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Chopstick Origin and Usage

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Equipment and Techniques

Summer Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(2) page(s): 29 and 30


How old is the use of the two thin sticks commonly known as chopsticks? Were they really the first tools used by the Chinese when eating their food? When did everyone use them daily? An earlier article, in Flavor and Fortune's Summer 2003 issue (Volume 10(2) on pages 11 and 12) did discuss chopsticks and woks. However, many queries since it was published continue to request more information than it provided.

These simple, far from new, eating sticks are now known in most of China, as kuai zi. Was that their original name? They were once known as jai, and later referred to as zhu. It was not until some time during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), that they were commonly called kuai zi. This word is written as a two-part ideograph composed of two radicals or parts. The top one means bamboo, the most common material chopsticks are made of; the bottom radical means 'cooking in utensils.' That was their original purpose. Yes, at first these two pieces of wood, probably just twigs, were used to take foods out of hot liquids.

The name of these implements changed to kuai zi, because it is said, fishermen in the Zhejiang Province did not like their implication. The word zhu shares pronunciation with the word 'shipworm,' and these fisher folk did not want their boats eaten by these worms nor did they want to give credence to these creatures every time they ate a meal. The very idea of doing so rankled them. The word they or others selected, kuai zi, means 'quickly' or some say 'quick boys' and that meaning was fine with them.

When using these three to four thousand year old devices, one can easily pick up hot and cold foods. Not everyone agrees, some say this is no easy task. In actuality, it involves use of about eighty joint and fifty muscle movements of the shoulder, arm, palm, and fingers. These many actions are directed by the brain. It tells these body parts to move food from plate to mouth. The complex actions are repeated many times every day, three meals a day plus when consuming snacks. They are used daily, the movements repeated by more than one billion folk in China and many more Chinese and non-Chinese folk in nations all over the world.

One early record of chopstick use dates from the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 - 1045 BCE). Then, Emperor Zhou, who lived from 1075 to 1046 BCE, used ivory ones. He had folk get and make them from the tusks of elephants roaming wild in Central China at that time. Before that, in the Xia Dynasty (circa 2070 to 1600 BCE), there are pictures of two sticks, using them to remove foods from a cooking pot.

Legends and facts about chopsticks abound. In early times and according to the Rites of Zhou, they were used on happy occasions. When they were, common chopsticks and spoons were made from the wood of hawthorn trees. Those made of mulberry wood were exclusively for the use of guests.

One set found and dated as from the Shang Dynasty, were tiny, about seven inches long. More than seventy-five other pairs were located at six different sites in the Henan, Jiangsu, Shaanxi, and the Zhejiang Provinces. All were made of silver; their lengths ranged from six to almost thirteen inches.

Chopsticks are now made of silver, wood, and other materials; and they can be made of plastic. A major collector, Lan Xiang, has amassed more than sixteen hundred pairs from early times to today. He categorizes his into five groupings: the most common of these are made of bamboo and other woods. In this grouping, he believes those of ebony are the most valuable. A second category of his chopsticks are made of metal. Examples include the early silver ones found at various sites and others made today. A third grouping are those made of ivory and animal bones. His fourth grouping are chopsticks made from jade and other stones. The last set or grouping are chopsticks made of plastic. His hundreds of pairs can be plain or fancy or anywhere in between. There are some covered or attached to different metal, stone, wood, or other materials, most made of a single material,

Lan Xiang's collection, though large, is not the biggest ever found or known about in Asia. A much larger one belonged to Prime Minister Yan Song of the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE). His collection was of more than twenty-seven thousand chopstick pairs. No one knows if any of them still exist. Why, because they were confiscated when he was sent to prison.

Recent findings of chopsticks include those depicted above. One such is seen in an early stone painting from the Han Dynasty showing a man using them to feed his elderly father. Other depictions from Wei and Jin Dynasties (220 to 265, and 265 to 439 CE, respectively) were found in Tomb Number Seven in the Gansu Province at Jiayuguan. Their size, length, and materials vary. A later mural attributed to the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) was found in the Dunhuang Cave. It and others show tables set, ladies sitting at them, and dishes, chopsticks, and spoons set before them.

Considering the numbers of chopsticks made and used, not many remain from very early times. That makes sense as most were probably made from wood and they decayed over time. One bronze pair, found in the Anhui Province, were dated between 770 and 476 BCE. Others found there and elsewhere during that period were made of copper, gold, and other materials. An unusual pair of silver ones were found in Xian. They are said to be from the Sui Dynasty (581 - 616 CE), and different from most as they were thin at both ends, thicker in the middle.

Thus, chopstick length, shape, and the materials they were made from has changed somewhat over time. In the Han Dynasty (221 BCE - 220 CE), many were made of copper and bamboo, some were round from one end to the other, others round or square and thicker on top, thinner at the end from which foods are transported to the mouth. In the Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan Dynasties (960 - 1368 CE) most of those found were of silver and copper. They ranged in length from six to ten inches. In the Spring and Autumn periods (770 - 476 BCE), they were mostly made of copper and were cylindrical and about seven inches long. In the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618 CE), many chopsticks found were silver and about eight to nine inches long. They were thicker in the middle than at either end.

In the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), chopsticks were of silver and gold, the gold ones attributed to the emperor and his court. In the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), their shape changed to square at the top and round at the bottom or end one eats from. The length of chopsticks standardized somewhat in this dynastic period to eleven to twelve inches.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), museums in China and elsewhere began to feature gorgeous ones. Some were made of expensive metals, others of ebony or other bone such as ox, elephant, camel, and deer. Some exhibited were wooden with metal or stone at the thicker end. One of Saga cycas also known as ironwood was popular and on display. Some of them were plain, others mosaic, some carved with lions or other animals on the top end, and some decorated with flowers or other plants. Quite a few had fine or fancy writing on them; and many were shown with chopstick rests or in special chopstick holders.

China has no day set aside to honor these eating tools but does have many poems written about them. Yuan Mei who wrote a very early cookbook, penned a chopstick poem, some of which says:

Like two ladies, small and thin
Their waists are held to open their feet
To taste the flavors, good or bad,
You have to reach out tongue to feed.

People in Vietnam started copying Chinese use of chopsticks in or after Tang Dynasty times. The Japanese began using them shortly thereafter. They now have a chopstick venerating day, August 4th. Japanese chopsticks are shorter and sharper at the eating end. The Vietnamese use ones more similar to those currently used in China. Both of these countries have many decorated and painted chopsticks; and they and China does have shorter ones for the children. The longest chopsticks on record are from China, somewhat longer than seventy-five inches. They were made to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Chopsticks Hall in the Shanghai Folk Arts Museum.

Chopstick use did not spread outside of Southeast Asia until some four hundred or so years ago. Their introduction to Europe is credited to Ricci Matteo (1562 - 1610 CE) who wrote about them in his book called Notes in China.

Nowadays, every country has Chinese immigrants who, along with others, use these eating sticks. This begs the question: Do they and do you know the etiquette of chopstick use? Do you or they know that most Chinese believe that guests should not touch their chopsticks until the host or hostess lifts his or hers? Do you or they know that chopstick users should refrain from reaching over other dishes with their chopsticks? Do you and they know to never stand chopsticks upright, particularly in rice? Doing so represents a behavior at a death (See the article about funerals beginning on page 11 this issue). Speaking of death, a coffin of the deceased usually includes a favorite pair of chopsticks of the recently departed.

At another point in life, those newly betrothed find one or more pairs of red chopsticks on their nuptial bed. They are there saying: 'Chopsticks, chopsticks, have baby quick.' Lots later in their lives, when quite elderly, they may find their chopsticks stolen. Those that take them from the elderly believe they are stealing longevity.

Ethnic minority populations in China have their own chopstick rituals. The father of the bride in Achung families in the Yunnan Province, at the first breakfast for the newlyweds in his home, gives the groom freshly cut very thin and very long chopsticks. With these he needs to eat the peanuts, thin noodles, and soft tofu served to him. His ability to do so may cause laughter but the purpose is not that, but to remind him that happiness does not come easily; it matches eating this first family meal.

No matter length, color, or composition, chopsticks are simple practical tools for the Chinese and other Asians, tools that have considerable symbolism. They are replacements for fingers, the original tool used to eat rice. Their use at the table shows refinement, and refined folk never use chopsticks that were in their mouths to take food from a common bowl or platter. Refined hosts provide the same length or slightly longer ones or serving spoons for such use.

There are many ways of holding chopsticks. No matter how you do yours, just keep the lower stick immobile. Use the upper one somewhat like a pencil, moving it as needed. And, by all means do see to it they are always kept even in length. That way you will get food to mouth without dropping it on the way.

                                                                                                                                                       
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