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                          Both separate-servings and shared-dishes have long history in China

                          Author  :  HUI WEN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-04-18

                          Ancient separate-serving dining can be seen in the painting “The Banquet at Hongmen,” a depiction of the famous historical event held between the anti-Qin generals Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. Photo: BEIJING DAILY

                          As the COVID-19 outbreak progresses, experts suggest dining without sharing dishes. It is interesting to note that as early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BCE), China was one of the first cultures to eat individual, unshared dishes. The Chinese word yanxi (meaning banquet or feast) itself contains the meaning of dining separately.

                          Meaning “something that is sat on,” yan and xi are actually synonymous. They are seats set on the ground and exclusively provided for one person. The difference is that the former is longer, bigger and set underneath the latter. Some small tables used by nobles also began to be placed above yanxi. This type of furniture suited not just the lower ceilings in the pre-Qin period, but also the unique sitting posture and etiquette of the time, characterized by long robes and wide sleeves.

                          Today, when talking about yanxi, people think of a boisterous and excite scene of revellers sitting around a table and making a toast. But the real scene during the Western Zhou Dynasty was that of nobles sitting solemnly and eating separately. The division of seats and food reflected a type of etiquette—rules were needed to have dinner while sitting on yanxi. At important occasions and activities such as entertaining state guests, conferring titles to nobles and sacrificing to the Gods, there were strict rules as to the order of taking one’s seat and the order of leaving the banquet, and seating was arranged by social status.

                          The early system of dining separately in China stemmed from the aristocratic dining etiquette. With the moral education of Confucianism, this etiquette spread down from the upper class to the common people, becoming the mainstream dining culture.

                          In addition to seating, cutlery and cuisine were also markers of the ritual etiquette and class identity in ancient China. The most typical tableware was the ding (typically cast in bronze, with two loop handles and three or four legs), which evolved from being a cooking vessel to being used for serving meat. Upon the strike of a bell, a ding was presented with food inside, and those served would always be nobles. Thus the ding gradually became a mark of extravagancy and a symbol of power. When officials went on business trips in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE), they would stop in courier stations. As was stipulated in the laws about serving food in the stations, sauce was to be rationed out to officials, emissaries and soldiers of all kinds according to their status. The meals for the emperor had to follow strict rules—each dinner was accompanied with 60 varieties of meat sauce.

                          During the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern dynasties (220-589), the Northern nomads went southwards to the Central Plains region. With tall folding chairs, they sat with their feet hanging down, and they habitually ate together around a stove. It is hard to estimate exactly how the dining etiquette of the Central Plains region since the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) had been influenced by the nomads. But obvious changes in the dining culture took place in the Sui and Tang dynasties when separate meals and shared meals began to coexist. The seating arrangement of both can be found in the painting “Han Xizai Evening Banquet.”

                          During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-979), different nationalities became integrated together. The transitional period before the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was also a critical moment, as China’s hereditary-based scholar-officials’ selecting system transitioned to the imperial examination. Many common people ascended to the upper class, and they would sit together on high-legged chairs, singing, watching official performances and drinking a toast to each other in taverns and restaurants. It was also in the Song Dynasty that professional waiters appeared for the first time—they helped the hosts order dishes, arranged seats and assisted with toasts. By the Ming and Qing dynasties, the shared-dish culture characterized by eating dishes together with guests off the same serving plate at the same table came into being as a way to express the hosts’ warm-heartedness. This was accompanied by a new dining etiquette—the hosts used their own chopsticks and spoons to refill the guests’ bowls as a way to express hospitality.

                          The shift from separate servings to shared dishes was a major change in Chinese social psychology and dining culture. For diners, a sense of identity with the community was conveyed through the process of eating together. Such a transformation was not abrupt—it was in line with the early Confucian view that “in practicing the rules of propriety, it is harmony that is prized.”

                          Notes on the West was a book about the astronomical calendar, world geography and Western customs. It was co-authored by the missionary Ferdinand Verbiest, the first science teacher of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). For the first time, Verbiest wrote about the separate-serving system of the West: “In order to avoid uncleanness, everyone has a blank plate, which is specially provided for food to be served to each individual.”

                          Undoubtedly, compared with the shared-dish system, dining in individual portions can indeed lower the risk of spreading certain diseases. The rate of helicobacter pylori positive infection in China is considerably higher than the average rate in European countries and the US. Some contagious diseases that transmit through droplets of saliva are more likely to spread in the process of shared-dish dining. Therefore, whenever there is a public health incident, the call for individual servings rises.

                          In 1910, the pneumonic plague occurred in Northeast China. The Malayan-born Chinese doctor Wu Lien-teh, who was in charge of epidemic prevention, proposed a type of shared-dish model by means of a lazy Susan which was tantamount to today’s turnplate, along with designated serving chopsticks and spoons. Simple and without losing the fun of dining together, this method gradually became commonly preferred by restaurants and families.

                          The second major public health incident was the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, which caused many restaurants to temporarily cancel forms of shared dining. In May the same year, the China Hotel Association issued the “Facility Conditions and Service Standards for Separate-Serving System.”

                          This year, the COVID-19 outbreak has lifted the topic of a separate-serving system once again to the focus of attention. In the Proposal on the Use of Public Chopsticks and Spoons written by the Shanghai Municipal Civil Affairs Office, it was pointed out that “droplet transmission and close contact are the main transmission routes for Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia ... shared meals easily increase the risk of being infected and shared chopsticks open a door for the convenient spread of the virus.”

                          The separate-serving system is no doubt a more hygienic form of dining than the shared-dish system, but in today’s China, why is it so difficult to quickly switch over to the separate-serving system? Over a hundred years ago, Wu Lien-Teh could have told us the reason: The best method is indeed to divide the food, but given the social customs and diet culture that has accumulated throughout the last thousand years, the change from shared dishes to separate servings cannot be achieved in one stroke. The change must be mild, and then it will be followed by a change in the public psychology.

                          An old Chinese saying expresses that “the people take food as their first priority.” In China, social relations and interpersonal etiquette are closely linked to collective dining. Chinese families cook with the household as the basic unit, and family members would not have different dishes or dine separately. Shared dining symbolizes a happy reunion. Especially in catered activities such as marriages, funerals, birthday ceremonies and festival banquets, people are used to deepening their feelings by means of shared dining. However, the habit of shared dining should absolutely not contradict the enforcement of a separate-serving system during a pandemic. Dining with individual portions and using public chopsticks and spoons is still advisable. During the current pandemic situation, this dining style is particularly worth promoting.


                          This article was edited and translated from Beijing Daily.


                          (Edited and translated by BAI LE)

                          Editor: Yu Hui

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