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Home > Embassy News > 2010
Speech by H.E. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming at the Chopsticks Club
(19 October 2010, Royal Society, London)

Ms H-J Colston,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Friends from the Chopsticks Club,

It is a great pleasure for me and my wife to attend our first event with the Chopsticks Club. I know Ms Colston has just been invited to Beijing as a representative of the British students who studied in China. I hope she had an enjoyable visit.

I got to know the “Chopsticks Club” soon after arriving in London. It is a unique non-governmental organisation committed to promoting Chinese food and culture in Britain and increasing mutual understanding between the two countries. And I have been looking forward to this opportunity to meet you. I like the name of your club, as “Chopsticks” for us are much more than just something we use everyday for eating. I was glad to know that you have a good tradition of networking over delicious food, as chopsticks are also believed by many scholars to embody oriental wisdom.

Let me start my speech with the origin of chopsticks.

One story has it that King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty over 3,000 years ago was the first user of chopsticks, which were made of ivories. Personally, I tend to believe that chopsticks came about when ancient Chinese used tree branches or thin bamboo splits to pick up hot food from ceramic pots. Those of you who tried Sichuan hotpot would know that you could never take food from the hotpot with hand or a knife and fork; chopsticks seem to be the only practical choice.

The 3,000-year tradition of using chopsticks has a lot to do with our farming culture. This meant that our diet has included grain as its mainstay, with meat being sliced or shredded. As Confucius said, “Eat no rice except when it is the finest and no meat except when finely minced”. So it seems that economic, historical and cultural factors have all contributed to the continued use of chopsticks.

I remember a saying that makes sense to me: “Nothing is better than what suits one best.” Apart from chopsticks, this may well apply to other things, such as a country’s social system or model of economic growth.

The current social system in China, for example, came about as a natural outcome of the historical evolution in China and the choice of the Chinese people. It is also a contribution China has made to the diversity of human society.

China’s economic model, on the other hand, has been developed through experience. As Deng Xiaoping put it, “crossing the river by feeling for the stones”. For a country like China, with a large population and weak foundations, it has been a challenging task. You may have also heard another famous quote of Deng Xiaoping: “Practice is the only criterion for truth”.

In the 32 years of reform and opening-up, China has achieved political stability, economic growth, cultural diversity and social progress. This has proved that the Chinese social system and economic model are well-suited to China’s national conditions and effective in meeting the aspirations of the Chinese people.

I have been telling my British friends that to gain a balanced understanding of China’s development, one needs to view China from different perspectives. Take China’s economy as an example; many tend to see China as the second largest economy in the world, as they pay more attention to the richer coastal areas in the east and fail to recognise the slower development in the larger rural areas and regions. Our per capita GDP was merely 3,700 US dollars in 2009, one tenth that of the UK.

I used to work in China’s north-western province of Gansu as Assistant Governor. So I often use Gansu’s example to illustrate how much less developed western China is, with even access to drinking water being a problem for humans and animals sometimes. My friends in Gansu are now asking me not to use them as an example of poverty, but I’ve told them they should thank me for the free advertising.

A lot of people in Britain now know about Gansu’s tough natural conditions and lack of rain. But they are also learning about what is being done to grow the economy, improve people’s livelihood whilst preserving their culture, to the point that many people are now very keen to visit Gansu.

Chopsticks and knives and forks, rather than being incompatible, are just symbols of two different cultures.

Although I have not done any research on why Westerners use knives and forks, experience has taught me that if you have a large piece of steak in front of you, you had better use knife and fork, which would be much more elegant and effective than chopsticks. This is a reflection of our different ways of cooking and dietary structure. In a broader context, whatever political systems and economic models countries adopt, as long as the systems and models serve them well, they would be able to enjoy the feast of development.

China has a different social system and economic model from the West. But this does not mean that China and the West are not capable of living in peace with each other and sharing prosperity. Sunshine is made up of seven colours, and our world is beautiful for its diversity. Throughout history, dialogue and mutual learning between civilisations have always been a source of new ideas and progress.

I noticed with pleasure that more and more foreigners are eating in Chinese restaurants with chopsticks. And many Chinese now seem to be at ease using knife and fork. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, “Food is the paramount want of the people”. Mr Zhang Guangzhi, a Chinese American anthropologist, pointed out that “one of the best channels to reach the heart of a culture is through its stomach”. So when every Chinese is able to use a knife and fork, and every Westerner can use chopsticks, our world will be a better place.

Mutual understanding and mutual respect are the key to a better East-West relationship, and my impression is that China knows more about the West than the other way round. This is because China has been learning from the West for over a century. Today Chinese children start to learn English in the first year at primary school. Some people in the West, on the other hand, have been preoccupied by a sense of cultural superiority, believing that the West has the best political, economic, social and cultural system. They also tend to regard their own values as universal, expecting others to adapt their cultures according to Western culture. Some people are reluctant to see the changes in China and feel uneasy about the development and progress of China. Some go so far as to attempt to create problems or even chaos for China. I’m sure they do not represent the mainstream in the West. They can in no way prevent China and the West from learning from each other and engaging each other in the general trend of common development. Nor can they obstruct the Chinese people’s progress.

I believe that peaceful coexistence between cultures requires a sense of equality and an open and accommodating approach based on mutual understanding and respect. That is why China stands for the principles of “harmony but not uniformity”, “seeking common ground and putting aside differences” and “drawing on the strong points of others to make up for one’s weak points”. This is also why China stands for building a harmonious world. We believe this term of harmony is full of oriental wisdom and best serves the fundamental interests of our world.

Dear friends,

I told the Chinese community here that the UK has the best Chinese food in Europe. And I must add that the British are probably best at using chopsticks in Europe as well, as I have discovered that people here seldom use knives and forks when eating in a Chinese restaurant.

When it comes to describing the China-UK relationship, I think we can also use the chopsticks analogy.

Firstly, the two chopsticks are of equal length, just as China and the UK are equals in our relationship. This means that we should hold dialogues on an equal footing and with mutual respect, enhance mutual trust on strategic issues and properly handle differences.

Secondly, just as it takes coordination of your fingers to use chopsticks properly; it takes cooperation for our relationship to grow stronger. Our relations have gone beyond being bilateral and become more global and strategic. A better relationship also calls for strengthened cooperation in areas such as the economy, education and culture, along with wider common interests in international affairs and a shared commitment to world peace, stability and prosperity.

Thirdly, the most important function of chopsticks is not only to pick up food, but to bring food to your mouth. Similarly, we should seek to upgrade our relations instead of resting on past progress. China-UK relations have come a long way in the past decade and a comprehensive strategic partnership has been established. Since the British coalition government took office in May, it has been committed to developing “closer engagement” with China. We in China also give the same priority to our relations with the UK to ensure we achieve friendly and mutually beneficial cooperation. Prime Minister David Cameron’s first official visit to China next month will be an important opportunity for elevating China-UK relations to a new high. We will work closely with the British colleagues to make the visit a great success.

Dear friends,

It is Tuesday today and it was on a Tuesday in 1993 that a group called “China Tuesdays” was founded with several dozens members. Today with a new name “Chopsticks Club”, the membership has increased to more than 500. So, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the “Chopsticks Club” on its 17th birthday. And I wish you continued growth in strength and hope you will contribute more to the mutual understanding and friendship between our two countries!

Thank you.

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