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Living in China

Chinese Customs and Etiquette

In their everyday lives, Chinese people follow many unspoken rules that you may never have heard of before. This article on Chinese customs and etiquettes aims to acquaint you with the most important of these, so that you don’t end up making any embarrassing mistakes!

There are many Chinese customs which revolve around food and dining. Although foreigners are generally forgiven for their faux pas, it is best to learn some basic etiquette to avoid making embarrassing blunders at the dinner table. On the other hand, you may be surprised to find that some practices that would be considered rude in your home country are perfectly acceptable Chinese customs. One of these is burping or slurping your food. In China, this shows an appreciation for the good food. Keep in mind that the following advice is also very useful for doing business in China.

Don’t Be Shy to Try New Food: Dining Customs

If you are invited for a meal by a colleague or acquaintance in China, you will most often eat in a restaurant, rather than at that person’s home. When you arrive at the restaurant, wait for your host to tell you where to sit. At formal events, according to Chinese customs, age and seniority determine the seating arrangements. Your host will usually order many dishes. A good rule of thumb is to order one or two dishes more than the total number of guests. These dishes will be put in the middle of the table and shared among all the guests.

The total number of dishes should be an even number, as odd numbers symbolize death. It is a Chinese custom to order an odd number of dishes at a funeral meal. This has to do with the yin-yang balance of life, where yin is associated with cold, dark, death, and odd numbers, and yang is associated with heat, light, life, and even numbers.

Once the food has been served, each person fills their bowl from the dishes in the center of the table. Sometimes your host or other guests will put food in your bowl for you to try. It’s polite to try a little bit of everything.

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There’s No So Such Thing as Too Many Toasts

While you are waiting for your food to arrive, you will probably be served some tea. According to Chinese custom, you should always make sure your neighbor’s tea cup remains filled, and not fill your own. Depending on the size of the group, your host may be in charge of refilling your tea cup.

Especially at formal gatherings, there can be many toasts. Be conscious of this if you decide to drink alcohol. If you don’t wish to drink too much, you can simply toast with your tea or water glass. Alternatively, bring the glass of alcohol to your lips and pretend to drink, or take tiny sips with each toast.

The Trouble with Chopsticks

There are many Chinese customs that govern eating with chopsticks. The biggest gaffe you can make is to stick your chopsticks straight up in your food. This resembles the incense sticks in a bowl of ashes and is thus a symbol of death. Other examples of bad manners are pointing at someone with your chopsticks, waving them around, or licking them. (Keep in mind that doing any of these things with a fork would also be considered rude.) Dropping them is also considered bad luck, although foreigners unaccustomed to eating with chopsticks will quickly be forgiven for this error.

To avoid dropping your food or chopsticks, it is perfectly acceptable to bring the bowl close to your mouth and use the chopsticks to shovel the food in. Slurping, especially if you have noodles, is also an accepted Chinese custom. On your birthday, it is a Chinese custom to eat a bowl of long noodles. The length of these noodles symbolizes longevity, so cutting them would be tantamount to cutting your life short. Luckily, biting through them is perfectly acceptable.

Don’t Flip the Fish!

If you are served fish, make sure not to flip it over to get to the meat on the other side. Especially in smaller villages and communities that rely on fishing, this means that a boat will capsize.

As the meal nears its end, remember not to completely clean your bowl. Leave a small amount of food in your bowl, otherwise your host will seem stingy, as it looks like he or she didn’t order enough food to fill you up! It is a Chinese custom that the person hosting pays the bill, although it’s alright to put up a half-hearted fight.

If you are paying for the meal yourself, it is good to know that tipping is not a common Chinese custom. The only exception to this is in higher-end restaurants in the big cities, where a 10% service charge is sometimes automatically added to the bill.

It’s Your Funeral: Gift-Giving Etiquette

If you are invited to a Chinese person’s home, a wedding, or some other event, you should bring a present. Presents should always be given with both hands. This shows that you are offering the fullest extent of yourself. If you receive a gift, open it later or risk appearing greedy. Good gift ideas include imported alcohol, tea, or fancy gift baskets with food. Toys and sweets are good choices for children. If you wrap your gift, good colors are red and pink. Never wrap a present in white paper, as this color is associated with death and funerals. This tradition is also reflected in Chinese weddings. However, the western custom of wearing a white wedding dress is becoming more and more common.

In general, never give someone a present that has to do with the number four, as this sounds too similar to the word for “death” in Mandarin. The number eight, on the other hand, is considered very lucky. It’s not a coincidence that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing took place on 8 August 2008.

Some gifts to avoid at all costs include:

  • Clocks (“to give a clock” in Mandarin sounds very similar to “to attend a funeral”)
  • Cut flowers
  • Umbrellas
  • Cutting implements/knives
Updated on: December 06, 2018

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