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COVID-19 threatens Chinese traditions of chopsticks, family-style meals

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2017

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2017

At Chilli Kitchen in Beijing, spicy and mouth-numbing Sichuan dishes are laid out family style. Using red chopsticks, diners dive into steaming bowls of pork wontons bathed in fragrant chili oil and sesame seeds, and rummage through platters filled with dried red chili peppers to unearth juicy bits of roasted fish.

Sharing food is a central feature of how Chinese people, like many elsewhere in the world, convey affection. Parents pick up choice morsels and place them in their children’s bowls as an expression of love; children serve their grandparents to show their respect; and bosses do it as a gesture of magnanimity toward their employees.

Now, concerns are growing that the country’s long tradition of sharing food could also accelerate the spread of coronavirus. The government has zeroed in on a ubiquitous utensil: chopsticks.

Most Chinese diners pick up food from communal platters with the same pair of chopsticks that they then use to eat, or serve others. Double dipping is the norm. But the government hopes to change habits by urging people to use a second pair of chopsticks — just for serving.

State news agencies are calling it a “dining table revolution.” Dr. Zhong Nanshan and Dr. Zhang Wenhong, outspoken infectious disease experts who have become celebrities since the start of the outbreak, have voiced their support. Authorities across the country are running advertisements with slogans like, “The distance between you and civilized dining is just one pair of serving chopsticks.”

Some restaurants and diners have heeded the call. They are offering discounts to diners who use serving chopsticks. In the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, more than 100 prominent restaurants have formed a “Serving Chopsticks Alliance.”

In Beijing, Bai Yiwen, one of the owners of Chilli Kitchen, reckons that since reopening in mid-April, more than half the groups that come to his restaurants have asked for serving chopsticks, up from less than 5% before the pandemic.

“Before, people felt like using serving chopsticks was bothersome,” Bai, 31, said. “But now, everyone is becoming more aware of the problem and slowly they are getting used to it.”

Still, resistance is strong. Many see sharing food with one’s own chopsticks as among the most authentic expressions of China’s communal culture and emphasis on family, no less integral than hugging is to Americans or the cheek kiss is to the French. Serving chopsticks are typically associated with formal settings, like banquets and meals with strangers.

Serving chopsticks are more common in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where there is a greater awareness of hygiene. Some Chinese who hail from north of the Yangtze River see their southern, rice-eating counterparts as more particular about their eating habits, and so more likely to use serving chopsticks. (There is no evidence supporting this stereotype.)

By contrast, wheat-eating northerners, and particularly the men, take pride in what Chinese call “eating big and drinking big,” without care for such petty concerns as germs and bacteria. Never mind a small, recent experiment by government experts who found that the level of bacteria in dishes for which serving chopsticks were used was as much as 250 times lower than in dishes shared in the regular fashion.

Liu Peng, 32, an education consultant and proud northerner from the coastal city of Qingdao, said that while he had grown accustomed to wearing a mask in recent months, he and his friends had not changed their dining habits.

“Maybe using serving chopsticks is more hygienic but eating is the time for us all to relax, and we don’t want to be bothered by all these little rules,” Liu said.

Besides, he reasoned, the new coronavirus was so contagious that serving chopsticks were not going to stop the virus from spreading around a table.

“In my 30 years of eating out, I’ve never contracted an infection,” he declared.

Similar campaigns to promote serving chopsticks were launched across Asia after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in the early 2000s.

The drive gained traction in Hong Kong, where nearly 300 people died in that outbreak. Even today, many restaurants in Hong Kong lay two sets of chopsticks at each place setting, one pair for serving and another, often a different-colored pair, for eating. Other restaurants in the city often place serving spoons and chopsticks directly on the dishes.

But the campaign barely registered in mainland China. Most Chinese grow up learning the basics of chopstick etiquette: hold them two-thirds of the way up; don’t stick them vertically into your rice bowl because it resembles incense offerings for the deceased; and don’t suck on them.

Sharing food with family and friends is just as deeply ingrained, and serving chopsticks are sometimes seen as undermining that expression of closeness. Just asking for the extra utensils can be awkward because it could imply that you think your fellow diners might be unwell.

Sara Jane Ho, a Hong Kong native and founder of a high-end etiquette school in China, said that when she hosts a meal, she often says she has a small cold so she can ask for serving chopsticks to protect everyone else from her.

But even then, she said, compliance is not guaranteed.

“Often you’ll see people serving themselves and then they forget to switch chopsticks and start eating directly with the serving pair,” Ho said. “It always gives me a mini heart attack.”

To make the government’s case, state media and culinary historians have scoured Chinese history to find instances in which serving chopsticks or individual plating was the norm. For 3,000 years up until the Tang Dynasty, news reports say, Chinese people ate separate portions of food. The articles point to the famous 10th-century scroll painting, “The Night Revels of Han Xizai,” which depicts a government minister and his guests eating individually plated portions of food.

The cause was taken up by Wu Lien-teh, a Chinese doctor from British Malaya, who is often credited with saving many lives during the 1910 outbreak of pneumonic plague in northeastern China. Wu helped popularize the use of serving chopsticks along with the use of a lazy Susan, the round rotating platform known in Chinese as the “hygienic table.”

Even former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong, who supposedly rarely bathed and never brushed his teeth, was at one point said to have used serving chopsticks, thanks to the influence of the father of Mao’s second wife, according to Zhao Rongguang, a Chinese food historian.

But the practice of sharing food has nonetheless persisted. In 1984, Hu Yaobang, then general secretary of the Communist Party and a passionate liberalizer, suggested that his countrymen abandon chopsticks and communal eating in favor of Western-style individual dining practices to avoid contagious diseases. The idea was promptly ignored and forgotten.

Zhao, the historian, sees the coronavirus epidemic as an opportunity to revive the movement for “civilized dining.”

“If we don’t change this practice of ‘using one pair of chopsticks to dig to the bottom’ then we are going to be eliminated forever by humanity and natural selection,” Zhao said.

But unless a specific law is enacted, changing habits will be an uphill battle, particularly outside of the big cities.

For Shu Xiao, 27, a schoolteacher in Yuxi, a city in the southwestern province of Yunnan, group dinners can be discomforting. Shu said her family has used serving chopsticks at home since last year, when reports were circulating about a local outbreak of stomach bacteria.

When she goes out to dinner with her friends, she can’t muster the courage to ask for extra sets of chopsticks, she said. Instead, she tries to eat only from the parts of the dishes least touched by her companions and fights the urge to think about how much bacteria is being circulated around the table.

“My friends already think my family is kind of strange for using serving chopsticks at home,” she said. “So I just go along with the mainstream, even though in my heart I’m always protesting a little.”

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