In some parts of China it is considered bad luck, and bad table manners, to flip over a whole fish to get to the other side
Have you ever ordered whole fish at a Chinese restaurant? This is the traditional Chinese way of serving fish, with head, bone, tail and all. Nothing unusual there, but if you want to eat your fish like a Chinese person, or if you are dining in China or with a Chinese family, you may want to be aware of a Chinese table manners rule that we Americans might find quite arbitrary or strange. In America, we might eat one side of the fish then flip it over to get to the other side. In China, to flip over a whole fish is considered bad luck!
Why this prohibition on fish-flipping? Well, in reality, this particular rule of etiquette is mostly observed in coastal areas, where fishing is the main occupation and economy. To turn over a fish is considered similar to turning over a fishing boat. A very bad thing indeed which could bring misfortune or disaster to one’s family.
So, instead of flipping over the fish, it is better to eat the flesh from one side, then carefully remove the backbone and set it aside so you can get to the flesh underneath. Alternatively, you can just remove the backbone in advance to make the whole process easier. It is just as likely, that a large whole fish will be shared by the entire family, and each person will help themselves to portions of it. The host will remove the backbone according to their own preference or custom. 1 2
This is Actually a Practical Way of Eating Whole Fish
While this habit may be based on superstition, it’s also quite practical. This really is the best way of eating a whole fish as trying to turn over a fish on your plate will probably just make a mess and break it up. Experienced diners will eat one side and remove the backbone to get to the other side, just like in this Chinese etiquette rule.
Whole Fish In Chinese Culture
A whole fish is an important part of the Chinese New Year, where it is considered good luck (that is, it will bring luck in the coming year). 3 When the Chinese say nian nian you yu or “may you have a surplus ever year” is a New Year’s greeting and also a pun, as the word yú (surplus) sounds like the word for fish. 4
- Dunlop, Fuchsia. Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. W.W. Norton, 2013.
- Foster, Dean. The Global Etiquette Guide to Asia: Everything You Need to Know for Business and Travel Success. John Wiley, 2000.
- Veneracion, Connie. “The Chinese Believe That Serving Whole Fish Will Bring Luck.” CASA Veneracion, 22 Feb. 2018, casaveneracion.com/chinese-believe-serving-whole-fish-will-bring-luck/.
- LENNON, KATHRYN GWUN-YEEN. “Nian Nian You Yu.” Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon, 1 Feb. 2014, https://kathryngylennon.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/%E5%B9%B4%E5%B9%B4%E6%9C%89%E9%AD%9A-nian-nian-you-yu/.