RECIPES & TIPS
A complete table of taboos. No wait, it’s taboo on the table!
Eating is a sacred ritual in China, and you have to be prepared before approaching this important moment. To be fair, many table manners echo basic universal social rules, like never talking with your mouth full, don’t sneeze or cough, and never point other guests with your tableware!
But anyway, this is not what we are interested in. We know these things! We want the real substance. Here we’re going to cover some interesting table dos and don’ts which originate from Chinese philosophy and tradition, and that, without proper knowledge, can turn a nice dinner into a bad gaffe. So, sit back, grab your cup of coffee or tea (remember not to lift your pinky because you’re not a British lord) and let’s tuck into a bountiful banquet of Chinese taboos at the table!
- The table itself!
Yes, surprise! You can make a mistake before your guest even takes a seat. Visiting China, you’ll see that rarely restaurants have many square or rectangular tables, especially those with sharp corners. In Chinese culture, dining is an important social event the main purpose of which is to gather people and keep them united. Make them feel like parts of the same real or extended family. Round tables are the best. All the guests sit across from each other, equidistant from the center of the table on which, normally, food is put like in a buffet. No one feels excluded, no one needs to struggle more than the others to have their share of food. On the contrary, rectangular tables hinder the direct eye contact between diners on the same side and create a distance between those who sit at the opposite ends. Likewise, both square and rectangular tables have 4 legs and sharp angles which impede people from sitting at the corners, interrupting the continuity between diners. This is generally considered a bad symbol: sharp corners break the sense of unity, “cut” the relations between people, and during the Spring Festival they are also said to cut the family wealth away.
We can find further useful insights in the Chinese tradition of the geomancy, also known as “Fengshui”, an age-old art that seeks harmony and peace through a mix of aesthetics and geometries. You might not want to underestimate its importance, as in China even world-famous fast-food chains have their personal Fengshui consultants. But, to make it easy, you’d simply better to make your guests sit far from the door and preferably with their backs protected by solid walls with no windows, because these are said to induce a sense of weakness and insecurity.
- Know your place (at the table)!
No matter the country, every culture has its own honorable place at the table. This generally corresponds to the head of the table, but we’ve said that Chinese tables are circular. Don’t panic, the answer is easy. There’s not a right side, but rather a proper order according to which you arrange your diners. The hosts, if two, must sit on the opposite ends of the table (with the main host usually being the person seated in the opposite direction of the door/passage). The guests of honors sit right next to the host and the rest of the diners are arranged in order of age or role. This is very important if you’re having a formal dinner but relax if you’re just having some good time with your friends. But never forget this, because it might come in useful in the future.
- Watch your chopsticks!
The good news is that you’ll never find yourself getting confused about which spoon is for the soup or the proper knife for the fish. When dining with Chinese friends you’ll be equipped with a few, all-purpose utensils: generally, one or two pairs of chopsticks and a small porcelain spoon for the soup in an empty bowl. The bad news is that there are dozens of rules revolving around a simple utensil like the chopsticks. First of all, you’re not holding a dagger. Do not hold the two sticks together as one, and don’t pick food up by stabbing it (even though we know you did this once or twice in desperation the first time you approached the chopsticks). At least, don’t stick your chopstick vertically in the rice bowl as you’re starring in the movie classic the Sword in the Stone. This is a big no-no. It resembles the traditional Chinese practice of standing up incense sticks during a funeral and it’s said to bring bad luck. Don’t even pass food from chopstick to chopstick. From the very beginning, there’s no reason to do that. During Chinese banquets, dishes are generally properly portioned before being brought to the table, so that the diners just need to pick their parts nibble after nibble. But besides that, the act of passing food from your chopsticks to those of another diner is another bad symbol, resembling a very similar Buddhist funeral rite. This looks like the only circumstance in which it might be more polite to tell your friend “Get it yourself!”
Well, if you’re looking for a fast guide to master the art of the chopsticks, simply remember these few hints. Take one with your hand as if it were a pen, moving it a bit up to hold it from the top, then add the other one next to it. Job done. The pen (the first chopstick) is not really moving, but only playing a steady role in helping the other to grab food.
- The importance of harmony!
Concepts like those of harmony and balance are not exactly clichés from martial art movies. They stem from the two main Chinese philosophies, Confucianism and Daoism, both of which stress the importance of maintaining a balance in every aspect of our lives. Food included. Consider, therefore, not to flip over the fish on the plate (once eaten on one side, remove the fish bone and go ahead with the other side now standing at the bottom). In Chinese tradition, fish resembles a boat, a symbol of stability and balance. If you capsize the fish, you’re literally upending that balance and breaking the status quo, which is bad. If you find this hard to understand, consider that Anglophone cultures have a similar metaphor for bringing chaos, that is “to rock the boat”. Of the two doctrines, Daoism is the one that cares the most about symbolism. Harmony is conceived as the condition of perfect balance between antagonist but complementary forces – what has become popular in mainstream culture as yin and yang. Yin, in particular, is associated with cold, dark colors, and sometimes with death. Finally, yin is also represented by odd numbers. During our dining events, this translates into a simple taboo: never order or serve a number of dishes that are not even. To play it safe, also avoid the number four in the number of portions. The pronunciation of “four” (四= /sì/) is very similar to that of “death” (死 = /sǐ/), which again, is a very bad omen.
- Keep swallowing that noodle if you want to live!
No joke, your own life is on the line! The length of noodles symbolizes longevity in Chinese culture. They also have extra-long noodles for special events like Chinese New Year or birthdays. Biting through the strands and breaking the noodles is considered a sign of bad luck, since you’re literally cutting your life short. The superstition wants you to slurp them up in one go. Don’t be shy and show off your slurping noises. In China, that’s de rigueur and means you’re actually enjoying the food. Tourist guides will even recommend you choose a restaurant based on the slurping noises coming from inside.
- Liven up the dinner like a chilli but be moderately hot!
Friendship and good spirit are our favorite guests at any of our dining events. Eating with Chinese friends, regardless of the context, you’ll be faced with the constant raising of glasses by people toasting and chanting “Ganbei!” (= Cheers!). In those cases, join the party, drink to life, but don’t get carried away. Chinese dinners are made of moments of religious silence nonetheless, and it would be better if you learn to read the context. For example, there’s an interesting age-old tradition according to which when people pour you some tea (and this happens a lot when eating with Chinese people), you shall express your gratitude by tapping your two middle fingers on the table. This elegant way of paying silent thanks resembles the act of bowing and is a silent manner to give voice to your thankfulness without in practice disturbing the other ongoing conversations.
So, here we are. Congratulations! You’ve followed our guidelines and passed the trial of the perfect Chinese social meal with perfect marks. Your Chinese guests are happy, and you also learned something new about their culture.
But this was just a piece of the puzzle. The lives of Chinese people revolve around hundreds of rites and symbolisms that can vary from province to province. Those related to food are just one single side of a multifaceted culture, and still, we like to present them because they give depth to a very basic activity like eating.
But what about you? Have you already heard about these table taboos? Wanna know more? Or perhaps you want to contribute to the discussion with new ones or have a funny story to share about this topic. Let us know with an email and don’t forget to stay informed about our upcoming issues!
Don’t choke on your noodles and see you next time!