Confucius on Dining Etiquette

Steam buns and other dishes on turning table with dinersAccording to Confucius, eating a meal involved much more than the act of eating. While “the foremost function of eating was physical and mental cultivation,” it also served various social purposes, one such purpose being the “strengthening of kinship and friendship.” It is important to note that these rules of etiquette were not to be blindly followed and repeated but understood as an integral aspect of society. For this reason, “the Analects reject a forced choice between repeating and remembering by combining both in its vision of li” (Casey 6). One’s conduct is central to a meaningful existence for “conduct and expression make manifest the spirit of ritualized activity which, without them, is susceptible to the emptiness of sheer repetition” (8). Confucius lived in a feudal society, and therefore the giving and eating of food played a big role in demonstrating this hierarchical structure. Within the family, friend, and social/governmental dining situations, the order in which individuals sat and ate was a visual demonstration of their status within that particular group. This rule and order assigned to dining etiquette was so important to the ancient rulers that “Emperor Zhenzong of the Jingde Reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) issued a decree formalizing imperial banquet etiquette” (Huo). Dim sum dishes and dinersThe decree gave rules concerning the type and time of appropriate language, dress, behavior, and order of seating. Dining etiquette had been in place in the Chinese empire long before this decree, however, due to the promotion of etiquette and law by Confucianism “as early as 2,000 years ago” (Huo). “Eating etiquette was derived from ancient worship rituals, and came into practice earlier than any other etiquette system in imperial China” (Huo). It was advocated by Confucianism because it was believed that the structure that was gained would help “rule the country and educate its people” (Huo). These rules kept in mind hierarchical status and the order in which one sat being central. Therefore, the seating arrangement was clearly outlined: “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” (Huo). Just as where an individual sat was an indication of their place in the hierarchy, the order in which the guests at a social dinner, or a family dinner, would eat was also an indication of their status. The younger family members or insubordinates were expected to start eating after their superiors and also to stop eating when they did. There was also a great deal of structure concerning the activities of the guest both before and after dinner. Upon the arrival of the guests the host would greet the guests and welcome them into the sitting room where they would have tea. When dinner was served, it was the job of the host to give the toast and offer his guests the prepared food. After the guests thanked the host and ate, they would again be led into the sitting room for more tea until the dinner party was over. In order to show gratitude, it was quite important that guests were never to refuse food or drink offered to them by the host.

Diners enjoying large table of dishesDining etiquette went beyond actions and seating arrangements, as there were also rules concerning the serving and eating of food. Serving etiquette regarded the exact location and angle a dish should point and how the server should hold and place a dish on the table. While serving a dish, the steward was to use their left palm and carry out other tasks with their right. If asked a question, they were to turn their head away from the dish so as not to be positioned over the dish with an open mouth. Even matters such as where the dishes were placed was quite particular: “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” (Huo). One of the most important aspects of how the table was arranged, however, concerned the direction in which particular dishes were placed. This was especially true when a whole fish was being served because the direction of these dishes was a further indication of one’s status. It was important to serve the most delicate part of the dish towards the host or honored guest. In the case of the fish, during the summer the back would face the individual of particular importance, in the winter the stomach, and at any other time it would be the tail that would face this individual. This was again to indicate the order and importance of each individual. Before eating, younger individuals and subordinates would demonstrate their respect by sitting farther away from the table until it was their turn to eat. Youth and subordinates would also stand up from the table to demonstrate respect when an honored guest arrived.

Bamboo chopsticks and satin sleeveThe ways in which individuals dined was separated into the three Topics of greedy eaters, gourmets, and eaters who balanced their dining. Confucius believed that using eating to promote health and social cultivation was the appropriate way to dine and he therefore prescribed rules and etiquette to assist the diner in balancing the self while demonstrating respect for the food being consumed. As a demonstration of how one was to eat, “there were many prescribed eating taboos regarding gulping, pouring, slurping, and picking teeth during a meal” (Huo). Perhaps some of the most important rules, however, involved chopsticks since many of these rules are still indicative of normative behavior. These rules established through ancient etiquette include:

chopsticks not being 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, not 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. (Huo)

While the above rules do not demonstrate all of the requirements concerning appropriate dining, they do give an individual a general idea of how involved eating a meal really is when following the ancient Chinese dining etiquette prescribed by Confucius.