Chopsticks Throughout History
Food in History
Summer Volume: 2017 Issue: 24(2) pages: 12 to 13
Many wonder when these two equal length sticks
were first used. It certainly was centuries before
forks and other table utensils were commonplace.
They probably were in use during the Xia Dynasty, circa
21st to 16th centuries BCE, and certainly were used during
the Shang Dynasty (1766 - 1122 BCE) when King Zhou
wanted and ordered some made of elephant teeth for
his own use. More common knowledge about chopsticks
existed circa 1122 - 770 BCE when many in China were
made of bamboo.
The very earliest sticks may have been twigs used to
retrieve foods cooking in hot liquids. By 500 BCE, their
popularity was also common in Japan, Vietnam, and
Korea. Then, the Chinese called them zhu, and now they
call them kuaizi which means ‘quick’ or ‘quick boys’ and
some call them ‘chop chop.’ What do you call them?
In the early years, women’s chopsticks in China were
one-inch shorter than those for men; children’s shorter
still. The Japanese make theirs with pointed ends,
the Chinese make theirs with blunt ends; and in both
countries, bamboo chopsticks were and are most
popular materials they are made with.
None remain of any wood because wood rots. We do
know that those of bamboo were written about in the
early years, and the ones found of bronze. Some were
in the ruins of Yin near Anyang; we now call that Henan.
A few other old ones were found made of coral, a few of
elephant teeth or tusk, and others of metal or another
hard material. Sticks to eat one’s food were written
about in Feizi by Han Fei circa the 3rd century BCE.
These days, Chinese chopsticks are about twelve inches
in length, longer than both Japanese and Korean ones.
Those from those two countries are round, one end to
the other, while Chinese ones are square on the top
half, round on their lower halves.
People in these three countries use them most often,
more than folks in any other countries. They yell us to
be careful not to take food from a serving dish with sticks
that were in ones mouth, so we all do need to observe
this protocol for health and for other reasons. Be aware
that in some countries, including Laos, Thailand, and
Nepal, they only use chopsticks for eating noodles. Did
you know that?
There are many other chopstick rules of etiquette
such as never knocking yours on the side of a dish nor
tapping them on the table because these are the sounds
of beggars asking for food. Another is not using them to
stir your food as that is rude to the person who cooked it.
Do not point them at another person, never dig in a dish
with them, do not lick their ends, nor stand them upright
in a dish. This last activity looks like you are honoring
the dead because incense looks like that at funerals.
Most people do not know that long ago, the Chinese only
used chopsticks for their side dishes. They never held
them with their left hand because they could knock food
out of the hand of a person on their left. There are other
taboos or information about them including that before
the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE), the Chinese did not use
chopsticks to eat rice, spoons were for that purpose. They
should not be used to bring serving dishes closer, scoop
up food, let liquids drip from their tips, use them to beat
foods, or grip them looking as though ready to attack.
To use yours properly, the lower stick needs to be held
stationary, the upper one held like a pencil with thumb,
index finger, and middle finger to get food from serving
dish or your plate to mouth. Yes, it is polite to hold one’s
rice bowl and bring it to the mouth and then shovel one’s
rice into it.
These days, there are new uses for chopsticks. Many
are used as wedding gifts to signify wishes the recipient
have a son soon. There are those that collect them so
they make fine gifts for any reason and any occasion.
Extra long ones and/or extra fancy ones are popular for
serving or cooking, most made of materials that do not
conduct heat. One exception to this is in Korea where
almost all chopsticks are made of metal. Restaurants
often use plastic ones for durability and sanitation.
They can and do go in a dishwasher. Now for three
other items. At the end of a restaurant meal, many
waiters cross a pair of chopsticks on a rice bowl to
tell others not to serve any more food there, as their
bill has been calculated. Many eateries now using
disposable chopsticks. Many of their customers object
because some forty-five billion pairs, an amount said
to be the annual destruction of twenty-five million
fully grown trees, are being disposed of. And in China,
chopsticks are lightened with bleach, a technique
American chopsticks are not bleached because they
are made with sweet gum, poplar, or a similar wood
that does not need lightening. One study shows
elderly having increased risk of osteoarthritis in their
right hand, may lead to swelling in joints of that hand.
Chopstick lore includes many truths and myths. In
the latter category are tales that if one gets an uneven
pair, that person will miss a plane or boat, if one uses
silver chopsticks they recognize poisons and turn
black, and the closer one holds them to their lower
end, the longer one will remain unmarried. Though
these ‘quick boys’ are adored by many, so is another
myth, that using chopsticks makes one very clever.
Millions use them at every meal three times every
day on every continent worldwide. They are popular
eating implements used by people of all ages; are you
one who eats faster with them than with any another