In an informal setting there are hardly any special rules for dining in China and as a foreigner you will often be excused for any potential mistakes. But, if you find yourself in a business setting, for example, attending a formal banquet, there are a couple of things that you should bear in mind in order to avoid committing an unnecessary faux pas.
- Be very conscious of the ranking of all the people sitting behind the table. The protocol is usually determined by the host and you can’t go wrong by following him or her. If you are the guest of honor, you will most likely be seated to the right of your host, both of you having the best view of the entrance door and of the other guests. Next to you, you will find the highest ranking member of the gathering. If it’s a formal family dinner, you’ll be seated next to the eldest person in the family.
- Once the dishes arrive do not just pounce on them. Observe the cues from the host. The host will begin to eat once all the guests have been seated. The Chinese treat ordering food as a form of art. There has to be the right balance between meat and vegetable dishes. There has to be spicy and bland food, some fish and a type soup. Normally, some cold dishes will be ordered as appetizers, followed by the main dishes. Sweet dishes – something you might consider a dessert yourself, e.g. sesame buns – will be put in between the salty once. For dessert fruit is commonly served with watermelon being an especially popular choice.
- Formal dinners usually take place behind a round table. The bigger the occasion the bigger the number of round tables, with around ten people seated behind each table. The dishes will be presented on the glass plate, aka. Lazy Susan. Each guest will also have their own bowl, tea-cup, drinking glass (especially if alcohol is to be served) spoon and chopsticks. Use the spoon for the soup and use the chopsticks for everything else. Sometimes you’ll also be given a hot wet cloth to wash your hands with and use later on instead of a napkin.
- If you are the guest of honor, someone will always make sure that your glass is filled to the top. Pace yourself and don’t drink too fast. It’s also unusual that you would drink by yourself, instead it’s expected that you would toast with someone. If you are just an ordinary guest yourself, make sure to refill the cups and glasses of the people seating around you. When drinking alcohol (spirits, wine, or beer), the drinks will be poured into the glass and normally drunk in one go.
- You might be forced to drink alcohol if you are a man and attending a banquet in Northern China. Northerners are especially proud of their ‘generosity’ and will admire you for your alcohol drinking abilities. No matter how confident you might feel, do not compete with them in Baijiu drinking. Beer is also drank in shots (in small 150 ml glasses), normally not served cold, but in room temperature. In Chinese south, there’s less drinking involved and you might not be forced to drink at all. Women can usually decline to drink.
So there you have it. Follow this five tips and let us know about your own experience in the comments section below.