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Two people eat with chopsticks at a restaurant

Lifestyle

China sends new message about centuries-old chopstick tradition

COVID-19 has changed habits around the world. As China recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, the government is urging diners to use serving chopsticks at family meals — changing a centuries-old tradition.

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A family eats soup with chopsticks at Vancouver's Grand Honor Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, July 1, 2012. 

Credit:

Ben Nelms/Reuters

In China, it’s very common to share a meal together family-style, each person using their own chopsticks to pick up food from a common dish. And it’s a sign of caring or respect to pick up food with your own chopsticks and put it on someone else’s plate.

But as the country recovers from the coronavirus outbreak, the government wants everyone to change that tradition.

Related: Coronavirus has changed how we transport goods and ourselves

On TV stations around China, a public service announcement has been playing over and over for the past month.

In it, a three-generation family sits down for a meal, and a cute little kid peddles over on his tricycle carrying eating utensils. There’s a pair of chopsticks for each person, and also a set of serving chopsticks.

The message: Make sure to use the serving chopsticks.

Related: Will the US ever mimic Asia's culture of 'universal masking'?

It’s all part of a new campaign run by the government to try to convince people in China to change how they eat.

At an upscale Cantonese restaurant in Shanghai, Tang Xue Xiong is surrounded by 12 of his friends and business partners. They’re having a post-COVID-19 reunion in a private VIP room. 

Before them lies a vast array of mouthwatering dishes, including fried fish, shrimp cakes and clay pot rice. The group clinks glasses for a toast before they dig in. Tang asks the waiter for special chopsticks and serving spoons to serve the dishes.

“We used serving chopsticks before ... but after the outbreak we need to really step up the use of serving utensils, to keep everyone healthy.”

Tang Xue Xiong, Shanghai, China

“We used serving chopsticks before,” Tang tells The World, “but after the outbreak we need to really step up the use of serving utensils, to keep everyone healthy.”

The message is being spread through TV shows and online classes for children. 

In one class in Beihai, in Southern China, a teacher shows kids how to distinguish between serving chopsticks and regular ones. The serving ones are longer, and sometimes they’re a different color, too.

There are even catchy little ditties featuring a dancing pair of chopsticks.  

Anita Lai runs food tours, and her family owns a bunch of hotpot restaurants in Chengdu. She said she learned about the chopstick campaign on the radio.

"They were talking about it and said many restaurants are joining the campaign, and I have seen outside of the restaurant they have put up posters and signs saying we encourage people to use the serving chopsticks," said Lai. 

But she thinks the new campaign is going to be a tough sell.

"Using public or serving chopsticks would be a sign that I want to keep distance between you and me, and that’s kind of the opposite of the social culture here, although I agree it is a good concept that we probably should adapt regarding the pandemic situation."

Anita Lai, food tour operator, Chengdu, China

"Using public or serving chopsticks would be a sign that I want to keep distance between you and me, and that’s kind of the opposite of the social culture here, although I agree it is a good concept that we probably should adapt regarding the pandemic situation," Lai said. 

Anthony Zhao is a chef who owns several restaurants in Shanghai. He says fancy places have been offering serving chopsticks for years. 

Related: In Japan, a 1,000-year-old cheese recipe makes its comeback

"Whenever people coming in, the table is already set up with serving chopsticks. But sometimes people using, sometimes people not, but it will always be there," Zhao said. 

It’s a different story in smaller restaurants, where most people go out for regular meals. He says hygiene isn’t as much a priority. 

"Those small restaurants, they will not use those serving chopsticks, they think it’s not necessary; doesn’t really matter," Zhao said. 

Serving chopsticks are already common in Taiwan and Japan, but they haven’t quite caught on yet in China, despite repeated efforts by the government. So will people start using them?

Zhao says it’s not like in the US, where no one wants to "double-dip." In China, it seems rude not to do that. It's a bit offputting.

"If you don’t want to eat with us, why did you come? We’re already sitting at the same table and are very close to eat, why are you worry[ing] about those things? That’s how I feel sometimes."

Anthony Zhao, chef and restaurateur, Shanghai, China

"If you don’t want to eat with us, why did you come? We’re already sitting at the same table and are very close to eat, why are you worry[ing] about those things? That’s how I feel sometimes," Zhao said. 

Back at the Cantonese restaurant in Shanghai, the manager shows The World the utensil drawer filled with serving spoons and serving chopsticks.

He says everyone uses serving chopsticks here. But that’s not apparent when looking around the restaurant. There are several people sharing food with regular chopsticks.

This isn’t surprising. In China, people have been eating this way for generations.

Still, the pandemic has forced people to change in many different ways.

It seems they’re already accustomed to wearing masks outside, sharing a digital health code on their phone, and having their temperature checked everywhere they go.

Maybe using serving chopsticks will become another small price to pay for staying safe.  

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