Your Pocket Guide to Impress your Chinese Host
If you have been to China and have attended a formal dinner then I’m sure you are very aware of the importance of demonstrating good etiquette. Most business and networking in China are conducted over the dinner table, and a good ‘display’ at dinner will definitely go a long way towards cultivating good ‘guanxi’ with your Chinese hosts.
Attending a banquet as a foreigner can be quite a daunting affair, but not to worry, we hope this quick pocket guide will help you understand Chinese table manners.
#Do: Sit in the ‘right’ seat
Generally speaking, at a dinner banquet the Chinese host will traditionally sit facing the door. This is considered the ‘best’ seat on the table as it is facing the gate.
The ‘worst’ seat is considered to be where the waiters serve the dishes. However, if you are a guest traditionally speaking you will be seated directly to the right of the host.
A good tip to avoid any loss of ‘face’ is to ask where you will be seated. Here is a link to a short clip of a Chinese drama whereby a foreigner is being explained where to sit at dinner: https://youtu.be/9M3zFDwrc-M . ( The clip starts at 19:18)
In the clip, you will notice that as the foreigner is the 主宾 (zhǔbīn) a.k.a. the guest of honour he is directed by the family to sit at the top of the table. Though this typically reserved for the father as the head of the household, as the foreigner is the guest, the parents are directed to sit ‘east’ or besides him to accompany the guest.
The other members of the family are directed to sit ‘west’ to honour the guest as they are considered less important than the parents.
#Do: Not be late
It is important to be punctual for dinner engagements, as being late is considered to be very impolite. Especially, if you are the foreign guest then try not to be late as you will be generally asked to take the first taste of the dishes.
#Do: Hold your chopsticks properly
Eating with chopsticks can be difficult but do try to use them. If you are struggling, you can use the spoon provided with the bowl or alternatively you can politely ask for a fork. If your chopsticks momentarily fail and you happen to drop some food on the table, it is best to just say ‘excuse me’ ‘不好意思 (bùhǎoyìsi) and make a slight joke out of the situation.
Other pointers to remember are not to play with your chopsticks or point them at someone. Also, it is important to remember that when you are filling the bowl with rice, it is considered impolite to ‘insert’ the chopsticks into the bowl. Instead, simply lie your chopsticks together and flat across your bowl.
#Do: Not say that you do not like the food outright
If you don’t eat something in particular or are a vegetarian make sure you make it clear at the outset. If you don’t like the food, it is best to try to eat it especially if the dish is prompted by your host. If you really physically can’t stomach something then it is best to say: 我不习惯吃这个 (wǒ bù xíguàn chī zhège) ‘I’m not used to eating this’. By playing this ‘culture’ difference card it gets you out of eating it whilst saving face for all involved. But in any occasion it is best to ‘praise’ your host by saying every dish is 好吃 (hàochī) ‘delicious’.
#Extra tip: It is best not to eat the last remaining food on a dish and when you are finished eating it is advised not to leave the bowl completely empty as this may imply you are still hungry and that you have been underfed. Another quick tip is not to discard food such as bones in the bowl in front of you and place these types of unwanted food on the plate.
#Do: Toast your host
Once you have identified the most important member of the party (usually the person being toasted by the majority of the Chinese guests) you should also make a toast to them. Making a toast is simple, just touch glasses with the host. When doing this make sure that you are standing up and holding the glass with two hands. Additionally, when toasting your host make sure that the rim of your glass is lower than that of the recipient of the toast as this shows a sign of respect.
If you are attending a banquet with somebody of very high social status, then it is advised to toast them by emptying your glass, saying 我干杯 (wǒgānbēi) ‘I’ll drink up’, followed by你随意 (nǐsuíyì) ‘you drink as much as you like’.
This allows them to drink as little, or as much as they desire, whilst you show your respect and gratitude by emptying your glass. The higher the alcohol content of the drink, and the more of it that you drink, the more ‘face’ is then bestowed upon the host and indeed to yourself. Of course, it is always best to be sensible when drinking a high alcoholic drink and if you do not drink then it is best to make that clear at the start of the meal or when the host sends you the invite.
Alternatively, if someone toasts you, it is considered impolite not to return the toast later on in the course of the meal.
We hope these tips on what not to do and do have been useful for you. Attending a dinner banquet is a great insight into Chinese culture as it allows you to further understand their rules of courtesy. Remember don’t panic if you make a mistake when toasting, just by showing appreciation to the host and thanking them for inviting you will be sufficient’.
Please leave a comment below if you have any insights into formal dining in China, we would love to hear more about your dining experiences.