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Self-study Lessons > Chinese, Mandarin > All levels >

A proper Chinese feast / Seating and course serving order

by Rui Li


I will start with a famous story. 郑板桥(zheng4 ban3 qiao2), a famous calligraphy artist from Qing Dynasty, went into a tea shop one day, the waiter saw his crappy clothes and thought he is just some ordinary poor guests, so said to him when he stepped in: 坐!(zuo4)(Take a seat.), the boss at the counter heard this, then he shouted to the kitchen: 茶!(cha2)(Tea). Then 郑板桥 took out some silver money, the waiter saw and got excited, so he changed his tone and said: 请坐!(qing3 zuo4)(Please take a seat.) The boss at the counter heard this, then he also changed his tone and shouted to the kitchen: 上茶!(shang4 cha2)(Offer tea!) At this moment, somebody in the shop recognized 郑板桥 and came over to say hi. The waiter saw this and got really nervous, so he politely said to 郑板桥: 请上座!(qing3 shang4 zuo4)(Please take the upper/good seat!) And the boss also changed to: 上好茶!(shang4 hao3 cha2)(Offer the good tea!)

After tea, the boss came over and begged for 郑板桥's writing, so he wrote the following to mock the boss's attitude.
坐   请坐   请上座
茶   上茶   上好茶

I just wanted to use this story to explain to you how important the seating is in a Chinese dinner or party. If you invite a few guests to your home, how you place the seats is very important, otherwise you might offend people without knowing it.

I will give you some examples, if you are inviting your boss or clients or elderly relative, then they must be placed at the head seat as the head guest. This head seat is normally facing the door. In the ancient times, the head seat is always facing east. But since nowadays the dinning room setting might not have the advantage on deciding where the head seat is, then you could place table decoration or napkins as signs of indicator.

Here is a seating map for reference:

Map 1 is for mainland China:
1. 主人 Owner one 3. 夫人或副宾 Mrs. or second main guest
2. 主宾 main guest 4. 第二主人Owner two
5、6. 副宾 second main guests 7-10.其他副宾.

In Taiwan it is like this:

Map 2 (single owner)
1. 主宾 Main guest
2-11. 副宾 other guests
12. 主人 owner

Map 3 (Two owners: Mr. and Mrs.)
1. 主宾 Main guest
2-10. 副宾 Other guests
11. 男主人 Mr. Owner
12. 女主人 Mrs. Owner

Course order:
1. 茶点(cha2 dian3) Tea and nuts, such as sunflower seeds and peanuts.
2. 冷菜(leng3 cai4) Cold side dishes (assisting drinking)
3. 热菜(re4 cai4) Hot dishes (The orders are: 主菜 head course-the most expensive one, 二菜 second course-fried or roasted dishes, 汤 soup-for comforting the stomach and clearing alcohol, 其他菜 other courses-8-12 dishes including 2 soup dishes)
4. 小吃(xiao3 chi1) Snack food
5. 素菜(su4 cai4) Vegetarian dishes
6. 水果(shui3 guo3) Fruits

This order is varied according to different regions. But the main idea is like this. The most classic and simple Chinese dinner table contains 4 hot dishes and 1 soup. This is the most basic and common dinner rules.

Email me if you have any questions:

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