Interpersonal relationships are an indispensable part of doing business in China so dinners act as a spring-board for establishing friendships, sharing ideas and cementing trust. Therefore mastering Chinese dinner etiquette is essential for successful business.
“If two people cannot even eat a single meal together, how will they be able to converse as like-minded fellows?”
If you have done business in China before, you will probably have found formal meetings and office environments are frequently full of unclear communication and partial truths. This is partially due to the rigid hierarchy that exists and the heavy scrutiny people feel as a result. People are often reticent because they fear causing inconvenience or loss of face to others. However you will find they are considerably more forthcoming in a more private setting accompanied with a delicious meal, plenty of drinks and good company.
In China an elaborate series of conventions and rituals around dinner have been an intrinsic part of their culture for over 2000 years. But in such a high context culture with so many unwritten rules, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are 10 Do’s and Don’ts to keep in mind.
- Taste a little of everything – Chinese hosts will constantly observe all their guests to see if they are happy and to check if they are eating the food provided. As a foreigner you may also find your host wants to test your fortitude and manners. To ensure no-one is offended you should always try to eat a bit of everything. If you really cannot stomach certain dishes, do not flatly refuse but rather try to make an appropriate excuse, for example you can base them on any health or religious restrictions you may have.
- Eat from your bowl and use your plate to discard bones, shells etc – putting food on a plate while eating is a very common mistake made by westerners and is seen as uncivilized.
- Slurp your noodles or soup – this may seem contrary to what you were taught as a child but in China (as well as Japan and Korea) it is customary to slurp these dishes to signal appreciation to the chef or host.
- Stop eating and put your chopsticks down before speaking with someone – when talking with people, especially during formal dinners, it is important to give them all of your attention. Similarly you should not interrupt two people already in conversation.
- Tap against the table when people pour you tea– this is a silent way of saying thank you and has been practised for centuries. It is traditionally done with tea and mostly practiced in southern China by the older generation. For example, if a dinner partner is engrossed in conversation with another guest, do not interrupt by asking if they want more tea, just pour it. They will then acknowledge this kindness by tapping their bent index and middle fingers twice on the table, thus allowing them to say thank you without interrupting the conversation.
- Order plenty of dishes – if you’ve been invited to any dinners in China you will have noticed there is nearly always an overabundance of food. The host’s duty is to make sure all the guests are full and satisfied. Being seen as cheap or stingy is an extremely negative trait in China. Ensure that you order plenty of meat, fish and seafood as well as lots of drinks. Additionally, pay the bill privately rather than in front of everyone to avoid the ritualistic argument over the bill.
- When toasting lower your glass to people older or more senior than you – in hierarchical cultures such as China this is essential to show respect and humility. This is done across all of Chinese society, for example President Xi lowered his glass to Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to the UK in 2015. When toasting you may find many people will compete to show how humble they are by continually lowering their glasses almost all the way down to the table.
- Toast with each person at the table at least once – this is done to give every person the proper amount of “face” or recognition, and if hosting, to show your generosity. Start with the most senior person at the table and work your way down. Remember these toasts should be done at intervals and not in quick succession, so take your time.
- Place the guest of honour or highest status person in the best seat – where a person sits determines their place in the hierarchy and enables people to know how much face and respect they are due. In casual dinners the host will usually sit facing the door (or if there is no door in sight, on the East side of the table) and have their most important guests flanking them with the rest in descending order. If it’s a formal dinner involving other companies or delegations then the most senior guest will sit opposite the host with their most important associates next to them. The idea is that every person sits opposite their counterparts.
Tip: this can be a useful indicator of the internal dynamics and structure of a company.
- Always pour others people’s drinks before your own – make sure you refill other people’s drinks continually throughout the night regardless of whether they ask you to or not. Likewise your drink will usually be filled continually by others throughout the night. However if you want to refill your own remember to always offer a refill to others before helping yourself.
- Never place your chopsticks upright in a bowl – this looks like the joss sticks used at funerals and therefore signifies death. This is the cardinal sin of Asian table manners. After eating simply place your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or diagonally across your plate or bowl.
- Request or expect to split the bill – the host always pays for the entire dinner, but it is polite, indeed almost compulsory, to profusely argue that you should pay the bill yourself. This can sometimes appear to get quite heated but it’s just a regular part of East Asian culture. In both casual and formal dinners the guest is then expected to reciprocate by being the next person to invite them to dinner. In addition tipping is not expected and is still technically illegal in China.
- Seat people facing the corner of the table – the sharp corner pointing towards someone has connotations of danger and is considered bad luck. This is one of the main reasons why most dinner tables in China are round.
- Don’t make any gestures or actions with your chopsticks such as pointing or tapping – chopsticks can sometimes feel more like an extension of your fingers than conventional cutlery so this has unfortunately become a very common mistake among westerners.
- Dig around in the dishes to select the best pieces of food – it may be tempting to avoid bony meat or other ingredients that aren’t to your liking. But this is often likened to “grave-digging” and is extremely poor manners.
- Eat too fast – Chinese dinners and banquets always have an enormous amount of food and your hosts will usually encourage you to eat as much as possible. This coupled with the expectation of trying every dish often means foreigners will only have a light lunch so they can save room. But all too often this results in them eating to quickly which is considered rude and uncivilised, especially in formal settings. So no matter how hungry you are always take your time and remember it is far more important to try a little of everything than it is to eat a lot.
- Never criticise or comment on how strange some food appears to be – scorpions, coagulated blood, chicken feet, stinky tofu etc may be very weird or even disgusting to you, but this is part of their cuisine. Therefore any negative or derogatory comments about such dishes will not be taken well by your Chinese dinner partners.
- Never eat the last piece of anything – this is true in many cultures as it is considered to be selfish and greedy. Additionally in China it is also considered bad luck. So no matter how tempted you may be, always refrain from taking the last piece. The exception to this is if your host asks you to take the final piece, however you should at least politely refuse once or twice so you don’t come across as too desperate.
- Never discuss business during dinner – this may seem strange to some cultures but this is the golden rule of business dinners in China. Dinner is meant to cultivate strong relationships so that business can be done in the future. You are best advised to keep the conversation light by discussing family, Chinese culture, food, holidays etc and avoid any controversial topics like politics or religion. Any talk of business won’t start until long after the meal has begun so be patient and wait for your counterpart to begin.
- Never finish all of your food – an empty plate is considered offensive as it signals to your host that you are unhappy with their hospitality. Simply leave a little there to show you are full and satisfied.
Remember these rules are taken more seriously by some rather than others so as with all social conventions your actual experiences will vary greatly. But these are the traditional norms.
Do not worry too much about making mistakes as you will never be held to the same standards as locals. That being said the more polite and courteous you are the more ‘face’ you will give and the more respect you will earn. If you’re ever in doubt the best option is to be as observant as possible and try to follow your dinner partner’s lead.