Separate Plates, Serving Chopsticks: Dining Out in China Changes Amid COVID-19

A few years back, I snapped a photo of Jun and myself huddled with family around a table stacked with more delicacies than all of us could humanly finish in a meal.

Like most meals with relatives, we all had our own rice bowl, but were expected to pluck vegetables or meats from the communal dishes before us, using our own chopsticks.

Sharing meals as a group has long endured as a hallmark of Chinese dining culture, whether at home or while dining out. It made the experience more intimate, a way to reinforce the bond among everyone at the table and a reflection of the communal culture of society.

But in the coronavirus era, the tables have turned on this etiquette, prompting a transformation in dining in public restaurants.

The national health authority in China just mandated that restaurants should serve diners separate dishes of food for each person. This move comes months after areas and regions have moved in this direction due to the outbreak. For example, in February Shanghai had already proposed having separate spoons and chopsticks for serving people from communal dishes, noting “such a change of etiquette allows diners to avoid using their own chopsticks to pick food from the same dishes and therefore reduces the chances of transmission of many diseases.”

This new approach has gotten mixed reviews, as China Daily notes in its March 2020 story A Question of Table Manners:

Recently a photograph published in China promoting the idea of dining alone and with one’s own plates and dishes set off a storm a lot bigger than you’ll find in a Chinese teacup. Some saw the suggestion almost as sacrilege, running totally counter to the idea of communal eating that goes back centuries in Chinese culture, while others wondered whether, like the near disappearance of the Chinese tunic suit, it was just another sign of changing times.

Still, the same story highlights that Chinese dining norms have evolved throughout history, and they didn’t always involve communal dining from the same plates. An op-ed titled Social distancing on the dining table too offers a good summary:

Separate dishes for everyone is not something new for China; the earliest records show people having their meals from separate dishes. Even during big feasts, people had a table to themselves. And there is nothing to suggest this practice was because of an epidemic. Instead, this helped personalize the menu for everyone and avoid the wasting of food.

It was not until the Jin Dynasty (265-420), when nomadic tribes from the northern regions migrated to China, that people started having their meals from common dishes on a shared table. Some historians say the food for nomadic tribes, say a whole sheep, was difficult to divide and serve. Besides, tribes rarely had metals to fashion enough pots.

So in China, a switch to a more separate, personalized experience might merely be reverting to a historical norm, but for a different reason — to fight the coronavirus.

Of course, nowadays restaurants do far more than offer separate dishes and utensils for serving. A friend of mine recently patronized a restaurant in Beijing. The eatery checked her temperature, required her to register her name and phone number with them, and had her and her dining companion sit diagonally from one another at the table. What she described jives with everything I had read on the local Beijinger blog about the guidelines for dining out in restaurants amid COVID-19.

As for Jun and myself, for now, we’ll stick with our favorite way to “dine out”, one we’ve often indulged in long before the pandemic began — home delivery.

What do you think?

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2 Replies to “Separate Plates, Serving Chopsticks: Dining Out in China Changes Amid COVID-19”

  1. Separate dishes for each person? The Chinese person in me finds that surprising. But the American side of me doesn’t mind at all. Stay safe, Jocelyn and Jun.

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