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Published on May 30, 2013 in Asia, China, News

The Origin of Chopsticks

Chopsticks were invented in China almost 5,000 years ago. Their origin started simply enough as the first chopsticks were most likely twigs broken from trees that were used to retrieve food from fire.

Chopsticks weren’t initially used for eating. They were, instead, used as cooking utensils. In ancient Chinese society knives were used to cut and also eat the food, the knife often substituting for a fork. Over time, food was cut into smaller pieces as it allowed the food to cook faster and it also saved on fuel. As the food cooked, chopsticks were used to retrieve the food from the fire and boiling pots of water or oil.

Over time knives as eating utensils, and their use at the dinner table, eventually became obsolete in part thanks to Confucius. As it turns out, Confucius was a vegetarian and believed that a knife would remind those using it of slaughterhouses, violence, and warfare. Wanting to maintain the peace and harmony within the meal, Confucius advocated the use of chopsticks, and its popularity quickly spread throughout Asia. Knives were now largely used in food preparation prior to the food being placed on the dinner table.

By 500 AD the use of chopsticks eventually spread to other Asian countries such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, although chopsticks differed slightly from one country to the next. For example, a Chinese chopstick is about 10 inches long. In Japan, they’re a little shorter with a man’s chopstick being 8 inches long a women’s 7 inches in length.

SONY DSCIn Chinese, chopsticks are called Kuai-Zi, or quick little fellows. However, it wasn’t until 1699 when William Dampier, in his travelogue Voyages and Descriptions, that the word chopstick first appeared in print. Chopstick, as an English word, was probably derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin in which chop chop meant quickly or hurry, hurry.

There’s also an etiquette to the use of chopsticks. For example:

When eating rice from a bowl its normal to hold the bowl up to one’s mouth and shovel the rice into one’s mouth with your chopsticks. We might deem this to be impolite or strange in the U.S., but it’s the standard in China.

Moreover, it’s not acceptable to tap your bowl with chopsticks as this is normally done by beggars who want to attract attention.

It’s also considered impolite to rest your chopsticks and have them point to someone else at the table.

Resting your chopsticks on a bowl means that you’re done with your meal. Resting them to the side of your bowl, or on a chopstick stand, means that you’re just taking a break from eating.

Spearing food with your chopsticks is considered impolite, although I’ve done it many times when the food item, like a dumpling, was too large to pick up in any other way. Instead, I’m told, picking up your food with a spoon is what’s normally expected when an item is too large to be grasped by chopsticks.

However, probably the biggest faux pas someone can make is to stick your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice as this resembles the sticking of incense sticks into bowls of sand and is therefore associated with “feeding” the dead or death in general. Keeping with that thought, you also shouldn’t dig or search through your food, or within a serving bowl, with your chopsticks when trying to find a particular item you want to consume. This is referred to in China as “digging one’s grave” and is regarded as poor behavior.

In any event, a breach of Chinese etiquette is not your fault. It’s your parents!! The Chinese seem to lay the blame for incorrect Chinese etiquette on the parents, rather than the children, as parents are expected to teach their children correct chopstick etiquette. This is an early manifestation of the blame it on the parents syndrome.


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