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8 Chinese table-setting rules to pay attention to

By Ching Yuen 27 May 2020

Header image courtesy of @unileverfoodsolutions (Instagram)

We should all (hopefully) know by now that sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is a huge no-no because it looks like sticks of incense usually seen at funerals, but do you know about these other things to pay attention to when setting the table for a meal with guests? If you’re going out for a formal Chinese dinner or treating guests, these are the things to look out for.

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The direction the fish is pointing

If fish is ordered during your meal, it will most likely be served whole. According to proper Chinese dining etiquette, the head of the fish on the plate should be pointing to the guest of honour when it is served, or otherwise the most senior person on the table as a sign of respect. Once you get to eating, feel free to spin the lazy Susan and have the fish pointing in any direction!


Don’t flip the fish

Steamed fish is usually served on its side, and even though you should gobble up the meat on both sides, don’t try to flip the fish. Flipping the fish on the plate is synonymous with ‘flipping your boat,’ and since boats should not capsize, symbolically, it just means that your ‘boat’ will sink. The ‘boat’ here can be taken to mean your business, your success, and many other things—frankly, anything at all. What you can do to pluck out the meat on the other side of the fish is to debone it, but if you are the guest, you should leave the deboning to the host or the servers since it is bad table manners for the guest to do it.


Head and tails

If any poultry is served during your meal, the head and tail should always remain on the plate, according to Chinese table-setting rules. This is why you will usually see the chicken head or pigeon head being served alongside the rest of its meat in restaurants. There are many symbolic meanings behind it that cement this practice as a custom, but the most important one is that it brings good fortune and good health to all members of the family.


Don’t order seven dishes

Whether you are ordering at a Chinese restaurant or treating guests at home, do not have seven dishes on the table. This is because the meal you usually have after Chinese funerals consist of seven dishes and it won’t bring good luck and prosperity to dine in a setting that is similar to a funereal meal. Make sure to either serve or order fewer or more than seven dishes and you will be fine.


The spouts of teapots and decanters should face the centre of the table

For any meal ordered in a Chinese restaurant, tea is a must. There are usually two teapots on the table: one with steeped tea leaves and another with hot water. For special occasions, some people may bring their own wine, and decanters may be present on the table. In such situations, make sure that the spouts of the teapots and the decanters are all pointing to the centre of the table and not at anyone’s heads. This is believed to bring bad luck as pointing spouts at a person is synonymous with pouring water over their heads!


Seating arrangements

Seating arrangments are very important at formal Chinese dinners or meals with senior guests. The rule of thumb is to wait to be told where to sit, although there are some unspoken pointers as well. The seat at the centre of the round table facing the entrance of the room or restaurant is usually the seat reserved for the guest of honour or the most senior person at the meal, whereas the host should sit across from the guest of honour with their back to the entrance. The rest of the dining party should be seated in terms of their status and relation to the guest of honour, with the guest of lowest importance placed furthest from the guest of honour.


Get your chopsticks right

When dining at a Chinese restaurant, everyone should have two pairs of chopsticks in two different colours. The first pair is for you to grab food from the serving dish onto your own plate or bowl, and the second pair is for you to actually eat with on your own plate. This way, if everyone behaves properly, there will be no accidental cross-contamination. Just be sure to remember which pair of chopsticks you decided to eat with! When hosting at home, the sharing plates should come with communal chopsticks or cutlery for shared use.


Don’t take away the empty plates

If you are not having a banquet-style meal, you should leave the empty plates on the table. This is because Chinese meals usually have appetisers and main courses served all at the same time on sharing plates and everyone takes their time with the meal. By taking away any empty or near-empty dishes, it can be perceived as trying to chase your guests or customers away in a hurry. Wait until no one is eating anymore and then proceed to clear the table.

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Having lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, and London sure is a fun fact whenever people try to guess Ching’s accent. She loves switching between all these language channels and her “mother tongue” is just determined by how many drinks she’s had for the night! She loves movies, travelling, and exploring cities, from hidden alleys to gourmet dining, so feel free to hit her up if you need any suggestions for dinner!