Chinese etiquette

Maria Niechwiadowicz


Funny enough, after teaching about Western etiquette all week, I got a crash-course in Chinese banquet etiquette today. At noon we were informed that the English department would be holding a (very-late) “welcome” banquet that night for us. Not knowing how formal or informal it would be, our supervisor laid all the rules on us.

First, lets set the scene … image a large room with a round table inside, a table big enough to fit 10-12 people, or even more! The table is adorned with a table cloth and in the center sits a huge, glass lazy susan (aka turntable). Each place has a small plate, chopsticks, spoon, a tall water glass, wine glass, and maybe a napkin, but probably not.

After entering the room, removing your coat, and placing it on the coat stand, it is important to remain standing until seated by the host. Normally, the host will sit in the seat facing the doorway. Depending on the event, other guests sit near the host according to “status” or “position.”

The meal will begin with the host standing and giving a toast to the guests. A toast is made by raising the wine glass while saying a few words, then clinking the class on the lazy susan. All the guests will follow suit, clink the table, and take a sip from the wine glass. While this begins the meal, it does not begin the eating. The eating will not begin until the host physically takes the first bite. (So don’t you dare eat before that :) ).

This first toast also begins a round of toasts from other members at the table. Since this was going to be a banquet with members of the department, our supervisor had some very clear notes for us. The toasting would happen according to “position.” The highest in rank will stand first and visit every person at the table, giving them a word of thanks, and toasting them. It is important that you lower your glass for the clink, showing respect. Sometimes this means “fighting” for the lowest position. From then on the toasting will continue until everyone has made their way around the table. While this is happening, dinner continues…you eat, chat with the people next to you, etc.

As for eating customs, I had already been practicing most of them:

  • Don’t place your dirty chopsticks on the table. Rest them on top of your plate or bowl. Never stick them into your rice to rest.
  • As the lazy susan turns, use your chopsticks to pick up a piece of food from the dishes nearest to you. Do not reach too far, wait until the lazy susan turns and the dish is closer to you.
  • The small plate in front of you is more of a resting place. You do not load up your plate like a buffet, but eat one bite at a time from each of the dishes, resting your chopsticks on your plate if the food you picked up is bigger than one bite. It also provides a place to adjust your chopsticks in your hand.
  • Napkins aren’t really a thing here. At nice restaurants a “tissue box” will be on the table for use, but at local restaurants it may be a roll of “toilet paper” or nothing at all. (Tissues, toilet paper, and napkins are all really the same thing here.)
  • In general, follow what the host does. If he/she picks up a piece of chicken with his/her hands, then go for it!

So I was excited for this more formal banquet experience, but also nervous about the toasting, not knowing who would exactly be there, but it turned out it was quite informal in style. Our host, the Dean of the English Department, insisted that we sit anywhere. I have come to appreciate her warm and easy-going personality. Since the other ‘higher members’ (e.i. Vice-Dean, Foreign Affairs Administrator, other teachers) where scattered around the table (and not in order of status), I was curiously watching how the toasting would happen. Our Dean stuck to the status order, not following the rotation around the table, but jumping from person to person. After the administrators, we were visited next, before the other Chinese teachers, I thought that was interesting.

When it came to be our turn (that is, Arnold and I), our supervisor nudged me, and said “good-luck.” My experience in hospitality came in handy, I felt like I moved around the table with ease and actually really enjoyed toasting my superiors and thanking them for their kindness these past three months.

I hope that I will have more experiences like this to observe and learn this unique Chinese table culture!