Chinese Table Manners

In Ways That Are Dark, Ralph Townsend gives explicit rules of conduct among the Chinese in several everyday situations, rules which still carry a lot of weight today.
All the guests take their seats at the same moment, the host taking his a second or two later than the others. The host then pours the warm native spirit into the cups of the guests in order of precedence, if he has not already done so when arranging the seats, and then takes up his cup and invites the guests to drink, with the word “Ching”, waiting until they have applied their lips to their respective cups before sipping his own.

The guests reply with thanks, and “invite” the host before drinking. In returning the cups to the table the same order is observed, the host replacing his cup after the others have done so.

Conversation then begins, and the host helps the guests to the hors d'oeiivre, which includes fruit, nuts, and sweets. The host himself takes little or no part in the conversation ; his business is to attend to his guests ; and he observes the Confucian motto, ” Do not talk when eating,” except when he is addressed by one of the guests.

Several cups of wine are drunk, the host helping the guests in turn.

It may be advisable to remark that all topics which might be considered of ill-omen should be carefully avoided, and even expressions which might, by 'double entendre,” be unhappily so interpreted — i.e. to refer to death or sorrow on an occasion of gladness ; or to refer to nondevelopment, in whatever connection, on a birthday and, again, to speak of ” spots ” if a member of the company is suffering from acne, or is marked by the ravages of smallpox ; or to refer to the Cyclops if one of the guests happens to be minus an eye.

When the hot dishes are placed on the table, the host takes up his “chopsticks” — so called from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese name “Chu”, which seems to mean ” bamboo helps” (to eating), the upper half of the character meaning ” bamboo,” the lower half meaning ” to help ” ; the more usual name is “Kw'ai-tsz “, or “the rapid ones” — and invites the guests to do the same, pointing to the first dish and inviting them to help themselves ; the guests replying with the word ''Ching”. The host helps himself last of all. If the chief guest, for any reason, should replace his chopsticks without taking anything from the dish, the other guests must do likewise, and it will then be necessary for the host to fish out a choice morsel, and place it on the

chief guest's plate — a compliment which he acknowledges with a bow and a word of thanks, but does not necessarily regale himself.

The compliment is returned by the guest, but not in kind — i.e. he should select a tit-bit from some other dish to present to his host. When once the chief guest is thus supplied, the other guests may then help themselves without compunction. The same rule with regard to precedence is observed in partaking of each of the dishes in turn, and also in the drinking of wine.

After the first few courses, it is usual to make some complimentary remarks about the excellent repast which has been provided, and the host replies with self-depreciation, begging the guests not to make a laughing-stock of him.

When the various courses are finished, rice is sometimes brought in; but, in some cases, the guests may prefer to revert to the wine-cups. If one of the guests should be deficient in “wine capacity,” the chief guest should notice this, and invite him to enjoy his rice first; and the guest, on receiving his bowl of rice, should invite the others with a graceful sweep of his chopsticks, and say, ” Rice accompany ” — “My rice will keep your wine company.”

When the guest has finished his rice, he should not lay down his chopsticks, but continue holding them until the chief guest, observing that he has finished, says “Please make yourself comfortable,” literally, “sit at ease,” after which the guest may excuse himself, saying, ” In obedience to your command I will not keep company” and withdraw from the table.

If, however, the chief guest should fail to notice that the other has finished his rice, the rice-eater may lose patience, and, with the word ” I will not accompany you,” may leave the table. It is very important that foreigners in the interior of China should be conversant with these rules, for they generally find themselves, on such occasions, occupying the ” chief seats ” ; and as the honoured guest is considered to be the real ” master of the ceremonies,” and the polite methods of the other guests are all intended in his honour, he should at least be able to appreciate their meaning, and acknowledge them in due form, otherwise he may offend his fellow-guests, or be set down as a vulgar person who knows nothing of polite usages; for the majority of those present will possibly overlook the fact that a foreigner may be polite enough according to his own code, and yet be absolutely ignorant of Chinese ceremonials.

f all the guests elect to eat rice, the chief guest should manage to finish his bowl at the same time as the others. If he should finish first, the others will be forced to empty their bowls with inconvenient haste; and, on the other hand, the chief guest should not delay his eating too long, by conversation or otherwise, for then the other guests will be compelled to tarry over theirs until it becomes cold and indigestible.

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