In China spending time together at the table is a true ritual. It is an opportunity for savouring the tasty cuisine, conversation but also a form of a gift presented by the Chinese to the guest invited to feast. Before accepting an invitation to a Chinese table, it is hence worth learning a few rules that can help avoid social gaffes.
For the Chinese, nothing strengthens the bonds among family, friends as well as professional ones, like joint feasting. However, one must remember that an invitation to a Chinese table is often considered a form of a gift. After accepting the invitation, particularly if was not extended by a friend, the inviting party may soon turn to us with some request and will be expecting a positive handling of the matter. It is worth keeping in mind that if a Chinese invites us to a restaurant, they will take care of the entire bill. Paying for oneself only would be considered a major faux pas. In return, however, they will be expecting a similar invitation in the future.
At the round table
The traditional Chinese table is round. The Chinese believe such a shape brings people closest together, regardless of their social status or professional hierarchy. However, even at a round table, some seats are considered ”better” or ”worse” by the Chinese. The better ones face the door, the less favourable are near the entrance. The guest of honour is always seated to the right of the host, then other guests are seated alternately on the host’s left and right side. A table setting is awaiting each person: a small porcelain bowl, a flat plate, chopsticks and a cup or a glass. If the host puts a portion of the food on our plate, this should be considered as a particular sign of distinction or affection, as they will choose only the best bits and pieces for the guest. Hence, one should pay no attention to the fact they may do it with their own, already used chopsticks…
Chopsticks - the extension of one’s fingers
When accepting an invitation to a Chinese table, it is worth learning beforehand how to eat with chopsticks, since for the Chinese using cutlery is considered a type of barbarism. They think of chopsticks as an extension of one’s fingers. The tradition of using chopsticks in China goes back a few thousand years. During breaks in the meal, the chopsticks should be placed flat on one’s plate or propped, using the thinner ends, against a special stand placed to the right of the plate. In line with an old Chinese saying, the fact whether someone has learned to properly use chopsticks can be tested in three ways: by asking them to lift one grain of rice to their mouth, by seeing how they catch an arrow in mid-flight and by checking if they can get rid of a mosquito flying around their head.
And what is on the table?
Guests are served the dishes in a defined order. The revolving tray, on which the dishes are placed is directed so the newly-served dish ends up in front of the guest of honour. Other guests should wait until he or she has tasted each dish as the first. During the first round of dishes, one should taste only a minimal amount of food, larger quantities can be consumed during the second and the third round. It is, however, worth remembering not to take the last remaining portion, but leave some of the dish on the tray. The Chinese treat an empty plate as a sign of hunger, and may thus think they did not serve enough food for their guests.
Gan bei! - toasting
Traditional green tea and various alcoholic beverages appear on the Chinese table. If our glass is filled, we should thank the host by gently hitting a finger on the edge of the table. Alcohol should not be consumed before the first official toast. It is usually made by the most important person sitting at the table. The toast is ”Gan bei!” (Gānbēi), which means ”dry your cup (glass)” or simply ”Bottoms up!”. After the first toast, it is widely accepted to actually empty one’s glass. One should even show that it is empty. The Chinese believe one should not drink alcohol alone, therefore, they direct the toast to a chosen person, yet this usually ends up in everyone drinking with everyone else, so that no one feels left out.
What one should not do at the table?
To refuse offered food is a faux pas. If one truly needs to refuse, one should provide a credible reason. If we have good appetite, then avoid reaching for a dish across the table. This is the reason the Chinese use the revolving tray, so that everyone can bring close the desired dish.
Many gaffes at the Chinese table relate to using chopsticks. One must not play with them, nor hit them against the table or the plate. Particularly offensive to the Chinese would be to vertically stick the chopsticks into a bowl of rice, since this resembles the ceremonial dish for the dead. The Chinese hosts may read this as wishing death.
At the table with business partners
One need not worry about making gaffe while taking seats at the table as it is the host who points everyone to their appropriate seats. During a business dinner the set of rules is similar to the one during aforementioned Chinese suppers. One should remember to constantly praise the deliciousness of the dishes, the Chinese consider the abundance and delightfulness of dishes as a form of good wishes passed to the guests by the host. Alcohol is also served during Chinese business meetings. If one does not intend to drink it, one should prepare a credible excuse since for a Chinese a person who refuses a toast is not trustworthy.
The dinner is finished once hot towels have been served. One should not tip the staff as this will be frown upon by the host. Having good business relations in mind, one should reciprocate by extending a similar invitation to the host. The best venue would be… a Chinese restaurant since the Chinese are very attached to their own cuisine. However, it is worth remembering that our business dinner should not dwarf the dinner we were first invited to.