Floors and chopsticks (筷子 – kuàizi)

Without thinking I put my bags on the floor. No matter how many warnings my hosts had offered, concerned as they were about the soft tastes of coddled non-Chinese, I had boarded an old train with the infamous ‘hard’ seats. Actually, they were soft enough, although they did not recline and three had to fit in the space of what on newer trains is given over to two.

But as is my wont, my bags found a cosy place on the floor beside my seat. I thought nothing of it until the conductor came through with a mop (on a train! I had never seen that before). She mopped under seats and small tables, people lifted their feet … but not their bags. Not a suitcase, backpack, or even a simple paper bag was on the floor.

Why?

The secret, as I eventually found, lies with chopsticks – 筷子 (kuàizi). Or rather, the insight came via those two simple but most versatile eating implements. With a complex dexterity learned from childhood, all manner of foods are deftly moved from plate to mouth, often via another plate. Occasionally a small spoon may be used for soups and the like (I like to use it for the more slippery items). Even shellfish are placed in the mouth, before the various pieces of the exoskeleton appear on the lips, to be spat onto the plate.

Rarely does a finger touch the food. And if one must eat a Shaanxi bun, or perhaps a Shandong roll, or a spring festival rice cake, one does so with a piece of paper between hand and food.

That is, hygiene is simply and effectively observed. Given that hands come into contact with all manner of rather interesting objects, given that soap is not always readily available, one simply avoids touching food with one’s hands.

So also with floors. Given that feet may step where one knows not, given that squat toilets have all manner of sprays and curious objects around them, given that the earth on which we walk is alive with the bacteria of animal and plant, one keeps bags off the floor where myriad feet have trodden. Instead they go on your lap or on the seat beside you. For eventually they will be placed in a bench or a seat or a bed at home.

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9 thoughts on “Floors and chopsticks (筷子 – kuàizi)

  1. Sounds like Japan. Though ‘American’ food, like pizza, can get the non-native finger treatment. Does the inside shoe/outside shoe dichotomy hold in China? I should know that since I have had Chinese acquaintances. But I just realized that I knew them all as they sojourned in the US.

    –William

    1. Pretty much on the shoe thing too.

      I recall a Danish bigot suggesting that such practices were actually due to the Chinese being really filthy. Kind of goes with wider European fears of a takeover. My heart bleeds.

      1. Speaking of Western responses to the Chinese. Here is an interesting article from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18741088 What are your thoughts on it in light of your own experiences and Adrian Chan’s book? I will have to get the the Chan book as an antidote to my last attempt to read Maurice Meisner. I wanted to throw his political bio of Mao across the room after reading the first paragraph. Same reaction to Jameson’s Brecht and Method. I was all set for an engaging discussion of the influence of Asia, specifically China, on Brecht’s thought only to encounter the supposed anomaly of Marxism and the peasant society. Maybe there were some nuggets buried in Jameson’s dense prose, but after that the thrill was gone. Do they really even bother to read Marx or Lenin? The photo of Reagan and Thatcher in the BBC piece gave me the willies.

    2. William, the BBC article you mention has some problems. It contains one factual inaccuracy. It implies that Bo Xilai was the alleged murderer of the British businessman David Heywood, when the person charged with the murder was Bo’s wife.

      The New Left vs Market Liberal vs Old Left trichotomy is too simple, Another important grouping consists of the managerialist technocrats (well represented in the ruling elite)– this group sees itself as dealing with actual Chinese problems, unlike the ‘nostalgists’ (i.e. Old Left), ‘addicts to theoreticism’ (New Left, though some New Leftists get a hearing in the ruling elite), and the ‘pro-westerners’ (the market liberals). The technocrats also see themselves as faction-brokers at the very top level.

      1. Thanks for the interesting critique. I am not too well versed in ‘Sinological affairs’, but I suspected that the article was a much more sophisticated version of the Danish bigot.

      2. I’d like to add my comments from an earlier piece on ‘six streams’ – https://stalinsmoustache.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/six-streams-of-chinese-marxism/. All of which comes from discussions I have had with Chinese Marxists. Bo Xilai was (and still is) the champion of the Utopians in this mix. Also, it’s worth noting that those with distinctly western interests are often the more radical Marxists, since they are engaged deeply with western Marxism.

        But the westernisation/modernisation question is fascinating. I am reading an interesting work by Paul Clark on the Cultural Revolution. The book is a little uneven, since he thinks the later Mao’s policies were those of a madman. At the same time, he argues that the Cultural Revolution – with an emphasis on the cultural side that so many accounts neglect – was actually a deeply creative period. Why? Paradoxically, it was both a radical next phase of the revolution and it was a radical moment of modernisation. In that respect, its roots go back to the radicals of the early years of the 20th century and its influences may be felt very much in China today. More soon when I have sunk into the book.

        From the conversations I continue to have, the Cultural Revolution is the issue that is on many lips but still needs to be rethought and reappropriated.

  2. Roland’s typology of Chinese marxists is spot-on, imo. My cursory criticism of that BBC report left out some of his other categories, e.g the marxologists, who view their work as an academic discipline, within a rather narrow framework, and see no need to engage with western marxism, Japanese marxism (Itoh, Uno, Karatani) or the dependency theorists (Amin, Gunder Frank), etc.

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