Dining at a Shanghainese Restaurant: 7 Etiquettes You May Not Know

The world of Chinese dining is rich and intricate. The settings, lay, and presentations are bound by etiquettes that are steeped in history, culture, and traditions.

We share seven practices you may not know when dining in polite company:

1. The host will decide

The host will take the seat facing the entrance of the dining room. The guest-of-honour (VIP) will sit by the host’s right and the rest will be seated in descending order away from the host according to hierarchal rank. If in doubt, allow the host to direct you to your seat. When toasting, be sure to keep an eye out for your glass and ensure that your glass is always positioned below the host’s. Always allow the host full liberty over the choice of dishes, and avoid special requests unless being asked specifically.

The host also has the most responsibility and duties of the meal. It is customary for the host to be present from the beginning to the end of the meal. The host is also expected to serve tea for his or her guests.

2. Table taps show gratitude

After the host refills a cup of tea, tap twice on the table with your index and middle fingers to show your appreciation and gratitude. This act originated from ancient China, when Emperor Qianlong went on an incognito trip to survey his people. During this trip, the Emperor poured tea for his servant, and in order to show his gratitude without blowing the Emperor’s cover, the servant tapped two knuckles on the table.

The taps signified going on both knees to express the servant’s thanks, and have now evolved into a non-verbal gesture of respect and appreciation for the host.

3. Leave just the right amount of food

To demonstrate that your host has provided sufficient food during the banquet, some excess should be left on your plate. To finish all the food on the table will indicate that you have not been served well.  However, it is also rude to leave your plate full and food wastage is not recommended.

4. Rest chopsticks parallel to the table

Sticking chopsticks upright into bowls of rice has similar connotations to offering incense to the dead. This, to the Chinese, is a bad omen to be avoided, especially at the dining table during auspicious events (birthday celebrations and weddings).

Rest your chopsticks on the chopstick stands provided, or by the side of the rice bowl, parallel to the table.

5. Debone the fish

When you are served a whole fish lying on its side, and require access to the other side of the fish, do not turn the fish over. This symbolises that the boat has capsized and may be frowned upon.

Instead, start from its tail, and pull the spine all the way up to the head. Set it aside and continue digging in.

6. Foot the full bills

In Chinese culture, dining is a communal event meant to foster stronger ties between the parties present. To offer to split the tab represents a desire for each party to go their own way. You will be expected to foot the tab when you are assuming the role of the host, asking for a favour, or extending an apology.

If you wish to avoid a wrestling match for the tab after the meal, excuse yourself from the table when the meal is underway and head to the cashier to pay in advance. It is customary for one party to pick up the tab, and the other to reciprocate the next time they dine together.

7. Hoist plates to receive food

If your dining companions attempt to serve you food, do not use your chopsticks to receive it. Rather, hoist your plate and allow him or her to place food on your plate. Similarly, when serving food to others, place the food on the plate or bowl of the recipient.

Passing food from chopstick to chopstick is reminiscent to passing the remains of a cremated individual and is taboo at the Chinese dining table.

We hope you will find these insights useful.

Experience the world of old Shanghai—one with a rich historical culture that glistens through time and rituals, through customs and worldviews. Enjoy a meal at Grand Shanghai.