In China, food culture touches virtually all aspects of social interaction, business and daily life.
In this article, I provide two examples that illustrate the importance of food culture in China. The first example describes the importance of round dining tables in China. The second example describes a particular form of salutation in Mandarin Chinese.
Why Chinese dining tables are round?
In China, dining tables are often of round shape. In restaurants, tables are indeed always round and they also have a round table top with wheels.
Thanks to the table being of round shape, each guest can easily reach all the dishes. Furthermore, guests can conveniently talk to each other and join other people’s conversations.
In contrast to the custom in many Western countries where every guest is presented with a number of individual dishes, in Chinese traditional custom dishes on the table are shared by all the guests. Sharing the food on the table and chatting for hours is one of the oldest Chinese traditions.
However, if I remember correctly, in the past dining tables in China were not always round; they could also be square-shaped (but never rectangular). Back then, the square dinning table was called ‘Ba Xian Zuo’ (table of eight fairies). I remember that my grandmother used to have one; however, in special occasions when the whole family used to gather, my uncles would set up a big round table and everyone would sit around it. My most beloved grandmother would sit around to watch over her offsprings with a happy and proud smile. The round table was just very convenient.
Since living in England, I have been corrupted by Western culture and I often suggest my friends to go for a quick coffee, instead of going for a meal. In China, however, when I meet up with friends we just go for a meal and chat for hours in front of a table full of food. Even business can be made over the dining table (and not in a meeting room of an office building), so do not be surprised if you go to China on business and the critical negotiations happen while sitting at the dining table.
How to say “How do you do?’ in Chinese
If you open a beginner’s Mandarin book, you may encounter in the first few pages the sentence “ni hao ma?”, which literally means “you well?”, translated as “how do you do?”.
Chinese people, however, rarely use such sentence (only foreigners do). A far more common way of capturing the meaning of “how do you do?” in Mandarin Chinese is the sentence “ni chi le ma?”, which literally means “you eaten?”, or in correct English, “have you eaten?”.
No answer is required, no need to explain in detail what you had for lunch. It really is a made-up phrase to greet people, and you may hear Chinese people using it in the most uncommon and surprising of circumstances.
If something can be learnt from this and other references to food and eating in daily Chinese language is how important a role food plays in Chinese culture. Even in a single province (or within a single ethnic group), the list of different traditional dishes is almost endless, and most of them have their own distinguishing name!
Unfortunately, the very nice “ni chi le ma?” is being gradually replaced by other forms of expression, and younger people in China are using it less and less. This is a sign of change, for the better or for the worse. In particular, Western influence in China has dramatically increased within the last 15 years, and is affecting almost all aspects of daily life, including daily language and traditional Chinese customs.