitude and hospitality, you may in turn invite the host to dinner on another occasion.
Don’t stab your chopsticks into your bowl of rice, and don’t point at other objects with them or use them as drumsticks.
When somebody dies, the shrine at the funeral contains a bowl of sand or rice with two incense sticks sticking straight up. Therefore, if you put chopsticks straight into a bowl of rice, it is deemed extremely impolite and implies that you wish death upon those at the table.
Tapping on plates or bowls with chopsticks is also rude as this is a common habit among beggars. You also risk offending the host by tapping on a bowl if it takes too long for the food to arrive.
Don’t try to turn over a fish and debone it. The separation of the fish is usually carried out by the host or the waiters. Some people believe turning over the fish brings bad luck. This is especially true among southerners in China (such as natives of Guangdong and Fujian provinces as well as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region).
Don’t point the spout of a teapot at someone. It is believed that tea brings the host and the guests closer; it is something that enhances relationships. The person at whom the teapot spout is pointing is considered not welcome by the host. Make sure the spout is facing a vacant space and pointing outward from the dining table.
(Chen Yingqian contributed to this answer.)