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Explainer: Chopstick Etiquette in China

The do's and don'ts and how not to offend anyone

If you've moved to China from a country where forks and knives were the staple at your dining table, you're probably not going to be very familiar with chopsticks. Figuring out the mechanics of getting them to work without accidentally flinging them across the table is hard enough, but there's actually a host of do's and don'ts associated with chopstick use. It's important to learn the proper techniques and manners so that you don't offend anyone by accidentally likening them to the dead.

 

Holding and Using Chopsticks

If you're new to the chopstick game, here are a few beginner tips. You'll want to hold them nearer to the top for easier maneuvering. One chopstick should remain stationary against your ring finger, the other pinched between your thumb, forefinger and middle finger that you move back and forth to pick things ups. You chopsticks shouldn't cross. It's a little tricky to master but you'll get there with a little determination and practice.

 

How to use and hold chopsticks properly

 

Basic Etiquette

Don't treat your chopsticks as a skewer, so don't stab food with them. Don't suck food remnants or sauce off your chopsticks, this indicates a lack proper upbringing. Also don't create unnecessary noise with your chopsticks, be it drumming them against your table of clinking them against your bowl. The latter symbolizes a beggar motioning for food.

 

In short, don't use your chopsticks for anything else other than what they're meant to do—a pair of utensils to carry food from your plate to your mouth. Another thing to remember is to make sure to show your respect by ensuring that the oldest or highest-ranking person at the table has picked up their chopsticks and has taken the first bite before you do.

 

Metaphors of Death

Some dining habits that may not be a big deal in the West can be taboo in China. One of the biggest rookie mistake is stabbing your chopsticks into a mound of rice and leaving them to stand upright. This looks very similar to incense sticks that the Chinese traditionally burn to honor the deceased. Instead, use a chopstick rest, if there isn't one, resting them horizontally across the rim of your bowl is perfectly acceptable.

 

Receiving food directly with your chopsticks is another no-no. This is reminiscent of a funeral custom that sees cremated bones being passed around with chopsticks. Instead, allow the other person to place it on your plate before you pick it up.

 

Digging or picking through your food with your chopsticks is not only rude in general, this action is also known as "grave-digging." It's also important to keep the two sides of your chopsticks neat and parallel with each other, lest you risk letting your chopsticks resemble a coffin made with uneven timbers. 

 

Improper Pointing

Pointing with your finger at someone is considered rude in China. So is pointing with your chopsticks. If someone is sitting across from you, you'd want to angle your chopsticks slightly when you're not using them so as to avoid having them directly pointing at the opposite diner. Lastly, don't rest your chopsticks in the shape of an 'X' on the table, the proper way is to always place them parallel and together on a chopstick rest or the side of your bowl or plate.

 

This may look like an impossibly long list of rules to memorize but most of them are logical, basic table manners. When in doubt, just do what everyone else does, and if you're really not comfortable, it's alright to explain and ask for a fork.

 

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sunsetlover's picture

sunsetlover

Good summary. But, "receiving food directly with your chopsticks is another no-no. This is reminiscent of a funeral custom that sees cremated bones being passed around with chopsticks", I believe young people gave up on that one a long time ago.
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