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In China you regularly see restaurant patrons spit out bones and other bits from their soup etc straight onto the table, and you can also read in various places online that this is OK.

But is it always OK? Does it depend how classy the restaurant is? I prefer the cheap end of the scale but even then there can seem to be a wide range super cheap street food places and cheaper than most other countries but still neat and cheerfully decorated places.

Also China is very large with many regions and ethnicities so conceivably not uniform dining etiquette.

Just now I was at a nice cheap place in Chengdu (paid ¥15 when you can easily pay half or less) and though the tablecloth was covered by glass I opted to spit in the ashtray instead of straight onto the table. Could this even be considered rude in comparison with spitting the "normal way"?

(By "spit" I don't necessarily mean as a projectile, usually you just drop it gently from your mouth, just in case anybody might interpret it that way...)

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I notice you've asked a number of etiquette questions on Travel.SE. Did you know about the Etiquette Proposal on Area51? :) –  starsplusplus Feb 20 at 16:51
    
@starsplusplus: It looks like a good idea but I wouldn't be able to live up to a commitment. –  hippietrail Feb 20 at 16:58
    
I know the feeling, I've got a couple myself that I only "followed" even though they were in commitment phase. –  starsplusplus Feb 20 at 17:05
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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

As with so many cultural things in any country, there are some big no-no's that you have to avoid 100%, but there are also a lot of grey areas. Due to China being a huge country and every part of it being in a different stage of development, socially, financially, industrially etc, it is normal that you will see all kinds of behavior. And people are in general more flexible accepting different behaviors because of that. So while you might search for the perfect rule, it will really depend where you are in China, whom you are having dinner with and how expensive the restaurant is.

In this specific aspect there is a cultural clash between the rural Chinese style where a dirty table means that the food was so good that you could not help from eating messy and the (perceived) European fine dining style where everything is neat and clean and no spot on the table or elsewhere. This is quite similar to the way Japanese noodles are eaten: One indicates how delicious they are by eating them boiling hot and compensating that by loudly pulling in air along to cool them down.

So here just some observations that I made over the last 10 years:

What I realized is that for a lot of Chinese food it's really hard to keep the table cloth clean and not really expected either. So if the table cloth gets dirty because its virtually impossible to get 30cm long noodles out of a high bowl using chopsticks or even with a large spoon or because you drop your bones on them, does not make too much of a difference (for the table).

It's normal and necessary to spit out the bones (as you described it, dropping them) in China and Hong Kong. There is simply too much food (specially chicken and fish) with tiny bones in them, since they cook the chicken in whole, chop it with the bones and serve bit-sized pieces with the bones still on the meat. You cannot help but put the meat with the bones into your mouth, chew off the meat and then try to get rid of the bone. While this is not very common in Europe and people usually try to cut the meat off the bone before eating it, and then even hiding the bones somehow, this is not the case in China. A big plate of empty bones is rather a sign of a good dinner since the best meat is considered to be right on the bone, and the fact that the food is served with the bones is a sign of freshness.

Regarding where to drop the bones:

A classic Chinese food table set consists of a main small plate, a small bowl on another small plate, a tea cup and chopsticks. Since soup & rice dishes (which are easiest to eat from the bowl) and other dishes are often served in parallel, your plates are quickly used up. If you want to reserve one for the bones, you are in trouble. So where else to put them?

In better restaurants they will simply change your plate often enough so that you can drop them on the main plate. Waiters come around and change the plates if they see a lot of bones or when you ask them for it. If this kind of service is not there, it's normal to drop them in a small pile next to the plate. It's simply something you have to do otherwise there is no space.

If you feel uncomfortable doing this, you can use the small bowl for the bones or take the plate below the bowl and use it for the bones. But then the soup running down the side of the soup bowl will make a spot on the table. If you want to be neat, take a paper tissue (it's always a good idea to bring some to a Chinese dinner) put it on the table and drop the bones on it. When you are finished with the food, pick it up and put it on the plate before it's taken away. Problem solved.

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Unfortunately there is no definitive answer that I could find on the subject.

There are several blogs that say that it is OK to do this:

And some that say NO:

Personally that seems to be Ok in some western restaurants as well. Like Texas Roadhouse, where throwing Peanut Shells on the Floor is their shtick. :)

[4]:

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Link No 4 (China highlights) has gone missing? –  uncovery Nov 19 '13 at 3:07
    
@uncovery: Actually it's not missing but blocked on our site becuase we had a spam problem with them recently! –  hippietrail Nov 19 '13 at 6:38
    
@uncovery Link cannot be added because China Highlights is banned. :( –  Karlson Nov 19 '13 at 15:26
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