Will Forks Conquer Chopsticks in China?

After a National People’s Congress member and timber executive bemoaned the strain placed on China’s environment by the use of disposable chopsticks, a fresh round of debate has emerged over whether China should wean itself off the product to protect its forests. From The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey:

China has tried to clamp down on before — chiefly by taxing them and wooden floor boards, another environmental offender. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer reported on a cultural backlash against the , led by celebrities, activists and environmentally minded youth.

But protest does not appear to have done the trick. In 2010, a massive mudslide that killed 700 was blamed on , reports the Wall Street Journal. Some reports on have been censored on the Chinese web. The citizen journalist Liu Futang, who was later tried for his work, told the Post in 2010 that China “is a real-life example of the film ‘Avatar.’ Except in ‘Avatar,’ they could organize together to fight back.”

Perhaps Bo Guangxin’s appeal to parliament, translated by Global Post, represents an appeal to more transparently confront the issue.

China has “admitted its forests can no longer provide enough cutlery for its dinner tables,” The Telegraph’s Malcolm More wrote last week. In a video report for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Sean Gallagher adds that in China’s southern provinces “have been reduced by about 92 percent.” But while Moore suggests that the debate “may finally be decided, on environmental grounds,” The Guardian’s Audra Ang called fork and knife alternatives “unthinkable” in a Monday column:

When I was growing up, my parents and I used a knife and fork more often than chopsticks, slicing cleanly into meat-and-veg meals at the western restaurants they favoured. Singaporean noodle dishes were enjoyed, whenever possible, pulled high and slurped from a fork or twirled around its tines, Italian-style. Even when savouring one of my beloved grandmother’s meals – steamed fish, soy-braised chicken wings, pickled radish stir-fried with sliced pork – I ate off a plate, heaping food onto a spoon with the help of a fork, while my grandmother held up her bowl and pushed rice into her mouth with her chopsticks in the traditional Chinese way.

It was only after my time in China that I had better insight into how integral chopsticks are to the country’s identity. It would be a shame if that gets eroded. Knives and forks, whose use at the table is said to have been discouraged by benevolent philosopher Confucius because they were instruments of killing, don’t have the same rich traditions and legacy of elegance and delicacy.

See also “A Brief History of Chopsticks” from History and previous CDT coverage of deforestation in China.

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