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Chopsticks: Their Interesting Hstory

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(4) pages: 26 to 27

Folks often ask ‘how old are chopsticks?’ We have wondered that, too, then did read they can be three thousand years old or older. Their oldest beginnings seem to be during the Shang Dynasty (1766 - 1122 BCE).

What is less old are the rules that govern their proper use, one of which is that they should always be used with the right hand. What do we lefties do, is a question I am prone to ask? If one has a Chinese mother, ones left hand can be tied to the back of the chair. I am not Chinese, but when I was in first grade and six years old I did have that experience. It did not work as intended as I still write, eat, and do almost all tasks with the left hand; chopsticks use included. Common everyday chopsticks are made of bamboo, though there are ones made with ivory or jade. The latter were made for an empress, specifically, the Dowager Cixi at the Imperial Palace. Bet she also had cloisonne ones, too. We did see some of those kinds when visiting fancy homes in China; they were intended for serving. We also have two sets we use at either end of the table as serving chopsticks. Times are changing, now common ones in homes and restaurants are made of plastic. They sterilize easily in dish washers, but can be hard to use when picking up some slippery foods.

China was the first country to use these ‘quick boys’ or kuaizi, as they are commonly called. Historians tell us they may be older than we think or know, and they may have been used during Neolithic times. There is great variety among chopsticks, there are Tianzhu chopsticks made in the hills around Hangzhou with dull silver-colored metal ends at their tops. Some are recognized by their length, thick or thinness, color, and at what length they change from round to square, top to bottom, and other differences.

We have seen chopsticks made of cattle and deer bones, others from camel bones, even some made using tortoise shells. As already indicated, jade chopsticks do exist, as do gold and silver ones. But be aware, those made of metal can burn when touching the mouth if used when eating foods taken directly out of hot oil.

In ancient times chopsticks were called zhu. Then they were used to reach into a pot to grab boiled or steamed food. From the 21st to the 16th centuries BCE, many Chinese chopsticks did have different lengths. They became the length they are now during those years. We did read that King Zhou ordered his craftsman to make some from elephant tusks for him. They must have been elegant and unusual. Chopsticks, in Chinese, can mean ‘to have sons soon.’ That may be why newly weds love the to get them as gifts at their wedding. Did you know that? Until recently, we did not.

Most folk are unaware of the rules for using these common eating tools. Do you know that one should never suck on them nor bite them? One should also not stand them up in a bowl of rice as that resembles sacrifices looking like incense burning for the dead. One should also never hit the side of a plate or a bowl with chopsticks; and never use them as hair ornaments. Most importantly, one should never point them at someone, not even point them at some thing.

Do you know that chopsticks are used by billions of people worldwide? Chinese and other Asians, from Vietnam to Japan, and many others all over the world use these ‘quick boys.’ In the fabled ruins of the Henan Province, they did find very early chopsticks, but none of wood because that material rots quickly; some were bronze, others of other metals.

Confucius believed that sharp instruments did not belong at his table, but chopsticks were OK. He said knives were for slaughtering, not eating. Different cultures have adopted different sizes and shapes of their chopsticks. Chinese chopsticks have blunt ends on theirs, some Asian populations including the Japanese use pointed ones.

The word chopsticks first appeared in English when Scots described them in 1699. It was Dampier who used them in his travelogue titled Voyages and Descriptions. There are also superstitions in different languages about these sticks that many may not know. For example, Koreans say that an uneven pair means you will miss a boat or a plane. They also say that the closer they are held to the end opposite where one puts them in the mouth, the longer one stays unmarried. The Chinese used to believe that silver chopsticks would turn black when touching arsenic or cyanide; but that is not true.

Chopsticks were first used not to put food into the mouth but rather for cooking and removing hot foods from woks and pots. Chinese chopsticks are usually twelve inches long and these days used for both cooking and eating. Shorter ones can be used to select food and move it to your mouth; they are usually ten inches long. Children use shorter ones, and we all do when getting our food for take-out. Those places almost always provide ones that are nine or ten inches in length. When eating rice, it is common to hold the bowl up to the mouth and use ones chopsticks to push, really to shove rice into the mouth. That is not rude, simply commonplace.

Considered rude, is to pierce food with one or both chopsticks. To use them to cut foods for children is said acceptable in Taiwan, not so in China. There, it is more common and more acceptable to use the side of one’s ceramic soup spoon for cutting one’s food, should one need to do so. Actually, one should not have to cut food, the kitchen should do that. The Chinese do not believe knives belong at the table.

Never rest your chopsticks on the table or on the tablecloth. Better to use a chopstick rest or put them across the rice bowl. Other ‘do not’ behaviors include: Never to bite on the chopsticks or hold them between one’s teeth, never dip them into the soup bowl nor stab any food. They are not knives and should not be used as such; nor should they be used to tap on the table or tap on anything, for that matter. Do not plant them in a floral display, and never use them to reach over another person. If you need a chopstick rest, make one by folding the wrapper they come in as your personal chopstick rest. Never use one or both to stir a liquid, and never use just one to transfer a food from one dish to another because this is called ‘digging for food’ and does not belong at the table. When one can not handle a food with chopsticks, the correct thing to do is to use a soup spoon.

Chopsticks can speak to the wait staff. If one wants to tell them one is finished eating and want no more food or one needs the check, rest them on the top of the rice bowl. Wait staff and hosts recognize this and will serve no more food when they see that. They also recognize crossed chopsticks in a restaurant meaning that the bill was provided and/or paid.

For the record, forty-five billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are made every year. China and other countries are beginning to tax them to impact misuse. Twenty-five million full-grown trees need to be cut down to meet the need for disposable chopsticks. Some chopsticks are bleached to lighten the color of their wood. American chopsticks are made from poplar or sweet gum wood so they do not need to be lightened or bleached. This is healthier for those who use them and is becoming more popular in other Asian countries, too. It is more environmentally friendly, as well.

What your chopsticks are made of is important, so do handle them safely, properly, and carefully. If they are disposable, do not misuse them and do reuse them even though trees are important components of our environment.

Collecting chopsticks is a growing hobby. Many stores now feature them, a few are specific to selling only chopsticks, dozens of different varieties of them. Fancy ones are more popular than ever, and more people like the fanciest ones they can find. Some have many different kinds at home; do you? These pictures show jut a few varieties folks have in their homes. How many different kinds are in yours?

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