Ever reach the end of a meal and see people tensely gripping their wallets, ready to race to see who can slap their credit card on the bill first? In Chinese culture, this is pretty common, regardless of whether you’re filthy rich or waiting for your paycheck to finally arrive.
Find it weird? To understand this, you must know that Chinese people value values quite heavily. There is a large emphasis for demonstrating virtues– if you’ve read 三字经 (Sānzìjīng), a teaching material used especially to teach values and virtue, you would understand. In this case, fighting for the bill demonstrates the virtues of generosity, kindness, and considerateness. Even if families aren’t particularly well off, they would insist on paying the bill to demonstrate their good character. To take this even further, families want to demonstrate they have the quality/character 仁 (Rén), which is a Chinese philosophy of how people should act and behave in a proper manner. More into that later.
There’s also another part to this– face 面子 (Miànzi). Chinese people value face quite heavily. In this case, they don’t want to lose face by having someone pay for their meal. It’s much preferred for people to empty out their wallets rather to admit they need help, especially with something as significant as a bill.
Who pays the bill is quite an important question– in most relationships, whether it be romantic, platonic, or financial, the party that pays the bill is often seen as the more dominant party since it holds control over the meal. It also shows that the party who didn’t pay owes the party who did, which seemingly makes the latter more powerful.
Now that you know why paying the bill is so important, don’t whisper to your mom “free meal!” when someone offers to pay. You’d rather lose money than face. Always.