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History of Chopsticks 🥢 10 Things Most People Don't Know About Them

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Like fork, spoon and knife, chopsticks are everyday things we take for granted. Two simple sticks, chopsticks have a long and rich history loaded with symbolism and meaning in Chinese culture.

Around 30% of the world's population eat with fork and knife, 30% with hands and the remaining 30% use chopsticks, mainly in China, Japan and Korea.


Chopsticks were not the first dining cutlery / utensils the Chinese used - fork, spoon and knives came first. Qijia civilisation 齐家文化 dating 2200 BC - 1600 BC had fork and knife made of bone (over 4,000 years ago).

The origin of chopsticks creation is unclear and in the realm of legends. 


One legend has it that a divine bird gave 姜子牙 Jiang Tai Gong (around 1000 BC) the idea. 姜子牙 was an intelligent but idle man. He would spend his time fishing but often return home empty handed. 姜子牙's frustrated wife couldn't stand him anymore and decided to poison him.


After another fruitless fishing trip, 姜子牙 returned home for dinner. As he was reaching for the food his wife prepared, a colourful bird swooped down and pecked at his hand. When 姜子牙 tried to pick up his wife's food a second time, he was again interrupted by the bird. Angry, 姜子牙 ran out of the house to chase the bird away. (Image credit Wikipedia)

Out of the house, the bird advised 姜子牙 to use two thin bamboo sticks to pick up the food. On returning home, 姜子牙 did as the bird advised. On touching the poisoned food, the bamboo sticks hissed, turned black and gave off a stream of white smoke. Realising that her plot had been exposed, 姜子牙's wife ran away.

After the incident, neighbours too started using bamboo sticks to pick up their food. This practice continued to this day, leading to today's Chinese chopstick culture.


Another legend has it that people started using wooden twigs to eat during the Great Floods of the Yellow River. The floods were eventually tamed by Da Yu the Great 大禹治水 (2123 BC - 2025 BC) by diverting the water into the sea. The monumental work of digging canals to channel the water was so urgent that there was no time to wait for hot food to cool before eating. So, Da Yu and his crew ate with a pair of wooden twigs instead. The use of twigs evolved into the chopsticks of today. (Image credit Wikipedia

There are a few more other legends but the bottomline is we don't know how chopsticks first came about. So, I'll spare you more details. (Image credit: Wikipedia)


As Chinese cuisine use more hot soups, chopsticks were more convenient to pick up the ingredients inside. When eating together, Chinese share their main dish which is reached by each person's own chopsticks. Due to its versatility, chopsticks gradually replaced fork and knife as the main dining utensil among Chinese. Chopstick culture became firmly established in China around 3000 years ago.


Chopsticks went through 3 name changes over the years. During the Qin dynasty (from 900 BC) it was known as 梜, it was called 箸 during the Han dynasty (from 200 BC) and became 筷 since the Ming dynasty (from 1638 AD) till today.


No one knows how the English word "chopsticks" came about. The earliest known published use of the word "chopstick" is in the 1699 book Voyages and Descriptions by William Dampier: "they are called by the English seamen Chopsticks".

Perhaps, it was from the Chinese Pidgin English phrase "chop chop" which means "hurry up" or "quickly". Or, chopsticks might have come from the word "chow" which means food. So, it was from "chowsticks" to chopsticks - the truth is, the origin of the word "chopsticks" is still a mystery. (Image credit Wikipedia)

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The chopsticks, seemingly just a simple pair of tapered wooden sticks, is loaded with ancient symbolism.


The front end of the chopstick which picks up food is round while the rear end is square. The round front represent the heavens and the square end, land. It's a reminder that food is a blessing from heaven. The square back end represent paddy fields (land). The Chinese word for paddy field is 田. (Image credit Wikipedia)

Chopsticks are 7.6 inches long. Seven represent the 7 human emotions of happiness, anger, love, desire, sadness, pain, and worry. Six represent our 6 senses of nose, eyes, ear, tongue, body and feelings.

Chopsticks come in pairs representing balance / harmony of yin and yang. When in use, one stick is stationary (yin) while the second stick moves (yang) in a pinching movement.


The five fingers of the hand represent the five elements that make up the world - metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. (Image credit Wikipedia.)

The three fingers that operate the chopsticks represent the harmony of heaven, earth and humans.


Chopstick etiquette 🥢

🥢 When holding chopsticks, it is rude to point at others with your forefinger

🥢 Chewing or sucking audibly on your chopsticks is rude

🥢 Do not tap your chopsticks on the rim of your bowl or on the table top

🥢 Do not sweep and brush food aside in the shared dish to search for the pieces of food you like

🥢 Do not put your chopsticks down in the shape of a cross

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🥢 It is considered inauspicious to stab your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice like joss sticks in an incense bowl or urn

🥢 It is not good form to stab food with your chopsticks

🥢 It is poor manners to use your chopsticks the wrong way around i.e. use the square end to pick up food.

Japanese and Koreans also use chopsticks but their designs are a little different.


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Japanese chopsticks are shorter and have pointy tips. Japanese chopsticks are shorter because Japanese eat their meals individually and do not share their dishes. So, their chopsticks do not need to be long like Chinese who eat communally, sharing dishes in the middle of a large table.
Many Japanese dishes like whole fish need to be broken and torn apart with sharp utensils, hence pointy chopsticks.

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Korean chopsticks are flat and made of steel because they have a lot of BBQ dishes and only metal chopsticks can take the heat.



Written by Tony Boey on 12 Feb 2021

1 comment:

  1. I believe Korean use metal chopsticks because in ancient times royals used silver chopsticks to detect poison and over time it became fashionable to use metal chopsticks instead of wooden ones...

    ReplyDelete

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