I have been traveling to China for ten years and living here for three. I hear a lot of visitors and / or newcomers talk about how “bad manners” are among the Chinese people. Well, I would posit that these are not “bad” but instead, just different rules of etiquette.
Across all cultures there are different rules for behavior and etiquette – for example in Brazil touching is quite common in conversation, in America this would seem like flirting, or in a business setting, simply inappropriate. In Japan, to reach out to shake hands is not considered polite. Instead, bowing is preferred as it’s not acceptable to have physical contact, as it is in most of the rest of the handshaking world. Again, not bad – just different.
As most travelers to China will no doubt find themselves eating, I have focused on the five most important rules of etiquette when eating and traveling around China.
1. Always order an even number of dishes
As you will no doubt be aware, many numbers in China are lucky or unlucky. So when you get a phone number or move houses, you want to make sure your numbers are good ones. The same is also true for dining in the sense that there must always be an even number of dishes. Not only does this bring you and other diners good fortune, but it should also be noted that having an odd number symbolizes the number of dishes ordered for a family funeral meal.
2. Never turn over the fish
In China, generally fish is served whole on a platter for the whole table to enjoy. While it might seem natural to turn the fish over when the top side is picked clean, this would be considered very bad manners. Instead, what one should do is deftly remove the head and spine to get to the bottom half of the fish. Why? Because to turn over the fish is symbolic of capsizing the fisherman’s boat and is thought to bring bad luck to all fishermen.
3. Lunch is at 12pm and dinner is at 6pm. Period.
The Chinese eat at very specific times, and allow very little flexibility in these timings. Furthermore, they see these as necessary time outs, so don’t suggest a working lunch meeting – I did, and learned very quickly this was taboo. Similarly, don’t suggest a dinner at 8pm…the Chinese will be too polite to tell you and will most likely have eaten before coming or arrive famished and grumpy.
4. Never finish all the food
If someone invites you to dinner, you will no doubt be faced with a banquet of food that would seem impossible to consume considering the number of diners. What in other countries can seem wasteful, in China is the show of a generous host. So if all the food is eaten, you will notice that dishes just keep coming, and they won’t stop until there is a decent quantity of food left on the table. This means the host has done his job to properly feed you.
5. Always offer to pay the bill
Even if someone invites you as a guest, it is polite to offer to pay the bill. The proper etiquette is to offer thrice, and accept the final no, allowing the host to pay. Why? Because if you pay allow your host to pay without arguing, then it implies to everyone that the host somehow owes you something and has the potential to compromise his / her “face” (honour). On the other hand, if you are very insistent, and refuse to allow the host to pay, then this is also considered poor etiquette, signalling to others you think the host cannot afford the meal…thus also potentially compromising “face”.
6. Never dig through your food for a favourite morsel
Digging through your food is symbolic of grave digging…so don’t do it. Enough said.
7. Avoid sensitive topics during dinner
It is perfectly OK to talk about current events and politics related to China. But the following topics are totally off-limits: Japan / China relations; Taiwan; Tibet; Falun Gong or religion of any type; Tiananmen Square. And please also be sensitive to China policies, for example, don’t ask someone how many children they have during small talk – given the one-child policy, this can be perceived as insensitive.
While these are no means exhaustive (there could be a whole book on rules of chopsticks!), they will keep you in good stead in China. Remember, what you may find as bad manners, might just be different cultural etiquette. And a rule I live by, which I think is important for any foreigner visiting or living in another country, is to remember…we are guests, and it’s always better to be well mannered, courteous guests. Don’t you think?