Wang Li on mealtime hospitality


Just say no (Wikipedia)

Many consider Wang Li (1900-1986) to be the founder of modern Chinese linguistics. Along with other linguists, Wang Li developed a new Chinese framework of linguistic analysis, and after 1949, he worked extensively on reforming the Chinese writing system. In addition to his linguistic contributions, Wang Li also wrote several essays. Below is “Mealtime hospitality,” originally published in 1943.

Mealtime hospitality

by Wang Li / translated by Julian Smisek

Mealtime in China is the best demonstration of our cooperative spirit. Ten or twelve people can share a dish and a soup. At banquets, we emphasize a synchronous use of chopsticks. Each person simultaneously places food in his mouth, with only a few chewing out of rhythm.

An old joke goes like this: once upon a time, a foreigner asked a Chinese person, “I hear you Chinese have banquets where 24 people share food around a table. Is this true?” The Chinese person replied: “It’s true.” Astounded, the foreigner exclaimed, “But many of the dishes would be too far away. How can the chopsticks ever reach?” To this, the Chinese person replied, “We just use three-foot-long chopsticks.” “But doesn’t that cause problems?” the foreigner asked. “How can you bend the chopsticks around to put food in your mouth?” The Chinese person said, “We help each other out. You feed me, I feed you!”

Besides demonstrating our cooperative spirit, meals in China also conform to economic principles. In the West, each person has his own plate of food, and so uneaten food becomes trash. What a waste! We Chinese often have ten people sharing one dish. A dish that one person dislikes is often what another person especially enjoys. Everyone is provided for. As a result, food is rarely left over at Chinese banquets. And if there are leftovers, the total amount is not nearly as much as is left over at Western style dinners.

Chinese people are quite satisfied with these two advantages. The sages, however, are not satisfied. In their opinion, eating without first offering food to others reduces us to birds and beasts. We must constantly offer food to our guests. At first, we can offer food passively – making guests be the first to try a dish, and telling them to eat more of the best food. After that we must step up to an active offering of food. That is, we put food on the guest’s plate, in the guest’s bowl, and even directly in his mouth. In fact, active offering is born out of passive offering. When confronted by a delicious dish, I should not eat it or should eat less so that you can eat more. But, as a gentleman, I realize that you too are a gentleman and are not eating more so that I can.

Although one finds the custom of “mealtime hospitality” everywhere, the most famous incarnation is practiced in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There, the men quite casually place food directly on your plate, while the attentive women place food in your bowl. Usually, it’s the hosts who first offer food to guests, but once the host has started, his friends and family can pitch in.

Mealtime hospitality is without a doubt a virtuous custom, but within it, there does exist a problem. France has a saying that I like: “there’s no accounting for taste.” The meaning is simple: Taste in food and clothing varies from person to person. There’s no fixed standard for what’s good and what’s bad. From this we see that what’s tasty to a host may not necessarily be what’s tasty to his guest. Because people have different opinions about various ingredients and cooking methods (especially amongst people from different parts of the country), it’s rather easy to misjudge what someone considers to be the best dish. Forcing a guest to eat food he doesn’t like isn’t polite – it’s awkward.

May 1943

Links and Sources
  • Original Chinese text included in 《中央周刊》, (1943年五月).
  • Chinese text reproduced in Chou Chih-p’in. Literature and Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1999. Print. pp. 30-37
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