Chinese Customs — Daily Ritual, Greeting Etiquette, and Table Manner

Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), a complete etiquette system had been set and well inherited, including auspicious ceremonies like Birth Celebrations, Wedding Rites, grief rituals like Funeral Tradition, worship rituals, and customs regarding daily lives. 

Confucianism, the dominant philosophy in the history of China, values hierarchy and rituals, and considers them as the foundation of a civilized and stable society, and the means of showing one's decency and virtue. 

 

Today, many of these rules are not as strict and complicated as before, however, some are still followed on important occasions and considered representative of good manners.

Daily Rituals — Walking and Sitting

Chinese Greeting Etiquettes — Kowtow, Bow, and Fist and Palm Salute

Good Table Manners and Dining Etiquettes in China

Chinese Drinking Culture and Toasting Etiquettes

Chinese Customs and Table Manners on Painting Wen Hui Tu that Presents the Feast of Scholars

Chinese Customs and Table Manners on Painting Wen Hui Tu that Presents the Feast of Scholars,  by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Daily Rituals — Walking and Sitting

Walking Rituals

In ancient China, while walking with someone with higher status or from an older generation, one should lower head, bend down, and walk a little bit behind him or her.

If three people walk together, the superior or elder one should be in the middle, which is considered an honorable and safer position.

When passing by an elder or a superior, one should bow down, and walk fast using smaller steps.

Except for the emperor, other people wouldn't walk in the middle of roads or stand in the middle of a door; they were supposed to walk or stand on one side. 

When walking in residential areas, it is not polite to keep looking around. 

Nowadays, most of these requirements are not strictly applied, unless on very important or official occasions. 

Walk Rituals on the Painting of Emperor Guangwu of Han (5 BC — 57 AD), By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673)

Walk Rituals on the Painting of Emperor Guangwu of Han (5 BC — 57 AD), By Artist Yan Liben (601 — 673) — Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Sitting Etiquettes and Seat Rules

In Chinese etiquettes, the seating order is an important representative of hierarchy, which is still widely, even strictly, applied in China today, in both family and business dinners. 

Everyone should be sitting in an appropriate position at dining tables or other gatherings, based on their titles and ranks, or age. 

If someone doesn’t know the exact position, he or she should wait and follow the host’s lead.

  • The best seat is the one that faces the east or the door;

  • Hosts usually sit facing the west;

  • The second-best seat for guests is the one that faces the south; 

  • Seats that face the north or back to doors are usually the positions for juniors.

 
Gathering of Court Ladies, Painted by Artist of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Gathering of Court Ladies, Painted by Artist of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Chinese Greeting Etiquettes — Kowtow, Bow, and Fist and Palm Salute

Kowtow

Kowtow is an ancient ritual (abandoned in 1912) to show the highest respect, by kneeling on the ground and bowing down. 

It had been used only for people to worship heaven and earth, deities, emperors, superior officials, parents, and ancestors. 

The only exception that kowtows to people of the same age and social status, is in the Traditional Chinese Wedding Ceremony when the new couple would kowtow to each other, to show their deep respect and trust. 

In ancient China, there are nine types of kowtow ceremonies, with different names and movements, based on occasions, as well as age, gender, and social status of people involved in the rituals.

Kowtow Pottery Figurine of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Kowtow Pottery Figurine of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Bow

 

Bow, in Chinese Yi Li or Zuo Yi, includes etiquettes that people bow while having their hands folded in front in different ways. 

Based on people's social status, age, and gender, there are seven types of bow rituals in history. Today, however, the simplest Zuo Yi gesture is good enough, as well as nodding and smiling, and handshaking. 

Bow or Yi Li of Man and Woman of the Same Age and Social Status

Bow or Yi Li of Man and Woman of the Same Age and Social Status, Picture from TV Show "Dream of the Red Chamber".

Fist and Palm Salute

The Fist and Palm Salute or Bao Quan is a type of Bow Ritual (or Yi Li), with the fist's right hand covered by the left hand. 

It originated in the military when people held weapons while showing respect to others. Hence, always use the left hand to cover the right hand that holds weapons.

 

Later, it became a salute ritual among martial artists, and now is common for everyone. 

Read More About Modern Greetings — Say Hello in Daily Life and in Written Letters

Fist and Palm Salute
 

Good Table Manners and Dining Etiquettes in China

 

In ancient China, the number of dishes was restricted based on people's social status and age, but people with higher status or older age could award their dishes to other people. 

Gradually, with the development of agriculture, the restriction had been abolished. 

However, there are some certain table manners that have been applied throughout history. 

Today, in a big common Chinese meal, dishes are usually placed on the table together, but they are usually served in order as well: cold dish, hot dish, entree, soup, pastry, dessert, and fruit.

Chinese Table Manners and Dining Etiquettes
  • People should be sitting in an appropriate position at dining tables or other gatherings, based on their status and age, following the host’s lead. 

  • Eating or drinking should be led by people with higher status, older age, or the host; it's not polite for other people to start earlier than them.

  • The heads of fish should be facing the most important and honorable guest.

  • Always use public chopsticks or spoons to take food.

  • When eating with a group of people, it’s not OK to only eat from one or two dishes, nor to pick food far away, no matter how much one loves them.

  • It’s not polite to blend the soup of a dish with rice in front of the host because it implies that the host didn’t provide enough good dishes.

table manner and proper use of chopsticks
  • It is also considered impolite to eat too fast, put too much food in the mouth, or sigh; talking with other people when food is in the mouth is considered rude as well. 

  • Chopsticks are used for eating dishes, and spoons should be used for drinking soups.

  • It is not polite to lick chopsticks or use them to hit bowls. 

  • Do not insert chopsticks on food, since this is the means used to worship the deceased people. 

  • Hosts and younger people shouldn’t finish or leave the table first.

  • After eating, it is nice for guests to compliment the host, collect dishes and leftovers, and hand them to servants; they could stop if the host told them it is unnecessary.

chinese dining table and seat order
 

Chinese Drinking Culture and Toasting Etiquettes

Nowadays, drinking culture, tea, alcohol, or beverage, has been considered an important part of Chinese table manners and an efficient way to socialize.

  • Hosts should pour wine for guests in turn, based on their status and ages; if there is no big difference between guests, then they pour clockwise. 

  • When toasting, people usually put their cup a little bit lower than others, unless you are older or with superior rank at work. 

  • A person could be toasted by many, but do not toast to many people at once, except for the oldest or the most important guest. 

  • While toasting people with higher status or older age, people should stand up and bow a little, and face the person whom they are toasting, unless they are told this is not necessary. 

  • Before refilling one's own cup, it is polite to pour for elders, leaders, and other important guests first, using two hands.

Glass Alchohol Cup of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Glass Alchohol Cup of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • In the Chinese table manner, the toasting order is important as well.

Firstly, the host would toast to elders, as well as to superiors or the most important guest, then to other guests; usually, important guests would toast back to the host.

Afterward, the rest people could start toasting each other. 

If there is no especially important person, then the toasting proceeds clockwise.

  • It is suggested that one should always say something nice when proposing a toast, and always use two hands to hold the wine glass. 

  • If an elder or important guest toasts to you, you should stand up and say thank you.