The Middle Qingdom

Five things that are (not) made in China

Most of your stuff probably comes from China. Confusingly there also some “Chinese” things that come from somewhere else.

A fortune cookie magically floats above a Chinese takeout container
This website uses fortune cookies, please accept them as a token of appreciation

China is and has been the world’s factory for several decades now, so most of your stuff probably comes from China. Even products that don’t have a “Made in China” label often contain parts that were manufactured in the People’s Republic.

Historically, the country was also known for its inventions, many of which we still use to this day. Some of these inventions, like paper and compasses, have become so widespread that we no longer associate them with China. Others, like pagodas, lanterns, chopsticks, and fried rice are still thought of as Chinese.

Confusingly there also some “Chinese” inventions that aren’t actually Chinese, but originated from somewhere else. In this blog post I discuss five of these “Chinese” things that aren’t actually from China.

Fortune cookies


Fortune cookies are bland tasting sugary folded cookies wafers that can be opened to reveal a so-called “fortune”, i.e. a bullshit aphorism or prophecy on a piece of paper.

Reportedly, fortune cookies are served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in many (western) countries. I personally wouldn’t know, because as a Chinese person I generally don’t go to that type of Chinese restaurant unless I’m lost in a foreign country. But I see them in series and movies all the time and I’ve even been given fortune cookies at work for some weird reason, so I assume that they’re real.

What they’re not, is Chinese. We’re not sure where they come from exactly, but most people agree that fortune cookies as we know them now were popularised in the United States by Japanese immigrants in the late 19th or early 20th century.

Chinese takeout containers


In many countries Chinese food is packaged in characteristic origami-like paper containers like the one depicted at the top of this article. For some reason they’re mostly used by Chinese restaurants, which is why so many people associate these takeout containers with Chinese food.

Guess what? . They’re actually called “oyster pails” and as the name implies, were originally designed as an inexpensive way to hold oysters (and later honey) when oysters themselves were inexpensive.

All of this changed somewhere after World War II, when insane oyster price increases left manufacturers with loads of unsold oyster pails. At the same time, sales of takeout foods took off. Chinese restaurants started adopting the oyster pail for Chinese takeout, because the oyster pails were dirt-cheap and Chinese food isn’t very picky about the type of packaging it comes in. And the rest is history.

Chinese food


And then there’s of course the Chinese food itself. Whatever your favourite item is on Chinese takeout menus, be it General Tso’s Chicken, , or chop suey: it may be tasty, but it’s not Chinese. Not that it matters anyway. Good food is good food.

Beckoning cat


Many a Chinese restaurant has a Chinese lucky cat sitting on the counter, which is believed to bring good luck to its owner. Most are made of ceramic or plastic and literally just sit there, but some are equipped with a mechanical paw that makes it perform a non-stop Nazi salute beckoning gesture.

These Chinese lucky cats are technically called maneki-neko (招き猫 or “beckoning cat”), which sounds Japanese, because it is. They’re not just popular across East Asia, but also in Chinese overseas communities, which is why westerners erroneously associate the lucky cat with Chinese culture.

Ping pong


Ping pong is arguably the only thing on this list that was not introduced to western societies via Chinatowns.

It’s a weird one. For one, “ping pong” sounds vaguely Chinese. China also produces pretty much every ping pong ball, bat, and table in the world, and absolutely crushes the competition in international tournaments. The Chinese seem to be so good at the sport that even the best Dutch player is actually Chinese-born.

In reality the sport originated in Victorian England, where it was likely introduced by British military officers who developed early versions of the game while stationed in India. The game presumably spread further from there, along with British imperialism.