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Does Takeaway Exist in Ancient China?

As early as in the Song dynasty in 1000 years ago, “take-out” services were already available. People from emperors to citizens were sometimes too lazy to cook, or bored of eating at home. In Zhang Zeduan’s popular painting “Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival” of the northern Song dynasty, it depicted a restaurant boy who had just come out of the shop with “to-go boxes” in his left hand and tableware in his right, still wearing the shop apron and seeming to deliver the food somewhere. The image is believed to be a reflection of the original takeaway boy.

According to the historic records, an emperor in the Song dynasty often appointed eunuch to go to the market and order some food he wanted. The tips for eunuch was generous. In civil society, the former white-collar and small merchant in the Song dynasty are the same as today’s office clerk, not used to cooking at home but preferred eating out or ordering takeaway. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the restaurant service in big cities was more perfect. Not only are disposable dishes provided on delivery, but they can even send a chef to your house to prepare a meal. The service covers from the arrangement of seating of guests, tableware, wine and food supply to washing and other cleaning stuff. Everything is organized so there’s no need to worry about for the host.

In ancient times, there were three ways to order food. The first is servant order. Send a family retainer to go restaurant first and make a la carte. When the food is ready, there’s someone who particularly delivers the food to the customer’s home, and then get paid. The second is agreed delivery. Sign a long-term agreement with the restaurant. On every agreed day, the store will pack the food well, and send to the customer’s home. The last one is door-to-door peddling: After the Song dynasty, the entertainment places such as gambling shop, theater stand in great numbers, and are gathered with many people. The sellers from eatery will peddle the food door to door.

In terms of the to-go box that ancient people use, it is much more upscale compared to the disposable lunch boxes and bags of today. In ancient times, it was used to keep food warm. A container named Shi Pan(wet tray) is made up of two layers of porcelain. The upper layer was thin, the lower was thick, and the middle was empty. When used, hot water was injected into the interlayer of the plate to keep the dishes warm. By this way the dish is still warm when it arrives at the customer’s home.

Another is Shi He(food box) that restaurants and rich families commonly use. It can be made of wood, bamboo, enamel or other materials, and wood is used mostly. There are several layers inside the box to contain food and drinks, being easy to carry.

If you travel to Xian, you may run into those ancient to-go boxes in museum, or other special tableware and utensil which are no longer seen in daily life of modern society.