Chinese Table Etiquette: Tips, What to Say, Paying the Bill

This section on Chinese table etiquette is a more detailed version than the general Chinese dining article. Here, I will focus on things that may happen while you are at the table in China.

Visual Breakdown of a Table

The image to the right is a view from where you will sit, and the bowls and plates that you will be using. This particular dinner is a Chinese fish hot pot.

Click to Enlarge - Eating Hot Pot or Fish in China - The VisualClick to Enlarge, Read Details

Quickly though, #1 = spicy dipping sauce, #2 = hold food, soup bowl, #3 = don’t touch, #4 = the hot pot or fish dish.Not all Chinese tables are setup this way — if you are not eating hot pot, there is no spicy dipping sauce. Sometimes there is no lazy susan.

Passing Food To Each Other

  • If someone puts a piece of meat in your bowl, you can lightly say, “Bu yong! Bu yong!” (Oh, I don’t need it!) while smiling, but allow them to give it to you after a few tries. By not immediately accepting it, you are being modest and humble. As a general rule in China, you should always decline something given to you at least two or three times before accepting it.
  • If an elder passes you food, say “xie xie” (thank you, roughly pronounced “shay shay”). They are showing you affection and respect by them giving you food. It’s best eat it whatever you are given, if you can.
  • When someone lifts a plate that is out of reach to and holds it across the table in front of you, quickly take a piece of food off. If you want to score points, serve your neighboring guests before you take anything for yourself — but be quick (plates are sometimes heavy)! After a bit of time, do the same — take a plate and offer it around the table for the people who cannot reach it. If people say they can’t eat anymore, insist that they eat something a few times before you give up.

Chinese Conversation

There are certain subjects you should avoid altogether on your trip to China, especially when you are in an intimate settting like a dinner. If you are with people you do not know that well, or with a potential business partner, do not discuss American or Chinese politics, Japan, Taiwan, Mao Ze Dong, the war in Iraq, or any other controversial subject as a dinner topic. It will most certainly cause discomfort within the group and may damage a business relationship.Discussing your personal experiences in China is always a safe way to get things rolling, things you saw, things you did, things you will do, things you like about China. On the other hand, if you have a deeper relationship with your company, obviously you can discuss whatever you want. Bottom line: At the table, try to have fun, don’t get too serious, and it is best not to talk politics.Some Chinese etiquette guides say, “Never talk business during a meal”. While this is good advice in general (who likes to talk shop when eating, anyway?), it is dated advice. People talk about business all the time, and will ask you about what you do, and what your job requires, and how much money you make, etc.

General Advice While at the Table

  • Wait to be seated. Never sit at the head of a table unless you are instructed to do so.
  • Never take food, or eat before an older person at the table (i.e., the grandmother).
  • If you ever take out a napkin for yourself, be sure to pass napkins to everyone at the table. When I say napkin, I mean the little pouch of Kleenex that is sitting on the table.
  • If you hold your bowl, palm the bowl from the bottom (video). Your fingers or thumb should never touch (or hook around) the lip of the bowl. Holding the bowl is acceptable, but is more casual. In a business setting, do not hold your bowl while eating.
  • When you do take food, place it on top of your rice. Never mix your food with your rice.
  • Never take more than one item at a time.
  • Soups are usually eaten last. Wait until you have nearly finished eating and then plan for the soup to be the last thing you eat.
  • Try the fried bees and pig brain (read, try the things you normally won’t eat at home). Most of the “crazy” food items are pretty good. Pig brain tastes like creamy tofu. Fried bees taste like crunchy chips.
  • May seem obvious, but worth noting: If you eat at a Muslim restaurant in China, never ask for any pork dishes or even mention the word pigs (pig is “zhu rou”, or “joo-row”). It can, and most likely will upset the owners and other patrons. Most of the Muslims in China are part of the Huizu (“hway-dsoo”) ethnic minority. Their cuisine is off-the-charts good. If you are lucky enough to eat at one of their restaurants, try the squash, the beef soup, the spicy dried beef (“niu gan ba”), or the stomach linings.

No Air-Drumming Allowed

Don’t play with your chopsticks…Chopstick Etiquette… or fidget with your chopsticks, point with them, or do anything else with them besides using them to take food and eat food. Watch a video on how to hold chopsticks.

Dining: Some Cultural Differences in China

  • Sometimes Chinese people slurp or smack their food. You can, too.
  • Don’t ever try to give the host 50% of the bill to “pay your half”. In China, as stated just above, whoever is inviting someone out to eat is expected to pay for everyone. If you want to immediately return the favor, offer to take the person who paid out to a bar, karaoke, or to drink tea.
  • Who calls = who pays. If I call you and invite you to dinner, I pay for everyone.
  • Sometimes a guest will bring a friend, unannounced. This isn’t a big deal, because there is always enough food for a few extra people.
  • A dinner can last hours. You’ll hear “man man che” a lot, and that translates to “slowly, slowly, eat.” Don’t scarf food down, and don’t only eat the dishes you like.
  • Chinese people may leave a lot of food behind at the table. Most of the time this food is recycled and fed to pigs, so don’t worry about waste.
  • The more you eat, the happier your host will be. (Some etiquette guides say, “You need to leave food on your plate to show that you’re not hungry.” Wrong. Eat.) If you eat a small amount, especially if someone made a home-cooked meal, you may insult your host.
  • Pace your eating with the group at the table.
  • Never let anyone still eating feel rushed to finished their meal.
  • It’s okay to answer your phone at a table, absolutely no one will care.
  • In a home setting, if you want to wash the dishes, never take any dishes away from the table unless it is clear that everyone has finished eating. If you do this, it is a cue to your guests that you want them to leave.
  • You will be offered cigarettes and alcohol. Click to read more.
  • Chinese people love to walk, or “san bu” after they eat, they say it helps with digestion.

The Bill

If you have been invited to eat, you can make an attempt to get the check, but don’t actually pay the bill as you may lose the other party’s face. Again, if someone calls you to go out, they are expected to pay.Nonetheless, fighting over the bill is always a good way to gain points. Be creative and aggressive! Try these things:

  • Stand up and start pulling the host by the arm and try to yank him back to his seat.
  • Arm waving and arm pulling is always good.
  • If they manage to pay the waiter first, grab their money out of the waiter’s hand and give it back them, then give the waiter your money instead.
  • The bigger the scene you cause, the better. Don’t worry if they seem disgruntled, they actually will be delighted with your enthusiasm.

8 thoughts on “Chinese Table Etiquette: Tips, What to Say, Paying the Bill

  1. Pingback: Complete China Guide: Part II - Eating at Still Point

  2. Pingback: Chinese Dining Etiquette: Eating, Dining, How to Use Chopsticks (Proper Use), Eating Bones, General Overview at Still Point

  3. Well done, dude. Have you been to Beijing?
    I like your pictures of Yun’nan.
    Yun’nan is a really beautiful place in the world.
    mysterious and peace.
    Hope I can travel there in future.

  4. yeah this realy did helped me when I was having dinner with my mom friends (but they asked were i have learned this and I told them I got it from a website and I didnt say anything) so when ever you go out with some chinese people go to this website and take some tips

  5. Wow! I stumbled across your blog when I googled what the internet says about chinese culture b/c I am trying to explain it in Western terms. ( I’m from Hong Kong and so is my family originally) I’m REALLY impressed with how “right on” you are with the bill paying stuff and some others. I’ve read other sites and nothing hits it on the nose like you do. I can tell you that I am engrained with the practice of “fighting over the bill” at restaurants – (it’s great to go to an italian restaurant in the States with traditional chinese people :) – the waiter thought we were really fighting and had a phone ready to call the cops!…I usually always look forward to bill paying time as it can be quite the entertainment)

    Good notes! For those that read my response- this stuff is ligit!

  6. So….how do you know when someone really IS disgruntled if they “fake” it all the time?? Are there things that will truly make a Chinese person disgruntled?

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