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Chinese Food Culture - Customs and Etiquette

Updated on October 23, 2015

Social etiquette

No matter how Westernised some Chinese have become, there are still some remaining customs that have been passed onto them by their elders and their elders before them. Chinese food may have become common but it is still a much loved cuisine amongst many societies around the world. This lens explores the manners and knowledge one should have when dining in the company of the Chinese whether it is for business, a visit to friends or a special occasion. Don't worry if after reading this you don't remember something. Simply remember to be thoughtful to others and have respect and tolerance. Watch how others act and follow, if in doubt, ask. Better to admit to not knowing than to offend. Having understanding of Chinese traditions will help make the interaction between cultures more enjoyable, so read on and learn!

Chinese food at a Wedding Banquet

I recently attended a Chinese Wedding and my, the food was glorious!

Check out the menu and my culinary experience here : Food at a Chinese Wedding

Greetings

Traditional Greeting

Nowadays it is common form to shake hands for both genders but bear in mind Buddhist monks do not shake hands or touch women just as Buddhist nuns do not shake hands.

The traditional Chinese greeting is to clasp both hands with one hand placed over the other fist and gently flexing the wrists to create a gentle up and down movement simultaneously giving a nod of the head. A simple nod is also acceptable as a greeting.

Family is an important part of the Chinese culture and elders are held in high regard. As it is in many other Asian cultures, elders are referred to "Auntie" or "Uncle" regardless if they are related or not, it is just a mark of respect and politeness.

Gifts

Receive with both hands

When receiving an item, the traditional way is to receive it with both hands. You should note that the gift is not usually opened in front of the giver. Gifts should always be given in even numbers on joyous occasions as odd numbers are frowned upon and are used in funerals.

When giving and receiving a business card, it should also be with both hands. The card is given so that the receiver can read it as it is given.


Food and money are generally acceptable gifts for any occasion. For auspiscious occasions a red envelope (hongbao) is used to put money in with the name of the giver on the reverse of the envelope.

At a funeral, a white envelope is used.

Round gifts are also favourable as the roundess signify completeness. These could be items such as crockery, drinking glasses and oranges.

Four is an unlucky number whereas eight is the luckiest number, so giving eight of something brings luck to the recipient.

Gifts to avoid

You should avoid giving knives and scissors to Chinese friends as it can be considered as severing the friendship. Clocks should not be given as the Cantonese word for clock is phonetically the same as the word "funeral".

Colours

All white and all black are traditional colours for mourning just as all dark blue and all green are associated with death.

Red and gold signify good luck and orange, pink and yellow are also favoured.

Read more on Chinese Superstitions

The Chinese have many superstitions, believe in myths, numerology and symbols that represent good and bad luck.

Read more what the Chinese believe in and the reasons why.

Table Settings

Modern times now allow seating to be more relaxed however traditionally, the host will often sit at the table with his back to the entrance and the guest either opposite him or on his left side. The table is usually rounded in order to converse freely and for everyone to feel equal.

At a family home, there would be several platters of differing food laid on the table to share amongst everyone. There is usually a turn-table in the middle for easy access to the numerous dishes.

The usual cutlery would be chopsticks and a Chinese spoon but most homes would be equipped with regular spoons and forks so don't be afraid to ask if you have not yet mastered your use of chopsticks.

You'll have a rice with a plate underneath which can be used as a plate to discard bones and there may be a smaller dish for a dipping sauce.

Tea is an important part of Chinese culture and you will almost always have tea offered with your meal. Tea is drunk to aid digestion and is drunk without milk or sugar. It is good manners to top up tea for others before you tend to your own cup and when someone does it for you, it is customary to thank them.

You may notice Chinese men tapping their forefinger and middle finger together on the table when tea is served - this merely means 'thank you'. When in a restaurant and your teapot needs refilling, simply tilt the lid so that the teapot is slightly ajar. This indicates to the waiter that you are in need of a tea top-up.

When drinking to a toast, the glass or cup should be held with both hands and held high. You will hear shouts of

'yam seng' which is Cantonese for 'drink for success'. At a recent Chinese wedding that I attended, the hosts went round to every table and told us it was tradition to raise our glasses and shout 'yam seng' louder than the table before them. Everyone got involved and it certainly got each table shouting louder than the last!

Mealtime!

Chinese meal gatherings tend to be relaxed, friendly and noisy occasions with much chatter and conversation going round.

At a restaurant, the group would have a look at the menu and casually discuss the dishes that would like to be eaten before the waiter comes. The order is then relayed to the waiter usually from one person, who has the job of consolidating everyone's dish requests into a final order. This task is usually appointed to the person who is most senior and of Chinese ethnicity.

Before the start of the meal, the Chinese host may propose a toast before picking up his chopsticks saying 'ching' meaning 'please (help yourselves)'.

A guest of honour is usually served first, followed by the other guests and lastly the host.


When using chopsticks, it is customary to bring an item of food from the serving dish to your plate before eating it. In dim sum, it is standard that there should only be one item of food on your plate at a time. Hiting the bowl or plate with chopsticks is frowned upon as this is what beggars did in ancient China.

Table Setting

Table setting
Table setting

Placement of chopsticks

There is usually a chopstick rest to the right of the plate, if not, chopsticks can be rested with the eating end on you plate and the other end on the table.

Chopsticks should never be stuck upright in a bowl as this resembles insence sticks in an urn at an altar used to mourn relatives.

It is considered bad luck to drop chopsticks and they should never be crossed one over the other as it symbolises death.

To offer food to another person from your chopsticks, you should turn them around and use the thicker end for hygienic purposes. If you are taking food with your chopsticks from a seving dish, take care to only touch the food that you will be eating.

You should not eat the last piece from the serving dish or the biggest piece of meat unless it is insisted by the host several times.

After the meal, it is polite to praise and say 'xie xie'/ 'thank you' to the host. If it was a home cooked meal, keep in mind that a Chinese host would have put a lot of thought and care into the choice of food served even if he says it was no trouble.

If you have been invited to a meal at a restaurant, the host is usually the one to front the bill. There is usually a friendly squabble between the host and guest to pay for the bill - this is considered good Chinese etiquette and to do so shows your appreciation for the dinner and company. It is polite to put up a little struggle but the host will usually win the fight and pay. If the guest is too insistent and ends up paying the bill, this may embarass the host and appear rude.

Hosting a dinner and paying for the meal is especially important when it comes to business functions and business entertaining. If you invite a client to dinner you are expected to pick up the tab. If you are continually invited to meals and do not return the favour by inviting them out for dinner, you may find you wont be invited to future events.

Chinese Cuisine

The staple food for northern Chinese is noodles or buns made out of wheat and for southern Chinese it is rice. This picture shows ho fun noodles with beef.

Pork is the most popular meat used in Chinese cooking including barbeque pork (char siu) and roast pork. Roast suckling pig is also a favourite and is usually found at big parties. Chicken and fish are also used but lamb is not a common choice due to their strong aroma.

"Steamboat" is also a favourite which is when everyone cooks fresh ingredients such as seafood, vegetables, tofu and noodles in a central pot of boiling soup on the table.

I will be making lens that will explore more into Chinese food so lookout for this in the future!

Chinese Recipes - Planning on cooking a meal, here are some ideas

Glossary of Chinese Terms used

Hongbao - red envelope with money

Yam seng - drink for success

Ching - please (help yourselves)

Xie xie - thank you

Char siu - barbeque pork

Do you have any more tips on Chinese etiquette?

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    • whenaa profile imageAUTHOR

      whenaa 

      5 years ago

      @Infohouse: Great one! Thanks!

    • Infohouse profile image

      Infohouse 

      5 years ago

      Never turn over a fish on a plate... finish one side of the fish and lift the bone to expose the bottom half of the fish.

    • whenaa profile imageAUTHOR

      whenaa 

      6 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for liking my lens. I'm currently having an issue with some of my pics :( I hope to get this resolved soon so pls check back to see them!l

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      I liked this lens indeed, although a lot of photos weren't showing up on my laptop. If you like to browse lens as I do, mine has a great educational topic with poll questions for my readers to enjoy.

    • whenaa profile imageAUTHOR

      whenaa 

      6 years ago

      @JackieBlock: Thanks for stopping by. Crossed chopsticks symbolise death but it is acceptable at a dim sum restaurant as it indicates you have finished your meal.

    • JackieBlock profile image

      Jackie Block 

      7 years ago from SE Michigan

      Thank you for sharing this helpful information. I knew you shouldn't put the chopsticks up in the food, but did not know that you shouldn't cross them.

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