7 dinner etiquette rules in South China

What is the dinner etiquette in South China? You’re travelling to one of the seven provinces and you’re invited to dinner by locals for the first time? I’ve got your back!

My brother and his chinese wife celebrated their marriage in Nan’an (1 hour away from Xiamen) in China during the new year festivities which led us to be invited to many lunches and dinners. Here are some local proper manners learned.

RULE #1 – WHERE TO SIT AT THE TABLE

To know where to sit, you first need to know your place in the food chain! The best places are the seats facing the entrance door and reserved for the host and his/her prime guests. When in doubt, wait for the host to place you.

When there’s no space left, the person considered of least importance will leave his seat. That can be the youngest adult in the family but I’ve also seen a guest of least importance go away from the table. That person would go sit on the couch and resume eating there.

RULE #2 – HOW TO EAT

The meal usually starts with soup in South China. A range of various plates is placed on the table. Similarly to tapas in Spain, the plates are meant to be shared. Everyone goes for what he/she feels like, helping himself/herself directly.

Try every plate if possible, to honor the cook (banner picture: me trying the treat of sea slugs…).

It’s common to eat salty, then sugary and then go back to salty, by eating meat again for instance. Unusual for a westerner who finishes with something sweet but no need to fuss about it as you’re free to eat what you want in the order that you want!

RULE #3 – HOW TO DRINK

Alcohol at the table is for T.O.A.S.T.I.N.G. Forget about gently sipping your wine like you do in fine restaurants in Europe. To drink, you either make a toast or wait for somebody else to toast with you.

Don’t forget to toast to thank your host/the person who invited to dinner outside.

RULE #4 – HOW TO TOAST

When approaching the glasses, the youngest of the two persons must place his/her glass a tad lower than the other glass, as a sign of respect. That works mostly with age but also with any form of inferiority/superiority like for example employee/boss.

I find this part of the game quite funny, especially when the two try to go lower than each other and end up knocking their glasses on the table or in the plates!

RULE #5 – HOW TO DRINK BOTTOMS UP (OR NOT) 

When someone says ‘Ganbei’, it means you’re going to drink bottoms up. Knowing wine is poured in shot glasses, you should be fine for a few rounds. If that’s rice alcohol, then good luck!

Ladies can easily be exempt of drinking up but if they do, they’ll incline just the same their glasses to the person who invited them to toast, to prove that it is empty.

It is also possible to answer that you prefer drinking your glass in two times, although you may get teased for it!

RULE #6 – WHAT IF YOU DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL

Who said you cannot have fun too?! You can still toast with non-alcoholic beverages. Coconut water, prune juice or tea will do.

Watch out what your partner is drinking though: if he invites you to drink bottomw up when there’s prune juice in his glass and wine in yours, he’s probably trying to ‘kill’ you at the drinking game. Don’t get fooled!

RULE #7 – WHAT ABOUT SMOKING

When a guest wants to smoke, he will offer a cigarette to all the present smokers first. I’ve only seen men offering, not women. Additionally, people don’t ask if they can smoke in here, even when children are around.

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=> Ok, this is not Downtown Abbey etiquette for sure! But I felt like I was back in time (let’s say early-mid 20th century) to when there were still clear distinctions to what the wife and husband do at home: i.e the wife cooks dinner while the husband serves tea (I have yet to see the contrary!).

I really enjoyed that ceremony and got home thinking I could make more effort to welcome my guests to that level of standing.