I Wish the UK Could Learn to “Eat Bitterness”

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 worsens the UK’s already poor pandemic situation, and the health secretary resigns after spectacularly embarrassing evidence emerges of him breaking social distancing rules, I can’t help thinking that the  UK could use more of the Chinese concept “chiku”.

Literally meaning to “eat bitterness”, but better translated as to “knuckle down” or “suffer through”, chiku reflects an important part of Chinese culture: the knowledge that life will not always be easy, but you still must remain committed to your choices and responsibilities.

Chinese culture values the ability to “eat bitterness” very highly. Students who study long hours to do well on their exams and make their parents proud are chiku; workers who turn down holiday leave to earn more to support their families are chiku; athletes or Shaolin monks waking up at dawn every day to go running are chiku.Saying that someone can eat a lot of bitterness is a compliment, praising someone’s ability to discipline themselves, staving off their immediate wants in order to satisfy something more important.

I can’t help thinking of this every time I see friends of mine in the UK complaining about masks, social distancing rules, travel restrictions and even free vaccines. Instead of complaining about having to stay inside for a while, why can’t people see the big picture? Why can’t they learn to eat a little bitterness, so that the country as a whole can recover as quickly as possible? It seems that where Chinese people listen to pandemic instructions, British people try to find ways around them.

Granted, it’s not as simple as one group of people listening to instructions and one group not. First of all, China’s authoritarian system of government gives it far more control over its citizens. If the government says jump, the people, in general, say how high. This is not true in the UK and other democratic countries, where people would probably refuse to jump unless it was clear what they were jumping for. Neither system is necessarily bad, but the difference in the control of the two systems is an objective truth. Authoritarian governments lend themselves to pandemic control in the same way that keeping a pet on a permanent leash means its unlikely to get run over by a car.

As well as this governmental reality, there’s also the fact that the so-called leaders of the UK have set an appalling pandemic control example. If the Prime Minister can’t remember to wear a mask and not shake people’s hands, and the health secretary forgets that kissing a member of staff is breaking social distancing rules, it’s hardly surprising that the rest of the population are disinclined to take any rules handed down seriously, especially when the rules mean damage to their livelihoods.

Also, by this stage, lockdowns arguably aren’t just eating a little bitterness. Where draconian lockdowns in China meant that schools and businesses were able to reopen after a harsh but fair period of around four to six months, the UK’s on-off approach has dragged on for close to 18. Requiring businesses to close for three months would have been hard enough. Choking off income for more than a year is essentially issuing a death warrant. 

But these are all problems that have arisen from people not being able to just abide by pandemic restrictions in the first place. In the early weeks, how many people really stuck to the rules? How many people, rather than staying inside, just went about their daily business because we live in a society that essentially discourages eating any bitterness at all? “You do you”; “whatever makes you happy”; “put yourself first”; these are all mantras that, although highly applicable in the context of personal happiness and life choices, are highly damaging when faced with public health crises.

So perhaps when I say I wish the UK could chiku, it doesn’t apply to businesses and individuals as much as leaders. I wish that those in charge of the country could have just eaten a little bitterness too. How hard would it have been to just accept that things would be challenging for a while, and act quickly and severely to ensure people followed very necessary rules?

If leaders weren’t so ready to pander to people’s (uninformed) opinions in the early stages of the pandemic, promising that things would be “over by Christmas” and therefore creating unrealistic expectations and damaging trust and complacency in the later stages, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Rather than trying to make things seem less bad than they were, if our government had just been able to stomach a bit of public grumbling, and knuckle down themselves to set an example – you know, like would be fitting of a leader in a time of genuine public crisis – then things would be a whole lot less unpalatable now.

If and when the next public health crisis arises, I sincerely hope that the failures of this past year will encourage both the general population, but most importantly those in the spotlight, to stomach a little bitterness.

One comment

  1. I am glad you focused on the government for your ending. The general population here has not had the experience of pandemic that China and other Asian countries endured. So there are no models to copy. And you rightly point out the piss-poor, populist decision making. The chaotic behaviour of our leadership and their criminally vague, confusing and Trump-like communications ensures the population hasnt a clue which way is up or who to believe. But I do think you are wrong about the ability of the majority of the UK population to demonstrate chiku. There is a large proportion who have shown tremendous strength and fortitude. And nurses must be on the chiku list for sure!
    This piece was wonderful to read and challenging.


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