Photo Credit: Yao Yao
China’s netizens are demanding new freedoms—to eat

During the Jin dynasty (266 – 420), the hermit-poet Tao Yuanming gave up his official post and disappeared into the Lushan Mountains, leaving behind his paean to freedom: “Birds in a cage would long for wooded hill/ Fish in the pond would yearn for flowing rills.”

In the 1940s, US president Franklin Roosevelt outlined “Four Freedoms” which he believed imperative to human life, including freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Today’s netizens might add a few more “essential” freedoms to that list, though they are not quite as poetic or political. Instead of liberty and justice for all, they prefer to pursue some concrete aims, like “dressing freedom (穿衣自由 chuānyī zìyóu),” the right to wear whatever they like without being judged; “transportation freedom (交通自由 jiāotōng zìyóu),” the ability to afford a vehicle (or score a train ticket during the busy Spring Festival season); and “socializing freedom (社交自由 shèjiāo zìyóu),” the liberty to decide to spend time only with those whom they like.

As a Chinese saying goes, “food is the most important issue under heaven.” Accordingly, “food freedom (食物自由 shíwù zìyóu)”—the freedom to eat whatever one wants, whenever—is perhaps the most prized modern freedom of all. During the Spring Festival of 2019, a viral article titled “26-year-old with 10,000 RMB salary can’t afford to eat cherries” gave birth to the buzzword “车厘子自由 (chēlízǐ zìyóu, cherry freedom)”: “Some people look glamorous on the outside, but in reality, they can’t eat cherries at will,” the article states, and lists the ability to afford cherries as an indicator of financial freedom.

As an imported fruit, the price of cherries can fluctuate from tens to hundreds of renminbi per kilogram in China depending on the market and season. Thus, the ability to binge on delicious cherries has become the dream of many consumers, who often use the reward of the juicy fruit as self-motivation: “Let’s work hard to realize cherry freedom soon (为早日实现车厘子自由而努力奋斗! Wèi zǎorì shíxiàn chēlízǐ zìyóu ér nǔlì fèndòu)!” goes one online maxim.

But price is not the only limiting factor when it comes to choosing what to have for dinner. Those on a diet often lament their (self-imposed) loss of “fried chicken freedom (炸鸡自由 zhájī zìyóu)” or “milk tea freedom (奶茶自由 nǎichá zìyóu).” The calorie counting chains of diet tyranny leaves oppressed weight-watchers crying: “How long must one spend in the gym before one achieves calorie freedom? (在健身房泡多久才能拥有卡路里自由? Zài jiànshēnfáng pào duōjiǔ cáinéng yǒngyǒu kǎlùlǐ zìyóu?).”

Even when one’s favorite food is neither expensive nor high in calories, the freedom to consume isn’t guaranteed. During the Covid-19 outbreak, authorities in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region donated 30,000 sacks of the region’s quintessential snack, snail rice-flour noodles, or luosifen (螺蛳粉), to the epidemic-stricken Hubei province. The noodles soon became a trending topic on Weibo, as many users lamented that their own orders for the pungent noodles hadn’t arrived due to work and transportation shutdown across the country.

All of a sudden, re-achieving “luosifen freedom (螺蛳粉自由 luósīfěn zìyóu)” became a common dream among netizens. Even those repulsed by the smell were feeling nostalgic, as the resumption of food delivery and reopening of restaurants would indicate that the virus outbreak was successfully contained.

So whether you are rich enough to afford cherries, or fit enough to enjoy junk food, stay safe and sound until all of us are free to share luosifen. And if tyranny prevents you from eating what you want, when you want, remember the rallying cry, “Give me cherry liberty, or give me death!”

On Food Liberty is a story from our issue, “Contagion.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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