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Do Chinese people traditionally put the napkin on their lap when eating at a Chinese restaurant?

Do Chinese people do this? Or this more of a Western rule of etiquette?

I was watching a period piece the other night, and there was a scene of a large feast and for the life of me, no one put the napkins on their lap.

In fact, most of the scenes didn't even show napkins whatsoever.

Then I thought back to some of the soap operas that I used to watch with my grandmother (RIP), and I don't recall what the normal course of procedure was for the napkin at the table, or even if there was one.

And, honestly, growing up I don't know if I was taught anything about napkins, and how to place or not place them during dinner service. Alot was said about chopsticks, soup spoons, serving your elders, etc. But I don't know if anything in particular was said in an "Emily Post" fashion about napkins.

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  1. I doubt it. I don't think traditional style eating in Asia includes napkins. I know in Singapore and Malaysia, many dining areas have a small sink in the corner for the people to wash their hands and mouth before and after eating since you eat with your hands. Many "non-fancy" restaurants also have sinks to wash up at. In India too -- I haven't noticed sinks in the dining rooms, but people wash their hands and mouth after eating. On our last trip (last April), we went out to eat a couple times and most of the other patrons just left the napkins on the table instead of putting them on their laps.

    1. I do, but I was born and raised in the US. Engrish well speeching here.

      1. Depends. Also what part of the world are you asking about, and whether we are talking about Chinese Chinese or Chinese American 1st, 2nd and beyond generation?

        Higher possibilities if:

        - The Chinese people in question also put the napkin on their laps at fancy Western restaurants (part of this is exposure to other western food culture, influences, their upbringing)

        - The Chinese restaurant in question is serving banquet style food, and it is a special occasion (wedding or an elder's milestone birthday). If people have to dress up, the more the reason to protect one's lap...but the messy eaters will end up staining their shirts or blouses (and thus the napkin will not protect against sauces, only protect falling chunks of food). Again, not a hard and fast rule

        - and the obvious...the higher end Chinese restaurant in question also offers cloth napkins (and not the diposeable kind).

        1. Growing up in Singapore in the 1960s, all the main restaurants (Majestic, Capital, Lai Wah, etc) already provided napkins, either cloth-type or else paper tissue embossed with their restaurants' names/addresses.

          Not sure what the American-Chinese restaurants in those days were like - but the ones today are not up to par when compared to Chinese restaurants in HK or Singapore.

          1. I'm Australian-born Chinese, 3rd gen on my Mum's side and my Dad's Singaporean Chinese. We absolutely never put our napkins on our laps.

            I still have to remember to do this when I'm eating with the in-laws, and it's been 12 years. I'm sure my mother in law thinks I have terrible manners.

            1. Irreverent and Irrelevant . . .

              but I immediately had a vision of the Embassy Dinner scene from The King and I, where the servants come streaming into the dining room and gracefully but unceremoniously drop napkins - fresh from the weavers - onto the laps of the guests at the end of the meal. Better late than never what? (Yes, it was Siam, not China.)

              I wasn't able to find a link to that segment of the film.

              1. 1st generation Chinese-American here, and I also vote no. My parents never taught us anything about napkins on laps. In fact, I still have to remember to put one on my lap when I got out out to eat at Western restaurants or non-Asian friends so I look "proper." ;) Personally, I find it more convenient to have the napkin next to my plate, but I guess it's just because that's how I grew up!

                1. i know your question is about Chinese practice - so i will check for you - with relatives -

                  and at the end of your post you say you don't recall - i post this out of historic interest and also in jest - the gov't wanted you to put your napkin on your lap in the 1950's - check out this on youtube
                  Family Date, Dinner in a 1950's Family Home

                  1. Are you asking about Chinese people in China? I did not eat at any super high-end places over there, but casual and semi-classy restaurants did not even have cloth napkins that I can recall. They usually had paper napkins in a dispenser on the table.

                    1. haha this is kind of a silly post (no offense), but im going to guess the answer is no

                      my logic is that in china they usually don't even give you a napkin (it's really annoying actually) even at some higher end restaurants. So I'm going to guess that it probably wasn't etiquette bc you didnt even have a napkin in the first place.

                      I dont think hong kong, singapore or even taiwan are as relevant since we're talking about what was originally etiquette in china. Plus HK and Singapore have had very strong western influence for a very long time.

                      also, just for the record no one showed me this when i was a kid

                      1. I've always put the napkin on my lap if it's cloth, but I don't remember my parents ever teaching me, even though they do it also. I was born in a China, but raised in the US.

                        Here's a related question: if you don't put the napkin on your lap, where does it go? I'm talking about banquets and dimsum type places, where every space on the table is taken by chopstick, chopstick holder, tea cup, wine cup, plate, condiment dish, etc? It seems like there would be no place to put a napkin.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: PandanExpress

                          When we were in China a few months ago, one of the restaurants (in Chengdu) did not initially give us napkins although we noted that other empty tables were set with cloth napkins. So we asked (in pantomime, as the English language skills of the staff were minimal) for napkins. They were brought to us, opened full, and then a corner was tucked under our plates, with the remainder hanging down along the side of the table, so that the napkin formed a diamond that overlapped the portion of the table cloth falling below our plates.

                          1. re: PandanExpress

                            Here's a related question: if you don't put the napkin on your lap, where does it go? I'm talking about banquets and dimsum type places, where every space on the table is taken by chopstick, chopstick holder, tea cup, wine cup, plate, condiment dish, etc? It seems like there would be no place to put a napkin.

                            At dim sum, I don't find a scarcity of space on the table. If it's a large group we have a lazy susan, if it's like a four top, the plates get cleared quick enough that it's still not an issue.

                            At banquets, if the tables are sized-right (10/per) then with a lazy susan and even with all the other accoutrements (e.g. tea cup, chopsticks, etc.), space on the table for a napkin still shouldn't be an issue.

                          2. I don't recall napkins ever being placed on the lap as I was growing up. When I visited China in the 90's, I went to many hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and no one put napkins on their laps. Many of them didn't even have napkins, which is why we always brought along our own supply.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: raytamsgv

                              So what do you (or your family) do when you guys go out to eat at say, Elite, for either dim sum or dinner?

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                I do, but my family members and relatives don't.

                            2. Ips....youngest daughter was adopted in China 1 years ago. We were there more than a month. In the luxury hotels catering to westerners napkins were availabe, never saw them elsewhere. The Chinese dining in the hotel dining rooms or banquet rooms with us, would follow our lead and place napkins on laps. Those observed at a table of all Chinese or mixed Asian did not.
                              Daughter was raised here and uses napkins American style.
                              Last summer she spent 2 days escorting a group of Chinese teens touring Connecticut. Daughter remarked that she was the only one who used a napkin during meals. Many of the visitors made a beeline for the rest rooms to wash up after the meal. She also observed that many of the teens lifted their rice bowls to their mouths and then used chopsticks to eat. This left little opportunity for drips and spills.

                              I made a number of trips to Hong Kong in the 1970s and local Chinese followed British customs in mixed groups, but did not see napkins in small restarants catering to the local Chinese population.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: bagelman01

                                Interesting. Thanks for the insights.

                                1. re: bagelman01

                                  For what it's worth, I did a little research into google images for Tai Ping Koon and Boston Restaurant, both are classic examples of old style western restaurants catering to Hong Kong tastebuds and not to be confused with HK cafes where you can find everything. Sizzling iron platter steaks and chops, spaghetti (or rice) baked with white sauce or red sauce, HK style borscht soup with dinner white dough bun and butter (or toast), "soy sauce" fusion style dishes, to roasted/fried squab, sweet soy sauce chicken wings, sweet soy sauce beef chow fun, baked pomfret, and HK style French souffle. These are not cheap HK café type places either (special treat type restaurants for their time and stuck in time, considered upscale back then) and have been around over 60 years. No old photos so to speak, but online pics from visitors show paper disposeable napkins with the restaurant's logo on them.

                                  The napkin was used more for shielding the steaks, when hot oil and sauce was poured over the iron platters to create a shock and awe visual and hearing experience (and thus avoiding burns and stains on clothes).

                                  Definitely see cloth napkins at the upscale Chinese themed restaurants in the hotels (some of these are also Michelin rated), particularly those that attract an international crowd.

                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                    CORRECTION, my typing isn't as good as it should be. Daughter was adopted in China SIXTEEN years ago, I lost the '6' when typing.

                                  2. The same goes for Japan. Unless you dine in a higher-end French, Italian, or otherwise "western" restaurant with cloth napkins, it's likely that moistened oshibori are the norm. I wonder if the napkin on the lap is generally not an Asian thing?

                                    1. China is a big place. There are a lot of things wrapped up in any "tradition". How one eats greatly affects what one cooks. In my experience...

                                      If one is eating a meal where you can bring the bowl to your mouth (chopstick in one hand, rice bowl in another), then napkin placement is optional because the bowl is the food catcher.

                                      If eating a meal where a bowl/plate/utensil does not line up with the head (hold soup bowl in hand like a rice dish, use a soup spoon under food morsel carried by chopstick to mouth like rice bowl) when morsel of food is inserted into mouth, then napkin in lap.

                                      If eating "western style" off of a plate on the table, and food is carried by chopsticks off of plate across and up to mouth, then napkin in lap.

                                      For both the immovable bowl/plate and western style of dining, some people will just lean in over the plate or bowl instead/in addition to the napkin, especially if they come from a region where some dish is prepared in a manner that you can't touch or pickup the bowl. However I've heard a person from one region call bringing the head to the bowl "eating like a dog", which really offended someone else who grew up in a region where that was the norm - again China is a big place and traditions can vary a lot.

                                      If eating with hands (rolling up foods like moo-shoo, or far western Chinese cuisine that is more rooted to Himalayan/Indian cuisine than Eastern Chinese cuisine), often one hand is cupped under the roll and acts as a food/sauce catcher and napkin in lap is optional. In the case where no individual napkin is used on the lap a convenient moistened towel is not an uncommon sight, though I've seen people chow down all meal long with stuff dripping down their forearms, though the after-dinner conversation, and then only washing their hands long after the eating was over.

                                      If you watch "period pieces" of European dining, I'll bet depending on the period and or people depicted, you won't see napkins there either (the further back, the more likely the higher the social class or more ritualistic the meal). In middle ages there were none at normal eating, but in ritual banquets one may be draped over the lords shoulder. In the high middle ages / renaissance the gradual migration of the napkin from a communal towel draped on one edge of a table to being draped over the left arm of the man-servant to one or more napkin per person used in different ways (different sized napkins for different uses). Class and wealth as a spare length of good cloth (let alone a spare length of cloth per person) that had to be washed every meal was not inexpensive and labour intensive. The introduction of the fork for a time made it vogue in high society to placed value of neatness while eating and some people purposefully reduced the use of (or in some cases eliminated entirely) the napkin for a time as a way of showing off how skilled/cultured you were. Even in the U.S., immigrants who were super neat eaters were called "napkin savers" in both an admiring and derogatory manner). The move to lace shirts, ruffled shirts, for men etc. saw the rise of tucking the napkin into the collar or button hole...

                                      Napkins as a normal element of Western bourgeois society didn't become common until the 1800s!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: khuzdul

                                        edit to clarify:

                                        If eating a meal where a bowl/plate/utensil does not line up with the head, when morsel of food is inserted into mouth, then napkin in lap. This is not a situation where one can hold soup bowl in hand like a rice dish - rude in some places and not rude in others, even big noodle soup bowls; nor is it the same as when one uses a Chinese soup spoon under food morsel carried by chopstick to mouth like rice bowl.

                                      2. Lanzhou lamian holes-in-the-wall might have toilet paper at each table, or it might just be one bog roll hung on the wall. It's rather elastic.

                                        Many restaurants in China add a small fee for tissues/napkins, which is fair enough, but I would recommend carrying around tissue packs if you plan to visit that country (or much of the world) as paper towels/napkins might be in short supply/non-existent.

                                        As for how the average Chinese person eats in China? You'll see EVERYTHING, and often the unwanted parts of the meal will be placed on the table next to the dish (not in a tissue). Every now and then someone will just throw it on the floor, and I'm not talking about toddlers.

                                        It's the fung times likes these that keep me coming back to the mainland...