"A Chinese dinner host will not expect a visitor to know all the traditions associated with a Chinese meal. But the visitor who knows some of them will gain 'face' and give 'face' to his host!"
Investigating those traditions is part of the fun of a China visit, where English-speaking friends or business associates will happily tell you the whys and wherefores of seemingly arcane rituals. You may even hear different versions of how a particular dining tradition originated!
Foreign visitors will be forgiven for not knowing dining etiquette, just as they will be good-naturedly offered a knife and fork if their chopstick prowess is not up to par. Just as Chinese food, however, seems to taste better when it is eaten with chopsticks, so the whole meal will be more enjoyable if one knows a little of the ancient traditions and beliefs that place the meal in a 5,000-year-old culinary heritage.
Why is a fish never turned over? Why do tea-drinkers surreptitiously tap tables? Why will there be a place laid for a guest who will never come? Why is it not improper to slurp you soup but improper to eat a fish head? Why are Chinese dinner tables round and how will you know who is the guest of honor? How and why will you say "Cheers"?
Although Western customs have influenced some dining habits in China, the majority of old traditions still live on. The guest of honor will usually be seated facing the door of entry, directly opposite the host. The next most honored guest will be seated to the left of the guest of honor. If the host has any doubts about the correct order of precedence for his guests, he will seat them on the basis of age.
The host sits near the door, as in Western practice, so that he is nearest to the kitchen. If the meal is held in the host's home, he can then bring each dish to the table more quickly. He will himself serve his guests portions of food, on the tacit understanding that they are far too polite to help themselves.
But for some dishes, especially fish, the host would never do so - for the good reason that the dish would be inedibly cool by the end of the service. Instead, each guest is expected to help himself