The question of whether pizza in China is eaten with chopsticks seems absurd, but it actually caused a media scandal. China is a country with rich culture and ancient traditions that are still carried on to present day. Its thriving economy makes it an attractive destination for businesses that want to expand their reach. That was the case of Italian fashion brand Dolce and Gabbana (D&G). However, their cultural insensitivity landed them in hot water after a failed commercial showing a model clumsily eating pizza and other Italian delicacies with chopsticks. This article will expose the controversial advertisement and look into how the century-old Chinese tradition is being continued in the 21st century.
The scandal: Dolce and Gabbana accused of racism
China is one of the biggest consumers of luxury goods. A recent report has shown that the country accounts for a third of global spending on designer items. That is precisely why many high fashion brands look to take their craft to the Chinese market. Dolce and Gabbana is no exception. The Italian giant, founded in 1985 by Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce, has enjoyed enormous commercial success over the years. However, one advertisement turned out to be part of their mainstream downfall.
The problem with the commercial
To properly understand the reason for the scandal, the Dolce and Gabbana advertisement video needs to be broken down. In mid-November 2018, the Italian brand released three short videos featuring Chinese model Zuo Ye struggling to eat cannoli, pasta and pizza with chopsticks. A male narrator explains how to “properly” eat the dishes and makes remarks such as “Is it too big for you?”, which are obviously sexist. The way in which the voiceover pronounces the words is incorrect on purpose – it suggests that Chinese people are incapable of pronouncing foreign names and terms. Moreover, the whole execution of the Dolce and Gabbana campaign is completely ignorant of both Chinese traditions and modern-day Chinese people. It is the notion that the Chinese are so uninformed that they would be completely clueless about how to eat foreign food that comes across as the most offensive.
The videos were part of a larger campaign promoting an upcoming Shanghai runway extravaganza dubbed "The Great Show”. However, instead of promotion, the result was a self-dug hole.
The outcome of the scandalous videos
After the videos were posted on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, outrage shortly followed. Users stated that the campaign displayed “blatant racism” and “an outdated view of China”. A movement was started that encouraged boycotting the luxury brand. An angry user said that if Chinese people do not react properly, many other foreign brands will follow D&G’s example and trample on Chinese dignity. The brand seemed to have realized their mistake by removing the videos within 24 hours of posting them, but the damage was already done.
The drama only escalated after that, because screenshots from a chat with Stefano Gabbana emerged, where he had insulted China and called it “ignorant dirty smelling mafia”. Many of the models and actors who were set to walk in “The Great Show” shortly pulled out, and ultimately the event was canceled. The designer stated that his account had been hacked and he had not sent those messages, but the excuse was not received well by the Chinese.
Although the official Instagram account of Dolce and Gabbana posted an apology saying that they have nothing but respect for China and the people of China, the now infamous pizza video hindered the brand’s success in the country. D&G's Chinese brand ambassador, boy band star Wang Junkai, terminated his deal with D&G. Chinese people in Italy appeared at the brand's flagship shop in Milan, protesting and demanding refunds. China's e-commerce giants, Alibaba and JD.com, removed D&G products from their online stores. Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford also halted the sale of D&G goods, both in stores and online, after customers had started returning them. In addition, the model who featured in the videos said that the campaign had almost completely ruined her career.
Dolce and Gabbana definitely suffered severe consequences because of a deeply insensitive campaign which, deliberate or not, was not thought through. The cultural appropriation and careless racism is evident all the way through, so it is no wonder Chinese people were offended. Chopsticks are, after all, a vital part of their culture.
The significance of chopsticks in Chinese culture
Chopsticks are a symbol of Chinese culture and tradition. They date back to the Neolithic Age in 7,000 BC to 6,000 BC when they were made out of animal bones. Today, they are primarily made out of bamboo, and still embody Chinese heritage. People in China are taught how to use chopsticks from an early age, as they are the most popular utensil in the country. Apart from their use for eating food, however, they serve a very different purpose. Chopsticks are often designed with engravings in various colors, from short lines and spiral lines to poems and couplets from ancient times, paintings and pyrograph, and are given as a gesture of gratitude and appreciation when gifted. There are even chopstick competitions held around the world, as the utensils’ impact spreads not only to other Asian cultures, but also to western countries.
Chopsticks hold immense cultural significance for the people of China. They are undoubtedly a symbol which they take pride in. Perhaps their importance can be traced back to their invention – it took Chinese people from eating with their hands to using utensils, which was a huge step forward in terms of civilization. Although there are no concrete facts about how and when exactly they were invented, it is the principle and mechanics behind them that make them so valuable.
Chopsticks in modern times
Nowadays, chopsticks are one of the most prominent embodiments of Chinese culture. People from all over the world take interest in learning how to use them and understanding their significance. They are sold not only as utensils, but also as souvenirs. You can find them in various designs and colors, made out of different materials. However, there are certain rules of etiquette that need to be followed when using chopsticks.
Firstly, you should not use them to hit the side of your bowl or plate to make a lot of noise, because Chinese people think only beggars would do this to ask for meals. Secondly, when you use them, you should avoid stretching out your index finger, which would be regarded as an act of accusation towards others. The Chinese would never use them to point at others. Thirdly, it is thought to be impolite behavior when you suck the end of a chopstick. People will think you lack manners and education. Furthermore, don't use them to poke at every dish without knowing what you want. And lastly, avoid inserting them vertically into the bowls or dishes at all costs. Chinese people do this only when they burn incense to sacrifice the dead.
So, when comparing the centuries-old tradition of chopsticks in Chinese culture to the scandalous Dolce and Gabbana commercial, it is obvious that the approach was insensitive and disrespectful. It is their perception of Chinese people that ruined the brand’s reputation. The notion that the Chinese are so clueless and uneducated about foreign traditions is what was deeply offensive.
When to use chopsticks
Generally speaking, when eating Chinese and Asian food, the correct way is to use chopsticks. A simple comparison serves to show: as weird it is for a Chinese woman to eat pizza with chopsticks, the same would apply to an European stabbing Chinese dumplings with a knife and fork. Of course, it is also a matter of convenience, as many people from western countries find it difficult to use chopsticks. However, the right thing to do etiquette-wise, especially when visiting foreign countries, is inform yourself about their culture and traditions and try to adhere to them to avoid embarrassment and being offensive.
The appropriate way to eat pizza
One thing was made clear by the failed Dolce and Gabbana campaign: eating pizza with chopsticks is a no-go. The most typical ways of eating pizza are using a knife and fork, or simply your hand. It depends on the setting and situation which is more appropriate. Naturally, using a knife and fork is more formal, but using your hands may be more convenient, especially for children.
What can be learned from the Dolce and Gabbana “incident” is that it is important to respect traditions in all cases. It is neither funny nor good marketing to offend a country’s culture, regardless of whether it has really happened due to ignorance or intentionally. As tasty as pizza is, it should not be used to cause such an international scandal. Ultimately, all of this could have been avoided in one simple way: by eating pizza without using chopsticks.