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Traditional Dining Etiquette

Within traditional Chinese thought, eating has far more functions than just filling the stomach or bringing gastronomic pleasure. On Confucianist terms, eating is invested with many social functions.

To ancient Chinese literati, the foremost function of eating was physical and mental cultivation. They categorized diners into three groups: Greedy eaters taking in as much food as possible without discrimination; gourmets meticulous about taste, preparation, cooking and ingredients; and those eating for reasons of health who emphasized purity, freshness and balance in everyday meals rather than exotic. The latter was the accepted approach to dining.

The second perceived function was strengthening kinship and friendship. The ancient agricultural society of China advocated big families in which several generations lived under one roof. At meal times, family members sat in an order distinguished by status and seniority. As now, friends also sat together around a dinner table as eating together enhanced communication, understanding and friendship as a whole.

In the feudal society with its strict hierarchy, eating also functioned as a way of "reporting back to the superior and pepping up the subordinates." An invitation to an imperial banquet or bestowal of food by the emperor was a great honor for officials.

Banquet Behavior

Attending an imperial banquet was, however, an exercise in protocol rather than pleasure. Diners had to be very careful not to breach the contemporary hierarchal etiquette. In 1005, the second year of the Jingde Reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Emperor Zhenzong issued a decree formalizing imperial banquet etiquette: Diners had to be well dressed and properly behaved; they were seated in order of prominence and could neither walk around nor speak in an arbitrary fashion. Etiquette inspectors stood in banquet halls. Though strict, the real difficulty of these rules was remembering and following correctly the detailed eating formalities. As The Art of War by Sun Zi numbers some 5,000 characters, while eating etiquette as recorded in ancient books could more than 10,000 characters long.

As early as 2,000 years ago, Confucianism advocated that etiquette and law should be employed to rule the country and educate its people. Xun Zi (313-238 B.C.) said: "A man without etiquette cannot survive; a business without etiquette cannot succeed; and a country without etiquette can have no peace." Eating etiquette was derived from ancient worship rituals, and came into practice earlier than any other etiquette system in imperial China.

According to ancient formalities, the host of a banquet issued invitations to his guests well in advance. On the banquet day the host or person in charge of protocol would greet the guests, who were then ushered into the sitting room for tea. When the banquet was about to begin, the guests would be led to their seats in the banquet hall.

In the traditional seating arrangement, the left or eastward side is considered most honorable, the seat facing the door most venerable of all. The second most prestigious seat is opposite the first, the third is adjacent to the first seat. And the fourth seat is next to the second.

When all were seated, the host would make a toast and invite guests to help themselves to the dishes, and the guests would express their thanks. After the banquet, the guests were again ushered into the sitting room to have tea until it was time to leave.

Serving and Eating Etiquette

During a banquet, there were serving and eating etiquettes. Serving etiquette was mainly about where and how to place a dish. Rice and other staple foods were placed on the left hand side of a guest, soup to the right, meat farther away, and drinks, sauce and dressing within easy reach.

Also, clearly stipulated were matters things such as the direction in which a dish pointed, how a steward should hold a dish and where a main course was placed. When serving, the steward balanced a dish on his left palm with the right hand assisting. When answering a question, he would turn his face sideway to avoid speaking into the dish. The direction of a dish was considered particularly important when serving a whole fish. Usually the tail was placed toward the most honored guest because of its being easier to pick meat off the bone from the lower part. In winter, however, the fish fresh at the stomach is tender and rich, so this side was placed toward the honored guest. In summer the best part was its back.

A major aspect of eating etiquette was respect for seniority and superiority -- children for their parents, subordinates for their superiors, younger for older, and host for guest. It was reflected not only in order of seating, but also in eating. The basic principle was to start eating after the elders or superiors and stop when they did.

There were also many detailed norms of conduct to observe during a banquet or big family meal. For example, the youngers or subordinates would sit farther away from the table than their elders and superiors to show respect before eating started and move closer to the table only when starting to eat. When honored guests arrived, other guests would stand up to show their respect. When the host invited a guest to help himself to a particular dish, the guest would always gratefully take some, and never dream of declining. There were also many prescribed eating taboos regarding gulping, pouring, slurping, and picking teeth during a meal.

Chopstick Taboos

Eating food with the wooden sticks known as kuaizi in Chinese, has been the Chinese practice for 4,000 years. Over the millennia, rules and taboos regarding their use have been formed and incorporated into ancient behavioral etiquette.

In ancient China, chopsticks signified fear more than tools that take food to the mouth; they also signified status and rules, "can" and "can't." During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) an official named Tang Su once had dinner with the emperor. He was not well informed in noble table etiquette and so laid down his chopsticks horizontally on the table before the emperor did. As a result, he was expatriated to a frontier area for penal servitude. Chopsticks placed in different ways had different meanings. Laying them horizontally mean that the diner had finished eating, but a subject could not declare himself full before his lord. The official's action was, therefore considered an encroachment upon imperial supremacy.

In ancient eating etiquette, there were over a dozen taboos concerning chopsticks. For example, they could not be used upside down, nor placed vertically into a dish, as this was the way of making sacrifices to the dead. Diners could not tap or push a dish with chopsticks, nor use a chopstick as a fork by poking it into a piece of food. When taking food, they could not go from one dish to another or let their chopsticks cross over those of others. When diners wanted to put down their chopsticks during a meal, they would place them lengthways on a chopstick holder, or on the plate, or spoon on their right hand side.

Many of these chopstick taboos are valid to this day and accepted as a norm in today's table etiquette.

(China Today September 10, 2004)

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