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Table manners recorded in the Book of Rites (Lǐ jì)

Updated on December 8, 2009

The Classic of Rites, also known as the Book of Rites, the Record of Rites, Liki, or Li Ch'i in Chinese, was one of the Chinese Five Classics of the Confucian canon. It described the social forms, governmental system, and ancient, ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1050–256 BCE). There are many rules regarding table manners.

I have another post about table manner here. Actually, you needn't worry too much about these rules as long as you keep three principles in mind:

  • honour your host;
  • respect other guest;
  • don't be gluttonous.

Chinese don't always use chopsticks, ancient Chinese used hands as Arabian or Indian do before inventing chopsticks. So there is a rule in the Book of Rites to forbid rolling the rice into a ball, this could only be done by hands;

Chinese seem alway eat from shared dishes since most antiquity time, and then there are rules such as, do not bolt down the various dishes, do not snatch (at what you want), and do not spread out the rice (to cool).

I wonder if ancient Chinese huff-puff their food to cool down quicker, if they are not allowed to spread out the rice to cool, then they mustn't huff-puff it, because this might also show that the eater are very greedy, couldn't wait to fill a hungry guts.

It's quite normal to add salt to food to improve its taste, there are always salt and pepper bottle available on the table in a western restaurant, but there is a rule in the book of rites, says if a guest add condiments, the host will apologise for not having had the soup prepared better.

To Eat until your plate clean actually is a good manner, not only showing your enjoying the food, but also not wasting food. But there is a rule in the Book of Rite, guest mustn't clean all dishes on the table, especially mustn't swill down the sauces, if guest does, the host will apologise for his poverty, that means the host has not provided enough food to satisfy the guests. This rule is still observed in China. I have been told to leave the last piece of meat or vegetable on the plate to show I am full and couldn't eat any more. Once my host insisted on ordering more dishes, and asking me if I was full, because my bowl were so clean and very little left on the plates, either.

Other rules recorded in the Book of Rites:

  • do not swill down (the soup).
  • Do not make a noise in eating;
  • do not crunch the bones with the teeth;
  • do not put back fish you have been eating;
  • do not throw the bones to the dogs;
  • do not use chopsticks in eating millet, because a spoon was the proper implement in eating millet.
  • do not keep picking the-teeth, nor swill down the sauces.
  • Meat that is wet (and soft) may be divided with the teeth, but dried flesh cannot be so dealt with.
  • Do not bolt roast meat in large pieces.
  • A guest should not rinse his mouth with spirits till the host has gone over all the dishes.


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