Chinese Dining Etiquette

With less than 24 hours to go before the first dinner in the series of the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese Cuisine (8GTCC), I thought it is apt that I write something about Chinese Dining Etiquette.

So, for the 52 adventurous diners who are attending the Hunan cuisine dinner in Alvin Garden, here is an assignment for you. Review and remember these etiquettes by heart … and put them into practice during the dinner. I am helping you by highlighting the important points in red and bold. *wink*

Eating is central to almost every occasion in the Chinese culture. When it comes to celebration of any sort, it is often celebrated by having a big dinner. It could be for a wedding, a new born, the opening of a new business, and birthdays. Arkensen was the first born of my generation. When he was 1 month old, my parents threw a banquet of 200 people! I also remember that during the funerals of my grandparents, the ceremony ended with food, albeit it was simple congee. So you can see that eating together is important to the Chinese.


A proper Chinese dinner table is round. In the western table setting, the table is long and the head of the table is reserved for the host. In the Chinese table setting, the most important person (not necessarily the host) has the honor of seated in the seat furthest away from the entrance and facing the entrance. The Chinese believe that honor goes to the most senior person, whether by age or by position in society.


The food for the dinner is normally picked by the host. There are no democracy in the selection of food. All decisions are left to the host and everyone is supposed to like it. If you don’t like it, it is rude to be upfront and frank about it. You either do not say anything about it or you pretend you like it.


In the middle of a large round table, there is a Lazy Susan. This helps to pass around the food without passing plates. Passing plates are generally not encourage. If you want to pass food to others, you normally will pick up the food with the (communal) chopstick and pass it direct to their bowl.

On each seat, there is the bowl, a pair of chopsticks and a soup spoon. Modern table settings includes small plates where it is commonly used to put left over bones.

The Lazy Susan should be turned in only one direction. Usually it is clock wise.


Never rest the chopsticks flat on the table. Always rest it against the holder if provided or on your plate or bowl. Never ever stick it into the rice. The superstitious Chinese regards this as a bad omen because it resembles joss sticks used in praying to the dead.


You will notice that Chinese food are served in bite sizes. So you don’t really have fillets and such served. That is why chopsticks are just sufficient for the entire meal.

Because of health concerns, there are now communal chopsticks. You will they are communal because it is of a different color. If there are no communal chopsticks, some people uses the opposite end of their chopstick to pick the food. However, I am not sure if this is an acceptable practice because I don’t see people doing this anymore.


When the food is served, you are not supposed to … start eating even if you are hungry. The host or the most senior person will signal the start by pointing to the dishes and saying words to the effect of “eat your rice” or “raise your chopsticks”.

The proper way to eat is to hold the bowl of rice with the left hand. It is correct to lift the bowl to the mouth and shovel the food and rice with the chopsticks.


Unlike western food, Chinese meat are often cooked with bones. This is suppose to taste better. You usually have a small plate where you are to spit the bone into. Yeah, when I was younger we did not even bother with the plates at home … we just spit it on the table.

When offered the food, never turn it down even if you don’t like it. At least take a small piece.

The other thing is, never dig the food in the plate to select the choice piece. Always take the one nearest to you or at the top of the dish. Once you had touched the food with your chopsticks, you cannot change your mind and put it back … you gotta eat it.


Oh yes. One very important thing … as you finish, you MUST eat every grain of rice on your bowl. When I was young, my mum always warned me that if I did not finish the rice, my future wife will have lots of pimples on her face. That is why today Suanne does not have pimples at all.

Now, this next thing is strange. No matter how full everyone is, no food is to be wasted. You are are to try to finish everything that is served.


However, if you notice, the last piece is left untouched. In part it is because it is greedy to eat the last piece. It is also an sign to the host that he is generous for ordering so much food that they can’t finish that last piece. If you really want that last piece, you have to pretend that you are forced by others to take it.

Here is one very important thing to remember too. When it come to paying for the dinner, you are to fight for the honour to pay. Losing the fight means losing face. If you really cannot afford it, just pretend to fight with a hand fumbling in the wallet pocket … and then pretend that you felt bad losing and demanding that you pay the next time. That, my dear diners, is the most important advice for you in Chinese Dining Etiquette.

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  1. Pattie

    The fighting for the bill is so true. It’s an art in the Chinese culture. Although some people need to refine their skills in pretending to want to pay.

  2. frank

    hey ben…that is a great run down of the etiquette…I hope there isn’t a quiz at the end of the meal though!!!

    Also, is there an etiquette about pouring tea…my chinese friends back in Toronto taught me to tap two fingers on the table if I wanted tea???…is this something that is practiced here as well

    Looking forward to the dinner…


    1. LotusRapper

      It’s two taps on the table (with your index and middle fingers only) next to the tea cup, to THANK the person who’s pouring tea for you.

      The gesture originated from the Qing dynasty, as outlined here in Wikipedia:

      “After a person’s cup is filled, that person may knock their bent index and middle fingers (or some similar variety of finger tapping) on the table to express gratitude to the person who served the tea. Although this custom is common in southern Chinese culture such as the Cantonese, in other parts of China it is only acceptable if for some reason you cannot actually say thank you at that moment, for example if you are in the middle of talking with someone else at the table.

      This custom is said to have originated in the Qing Dynasty when Emperor Qian Long would travel in disguise through the empire. Servants were told not to reveal their master’s identity. One day in a restaurant, the emperor, after pouring himself a cup of tea, filled a servant’s cup as well. To that servant it was a huge honour to have the emperor pour him a cup of tea. Out of reflex he wanted to kneel and express his thanks. He could not kneel and kowtow to the emperor since that would reveal the emperor’s identity so he bent his fingers on the table to express his gratitude and respect to the emperor.”

  3. Marike

    Some people fight for the bill so hard that they scheme during the whole meal to be the one who pays. For example, pretending to go to washroom and then secretly paying so when the bill comes you’ve already won!

    Extreme, I know, but I’ve seen it!

    1. Joanne

      Hi Ben!

      Great job in summarizing the etiquette.
      My mom is a prime example of paying for the bill when heading towards the washroom… I’ve also seen her literally fight for the bill when it comes to the table, too, where I think the bill ripped since there was a tug of war… Now that’s extreme 😉

      Also, I still don’t know if it’s okay to use the opposite ends if there are no communal chopsticks but my family and friends do practice that if that`s the case.

    2. LotusRapper

      You should see my Dad and I each time the family all goes out for a meal. For us the phony washroom trip trick is so old now 🙁

      One way of increasing one’s chance of “winning” the fight to pay …. bring cash. All denominations.

    3. Robby

      Hee Hee! I can relate to extreme measures for paying the bill. I remember once when I was about 7 years old, my Grandfather was hosting a dinner party for out of town family. In order to make sure that he paid for the meal, he called me over and handed me his credit card to give to the cashier. My out of town uncle caught me before I could give my Grandfather’s card. My uncle told me to give the card back to my Grandfather. I did. Beunknownst to my uncle and I, my Grandfather had already given another card to the cashier. I was the decoy. Good times and memories! =)

      1. Joe

        When I was a kid, my folks used to get me to sneak under the table and grab the bill from the hands of whoever had it.

        1. Janice

          Haha me too!!

  4. Novi

    Nice list Ben, it brought back so many memories. 🙂 Never mind the washroom trick to pay the bill, I know people that stealthily hand over their credit card to the cashier before they’re seated so they are guaranteed to pay.

    There is also a correct way to hold the bowl in the left hand, with the thumb on the upper rim and 2 or more fingers on the bottom of the bowl. Holding the bowl in your palm gives the appearance of begging and is frowned upon.

  5. Doug

    Never use your chopstick to point at the food and especially at people!

  6. Pinoy Gourmet

    I wanted to add never use a chopstick like a skewer,I was in a restaurant in Beijing,when a Western 8 year old was using his chopstick to skewer dimsum,He would skewer them and then eat them like kebabs.Needless to say,lots of horrified diners turned their eyes away

  7. JayJayJetplane

    I was recently at a Shanghainese restaurant and went to the washroom, after I finished washing my hands there were two fathers who were fighting for the bill (like almost physically fighting) but problem was they were fighting in front of the hand dryer and I had to dry my hands. I was polite and waited for about 10 seconds but finally said how about I pay but can I dry my hands first. They stared and continued fighting in the restaurant even as I was leaving.

    Oh and if this wasn’t mentioned before never tap your chopsticks on your bowl or plates of cups like a drum!

    1. LotusRapper

      “Oh and if this wasn’t mentioned before never tap your chopsticks on your bowl or plates of cups like a drum!”

      Unless you’re at a wedding banquet and you want to get the bride and groom to pucker up ! 🙂

  8. Janice

    Aw you guys, pretending to go to the washroom and leaving your credit card up front is an old game.

    It’s all about who can lay down the exact amount of cash without asking the waiter for any sort of change.

    1. fmed

      Ah yes….that is the Masters Level game. LOL.

  9. Eat. Travel. Eat!

    Oh, the fighting for the bill thing is so funny and so cool! I just witnessed one on Wednesdayas two families were eating out. They fought at least for five minutes :). Some people are really smart though…even if they leave early to go get the bill or “pay” the bill the other person ends up paying! It’s an amazing art!

    In my area we usually have spoons for each dish but I do know in Asia some places do not have any. When eating with people from China when they visit us they just pick and eat with the same end of chopsticks.

  10. Marike

    ok…how about stealing the other person’s wallet so they can’t even try to pay? 😀

  11. Chris

    It’s funny I was brought up with the same etiquette but never had the audacity to question why. Glad u were able to provide the rationale! I love the fighting-to-pay-the-bill; these days we decide who pays what and usually we go dutch. So much easier and less attention-seeking!

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