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Chinese Banquet Etiquette

Place settings, Food, Toasts, and Table Manners


Place Settings at a Chinese Banquet:

The table setting may contain some or all of the following items: a bowl for rice and/or soup, a plate for main courses, a smaller plate for condiments and sauces, a short soup spoon, a pair of chopsticks, a chopstick rest, several glasses of varying sizes: a drinking class for non-alcoholic beverages, a wine glass for wine/toasts, and a smaller glass for hard liquor.

The place setting may be changed often or items added or taken away between courses. Food is served family style and dishes are placed on a lazy Susan (a rotating disk) in the middle of the table. Initially, the host is the first to take food and then he or she may also serve the guests seated adjacent to him. Oftentimes, the banquet staff will take over and serve the remainder of the table’s diners.

After everyone has been initially serves, guests can serve themselves by using the serving utensils. Guests may eat as much as they want but they should never take the last bit of food off any plate or the host will think he or she has not provided enough food. Once you clear your plate, the host will often put more food on your plate. If you do not want to eat anymore, leave a small amount of food on your plate which indicates you are full, but it is good manners to sample everything and eat during each course.

Food at a Chinese Banquet:

Up to 12 courses are served at a Chinese banquet. A menu is often placed on the table to indicate how many courses and what will be served. Pace yourself accordingly as it is good manners to continue eating throughout the banquet. Stopping after a few courses will give the impression the host has done something wrong.

Small plates of cold appetizers are served first. These may already be pre-placed on the edge of the lazy Susan or brought immediately after guests are seated. The cold appetizers may include a variety of meats like beef and duck, tofu, pickled vegetables, seaweed and seafood.

The next two to four courses will be stir fry dishes, followed by soup, and then three to four larger hot dishes, which are considered the main dishes. A variety of foods will be served throughout the banquet, ranging from steamed fish and roasted meat to vegetables and deep fried meats. Foods will also encompass all flavors including sweet, salty, spicy and sour.

The final large course is typically a steamed whole fish. Rice, noodles or steamed buns are served next. Sweet soup follows and then dessert which almost always includes sliced fresh fruit of some kind like watermelon and oranges. During the last course, it is polite to let the host know you have eaten your fill by saying 吃飽了 (chī bǎo le).

The drinking begins when the host makes a Chinese toast either during the meal or directly after. The principal guest will offer a toast immediately after the host’s toast or after a few courses. The principal host and guest may leave the head table and go around to toast each table. Guests at the table stand up when the host and guest approach their table.

The toast concludes with 乾杯 (gānbēi, the Chinese version of ‘cheers’). On cue, everyone is expected to empty his or her glass which is usually the size of a shot glass or smaller. Oftentimes, everyone places the glass upside down to show the glasses are empty.

If you don’t want to chug hard alcohol, you may respond to the cry of ‘ganbei’ by saying 隨意(suíyì), which means ‘at will’ or ‘as you please.’ If you don’t want to drink alcohol at all, make that clear at the beginning of the banquet.

The banquet promptly ends after dessert is served. Sometimes the host may stand up if some tables are lingering over their meals. Once the host stands, the meal is over and it is time to promptly leave. The host will walk guests to the door at which time it is customary to thank the host.

Sometimes karaoke is sung after the banquet either in the same hall or at a separate venue. You need not be a great singer to participate. Just be enthusiastic and select a song (there are almost always songs in English as well as Chinese and Japanese). Drinks and sometimes snacks are also served at karaoke.

Table Manners at a Chinese Banquet:

Chopsticks should be used to grab food and eat it. Do not point at anyone with the chopsticks and when not in use, rest chopsticks on the chopstick holder or on the rim of the rice bowl when there’s no chopstick rest. Do not place the chopsticks straight up in the bowl of rice as it resembles the incense placed in urns to pray for the dead.

Learn how to use chopsticks.

Elbows are allowed on the table and guests may be seen loudly slurping their noodles and soup. Belching is not uncommon either. Toothpicks are readily available and may be used at the table as long as you cover your mouth with you hand while using them. When in doubt about proper etiquette, just watch what others are doing and copy them.

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