Chopstick revolution: How COVID-19 might change China's eating habits

Andy Boreham
Shanghai is just one city of many around China where a massive revolution is under way. Whether those behind it ultimately reign triumphant is yet to be seen.
Andy Boreham
Chopstick revolution: How COVID-19 might change China's eating habits

Shanghai is just one city of many around China where a massive revolution is under way. Whether those behind it ultimately reign triumphant is yet to be seen, but the so-called “chopstick revolution” is already gaining ground.

So, what is the chopstick revolution? No, it’s not a sinister plan to turn the ubiquitous eating tool into a weapon of mass destruction, nor is it the uniting symbol of an underground group of revolutionaries seeking to take over the world. But if successful, the chopstick revolution will change the face of China forever. Its aim: to fundamentally alter the way Chinese eat.

A history lesson

Chopsticks have been around for thousands of years, with an exact date not really known for sure. Many scholars believe the first recorded instance comes from the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC) — legend has it that beautiful consort Daji used to entertain King Zhou with one of her party tricks: picking up hot food using her hair sticks.

Regardless of when they first arrived, chopsticks are now the method of choice for many Chinese when eating anything from meat to noodles, and vegetables to tofu.

Food equals love

In a country where “I love you” is not commonly uttered between family members and loved ones, food plays a major role in the showing of love and affection. That means that families and friends often spend time eating communally, around a table of shared dishes.

Diners will use their own chopsticks to pick up food from the dishes placed in the center of the table, then placing it on top of their own small bowl (usually with rice) or eating it directly.

While it’s frowned upon to pick up and inspect food and then return it to the shared dish, it is still common for family or friends to pick up a prized piece of meat or a juicy wonton and place it in the bowl of someone else as a symbol of caring, all using the same pair of chopsticks that person has been eating with. At work gatherings or food-based business meetings, bosses, managers or potential business partners will make offerings of food to show their appreciation and respect.

Along came the virus

Novel coronavirus needs no introduction by now — it’s already affecting nearly every single person on the planet. We all know it can be passed on through droplets in the air, as well as by touching objects that have recently come into contact with the virus. It can also be passed on through the saliva of an infected person.

It goes without saying, then, that China’s very way of eating — groups of people using chopsticks which are used to eat with and then dipped back into shared dishes — has become not only dangerous, but possibly deadly.

Eating revolution

Governments all over China have pushed for the use of gongkuai (serving chopsticks), not only in restaurants but also in the home. That means the use of a shared pair of chopsticks that people can use solely to pick up food with, before picking up their own, personal pair to eat with.

This has included public advertisements designed solely to popularize the idea, including huge billboards on Shanghai’s streets that talk of serving chopsticks as a way to set the heart at ease. But it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Some believe that insisting others in your group use serving chopsticks might offend, or suggest that those you’re eating with are somehow dirty or dangerous. Others find habits hard to break, and worry that without being able to show “love” through food, meal time will change from being a chance to bond, to being sterile and unnatural.

“It’s a little bit over the top to expect habits to change forever,” a friend argued recently. “I can understand that now, with COVID-19 still around, serving chopsticks are important, but that won’t last.”

Another said they prefer the “Western way” of eating, where everyone has separate servings and food isn’t shared to such an extent.

I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that, and it would be a shame for a virus to change something about China that makes it relatively unique and warm. For the time being sure, if you can use serving chopsticks then by all means do so, but I’m selfishly looking forward to the time when we don’t need to worry.

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