Chopsticks for the 21st Century

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Chopsticks negotiations, Zhou Enlai and Richard Nixon, Beijing 1972

My first encounter with China was, oddly, at the top of the Empire State Building. I was a young student, and climbing to the top of the Manhattan landmark was the last thing I did before returning home from my first visit to the U.S., where I now live. I was not particularly thrilled, but was happy that I did it; still, I never went back. Anyway, just as I was preparing to descend, the Empire State opened another horizon to me. I was standing in line for the elevator when a large group of Asian tourists joined the line next to me. I took notice, stepping from the line to watch them interacting. From the little I knew about China, the badges of Mao on their blue uniforms told me this group of people, wearing cotton shoes, some of them silently holding hands, came from the other side of the world. When the elevator arrived, something unexpected happened: the Chinese group refused to step into it. With extreme politeness, they invited the crowd standing behind them to step up and fill the elevator to its full capacity. After the door closed, the Chinese group retook the front position, now holding it firmly, waiting for a new elevator. I don’t remember if I asked them why on earth had they refused to get into the elevator, but the only explanation for what they did was that they did not want to split the group; they wanted to wait until there was enough space for all of them in the elevator. They wanted to travel together.  

Other than what I thought was their cute image–calm and neatly dressed, but of monolithic appearance, almost ageless–I was stunned by their level of discipline and organization. Someone among them must have learned the elevator capacity beforehand and instructed the group. Or perhaps they prepared detailed travel instructions in Beijing so they could anticipate the great American chaos, elevators included. However, there was no shoving nor elbowing, not even a minimum effort to force their way in or squeeze the occupants into the elevator’s corners. No, the group stoically observed the situation, knew what was coming and what they needed to do as a result. How was it possible? They seemed to be from a different planet. What could the country whence they came possibly be like?

During my long periods of exploring and studying China, these questions were answered in various, complex ways that I will not explain here. What matters is that the short episode in front of the elevator at the top of the Empire State Building ignited my interest in the country, so distant in time and culture. Two years after this brief encounter, something like an extraterrestrial experience, I set out on my first long travel to China. I stayed there for three years.

My point here, though, is a different one. The monolithic looking group of Chinese people in front of the elevator represented a small body of the biggest existing social experiment on the planet. They were coming from a country linked to the rest of the world through the image of its charismatic leader, while its truthful identity and tumultuous life experience reflected a radically different, and new, social order. Mao’s China attempted to introduce an economic model that was to become an alternative to the dominant center of world capitalism. Along with a self-sufficient economy, China was exercising a series of new social practices that sprung out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution–from people’s communes to its anti-psychiatry movement–and deeply influenced western student movements during massive revolts in the late sixties. It also inspired new layers of intellectuals, French structuralism among them.

This is why, for me, this little group of perhaps 20 Chinese tourists embodied an extremely complex identity, written subtly all over them. Do they belong to the generation of new socialist people that the liberal world expected to step out of the cold east since the Soviet Union’s October revolution? What were they doing there? It was stunning, fascinating even. It must have been mind-blowing for them to watch Manhattan from the top of one of its tallest buildings, and compare the view to the rural Chinese capital, where even concrete sculptures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin in Tiananmen Square were considered tall. There were almost no cars where they came from, but instead the smooth and continuous flow of cyclists navigating the city.

Four decades later, China no longer needs to climb to the Empire State Building to see its future. The nation has grown into an economic powerhouse capable of buying any American landmark if it wants to. China of today is a powerful country, so I was again stunned when ten days ago I listened to a short podcast by Pierre Haski featuring a story about chopsticks and Dolce & Gabbana. In an “incident” called “Leçon de marketing: on ne plaisante pas avec le sentiment national chinois” (Marketing lesson: do not mess with Chinese national sentiment), Haski describes a sinful blunder committed by the major Italian fashion label:

The Italian brand was to hold a prestigious fashion show in Shanghai yesterday, in the presence of the biggest stars of the Chinese showbiz. And it preceded this event, entitled “Dolce & Gabbana love China,” with a series of short videos on social networks, intending to be glamorous and humorous.

This is where everything slipped, humor hardly passing between borders. The videos showed a Chinese woman, elegant, facing Italian dishes like pizza and spaghetti, and not knowing how to eat them with chopsticks. A man’s voice explains how to use chopsticks for pasta or pizza.

It was not appreciated at all. The inflammatory comments invaded the powerful Chinese social networks, at best describing the images of orientalist and condescending, at worst offensive or racist. A veritable avalanche followed, pushing Chinese stars to reconsider their participation in the fashion show, which was finally canceled at the last minute.

The controversy was the number one topic on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, with more than 120 million reads by mid-afternoon, as celebrities, including “Memoirs of a Geisha” movie star Zhang Ziyi, posted critical comments about the brand.

Many users said they were annoyed by what they considered the patronizing tone of the narrator in the “Eating with Chopsticks” campaign.

One might say, “Who cares about chopsticks and D&G!” But as the commentary came from a respected journalist, now editor, I gave it a second thought. Was it an attempt at connection lost in translation? I was struck by an epiphany. When had chopsticks had such a symbolic value for Chinese? The wooden, plastic, ivory, metal (in Korea), silver or, in the imperial court, golden sticks are tools for eating, as much as hands, or forks and knives are. What turned this everyday tool for eating into an untouchable treasure of national heritage? In a country that for decades has been planning and building an empire, what have chopsticks to do with its future domination of the world? Nothing.

Whatever language the world will speak in the future, people will still use chopsticks, hands or western silverware to enjoy their food, feed their stomachs. If the Chinese stop dressing in D&G–the main online stores like Alibaba are already boycotting their products–and jump back into the garments they were wearing when I first saw them, it doesn’t really matter. It would be a decision to be respected. And if D&G goes bankrupt tomorrow because of their bad marketing, as Haski has it, it will be their own fault. It’s not the first time D&G has drawn fire in China and elsewhere. It might even be their style, their aggressive strategy, meant to get more attention and therefore slice off a bigger market share.  

The skirmish, however, between the presumptuous D&G and the manifestation of Chinese nationalism is not at issue here. Neither is the so-called cultural differences, as the New York Times put it:   

The ad was meant to play on Italian and Chinese cultural differences. In a previous ad, the woman tried to use chopsticks to eat a pizza. But Chinese viewers who saw the cannoli and — some overseas and some using special software to circumvent Chinese censors — found it crass and patronizing. They put screenshots online in China, where they quickly found an audience.

The chopstick incident is not a simple clash between disrespectful market strategy and the new consumption society. As the majority of media, including the New York Times, tried to explain: “The incident underscores the risks for global brands in China, where influential online citizens often respond rapidly to perceived cultural slights and can have a major impact on firms seeking to lure the country’s big-spending shoppers.”

All of the above is of little importance compared to the backlash of nationalism that came in reaction to decades-long policy. “Force-fed to China’s people through programs such as the ‘Patriotic Education Campaign’ (for all college students),” Susan L. Shirk  writes in her book China, Fragile Superpower, “nationalism nurtures popular resentments against Japan and America and an expectation that Taiwan would soon be reunified.”

She goes on: “Look at China’s reaction to the food, toy and toothpaste scandals created by shoddy products: Instead of acknowledging the concerns of Western consumers, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda organs have gone into attack mode, branding these worries as a campaign to isolate and weaken China. The problem,” Shirk says, “is that this form of nationalism has boxed the CCP and its leaders into a corner.”

The analysis indicates that Chinese authorities no longer need to feed the people with vibrant patriotism. Extreme patriotism, edging closely along lines of nationalism, comes by itself now, from grassroots, bursting up and through millions of otherwise disparate people via social media. In the clash with the Italian fashion giant, 120 million protesters got involved. The campaign against the Italian racism had been ongoing for a few days when this marvelous piece in the South China Morning Post, affiliated with (both owned by Jack Ma of the Alibaba), surfaced a very transparent description of Chinese sentiment:    

The ads feature a giggling Chinese model attempting to eat oversized Italian dishes — a tabletop pizza, a cannoli bigger than a man’s forearm and a punch bowl of red-sauce pasta — with a pair of chopsticks, as a male narrator pokes fun at her inability to deal with the “huge” food using her “little sticks.”

The videos were understandably interpreted as racist and condescending, leading to Chinese calls for a D&G boycott and — after co-founder Stefano Gabbana apparently sent a series of Instagram messages calling China a “country of shit” — prompted the cancellation of the event and a public begging of forgiveness from the designers. (Gabbana is seen in screenshots using the emoji representing a pile of poo instead of writing “shit.”)

In a video, Dolce & Gabbana’s founders, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce, apologize to the Chinese people and ask for forgiveness.

But if anyone thought a mere apology would cause the storm to recede, they were sorely mistaken.

The “chopstick incident” appears to be leading to the real-time disintegration of the storied design house, which books a third of its sales in China.

Netizens are posting videos of themselves using D&G clothing to wipe toilets. Retailers have pulled D&G items off of store shelves and online catalogs. And, in perhaps the biggest sign that things are unlikely to blow over anytime soon, on November 23, China’s primary state-owned television channel CCTV unleashed a lushly produced response video valorizing chopsticks as “carrying the emotions of China over thousands of years.

Was this about the chopsticks? As Inkstonenews describes, the matter boiled down to huge Italian food and little chopsticks, which is to say, it’s about cultural power. It continued to snowball, to the point of the national television publishing a video on the tradition of using the chopsticks. As Shirk observed, this is not the first time Chinese authorities find themselves backed into a corner, forced by its internet-citizen masses to join in yet another splash of daily nationalism. It is not an easy problem to untangle since the same sentiment is borne from soccer games or the “liberation” of Taiwan. The world is waiting for a stronger China, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Chinese regain some of the curiosity and capacity for listening to the wider world–as back then at the old Empire (State) building?    


☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »