Chopsticks – everything you need to know (part 1)


The world can be divided into 3 areas depending on how people eat their food. The first area is where people use their hands to eat; this area, roughly speaking comprises most of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the middle east and Arabia. The second area is in the west and north of the globe, Europe and North and South America where cutlery (knife,fork,spoon etc) is used to eat food. The final area is the huge swathe of Asia, comprising China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia etc and all the other East Asian countries where chopsticks are used for eating.
This means that every single day several billion people use chopsticks, so I thought I should know a bit more about them.

I recently acquired a copy of a book by Q.Edward Wang ‘Chopsticks – A Cultural & Culinary History’. 9781107023963

It is so well written, and Mr Wang’s research and knowledge shines on every page –  it has been a joy to read and learn from his book.

It would seem from archaeological discoveries that chopsticks came into being in the northern part of China during the Neolithic period (ie about 5000+ years ago). At first they were used to aid the cooking of food – you can imagine the scene: a pot of hot water with meat and vegetables in it – food sticks to pot, needs to be stirred – so whoever is cooking the the food picks up a stick or sticks to do that. Then, rather than burn their hands and fingers trying to extract cooked items from the pot or the fire, they realise that two sticks could be used as pincers to lift the pieces of food from the hot liquid.

From that starting point it was only a question of time before people started to use individual pairs of sticks to convey  food from the communal pot to their own bowl and/or mouth. Sticks which had been whittled to neat paired lengths were ideal for doing this, and so Chopsticks were born.

Over the millennia their use spread throughout all the lands with which China had contact, until everyone from Java to Japan used them as a matter of course. Originally very crude they became incredibly sophisticated, as they could be made from many materials: bamboo, lacquered wood, ivory (now banned), bone, enamel and various metals.  Gold chopsticks (which would show wealth and status) were not very efficient as the metal was too soft for practical use; silver was prized, particularly by kings, emperors and top officials, as it was thought that silver chopsticks would discolour immediately when touching poisoned foods, and therefore warn whoever was about to eat not to take food from a particular dish.
There were, and are, many advantages to using chopsticks, they cannot be used to pick up large pieces of food, so most foods are cut and cooked in small pieces. Because the food is cut into smaller pieces it can cook quickly and requires less fuel. Thus China’s cuisine has been much influenced by chopsticks, likewise Korean and Japanese cuisines.

Ceramic spoons developed later, as an adjunct to a pair of chopsticks; they were used to consume soups and soft foods, and to feed infants, small children and the very elderly.

Bear-in-mind that whilst chopsticks were becoming more and more refined in China and even the very poorest people used them, we Brits were still eating using our hands, a spoon and a slice of bread as a plate, and a knife could be used to cut foods. The spoon being the only true utensil. Forks first appeared in the Byzantine Empire and arrived in Europe via Venice. It was not until the mid 16th century that they started being widely used by the wealthy. The poor used their spoons and that meant that apart from big religious feast days they lived on a form of pottage.

In other words, China was way ahead of the game when it came to eating in a civilized manner. Confucius himself deplored the idea that anyone would bring a knife to a dinner table, with its potential to be used in violence if a dispute arose.

Lord McCartney, King George III’s envoy to China in 1793 was patronising in the extreme. When he encountered chopsticks, he said that the European methods of eating using knife, fork and spoon were so superior that the Chinese would quickly see the error of their ways and start using Western cutlery. Ha ha! he got that, and so much else, wrong about China.

Of course the Chinese do not call chopsticks ‘chopsticks’, that is the name by which they are known in the English speaking world. In Mandarin Chinese they are called ‘kuaizi’   (筷子) which can be loosely translated as ‘quick things’. So where did the name Chopsticks come from?

Well, ‘sticks’ is obvious, and in the days when Britain was busy colonizing India and other parts east, the phrase ‘chop-chop’* meaning ‘quick, quick’ was widely used. In other words  Chopsticks meant ‘quick sticks’ – not so far in meaning from the Chinese name.

There are rules about how chopsticks are held, and how they are to be used in polite company for which you are going to have to wait until I write part 2 of this blog post!

*a phrase still in use to this day!

About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Chinese cultural history, Food & Drink and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Chopsticks – everything you need to know (part 1)

  1. Jennie says:

    Fascinating, jo x

  2. Greek says:

    Lovely post. I wanted to add that in Java where my mother grew up, the most common utensils were spoon and fork. As rice is eaten of a plate, (not a bowl) it is easiest to use a spoon. But for an especially good meal, diners would often forgo utensils altogether and eat with their hands. My mother tells me it tastes more delicious when you eat with your hands. Chopsticks are usually used when eating noodles and in Chinese restaurants.

  3. Eha says:

    Am enjoying this to the core ! Having been born in the Baltics and growing up in Australia, it may indeed be strange that I first used chopsticks in my late teens at university here, sharing ‘cheap’ Asian meals in restaurants we could afford . . . they felt comfortable: one did not eat too quickly, one was able to pick up what morsel of food attracted one next . . . . clean, simple, addictive . . . very many years later. mostly living alone, you would be surprised that most food offerings world-wide bar soup are actually most deliciously savoured with those two ‘sticks’ from whatever country they come: I find the Chinese way easier than the elegant Japanese . . . .

  4. victualling says:

    Really interesting though I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have developed elsewhere in the world.

  5. camparigirl says:

    I love using chopsticks so I really look forward to the follow up post. Soon please!

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