Chopsticks FAQ

It is not known when chopsticks first began to be used, although it is fairly certain that they were invented in China, where they have been traced back at least as far as the 3rd century BCE. There are those who say that the philosopher Confucius, who lived over 200 years earlier, influenced the development of chopsticks with his nonviolent teachings. Thus, knives, with all their associations with war and death, were not brought to the dinner table, as they were in the West. Today, chopsticks are used in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as China, making them the world's second-most popular method of conveying food to mouth, the most popular being the fingers.

What Chopsticks Are Made Of
Chopsticks are most often made of utilitarian bamboo or other wood, but they can also be treated as decorative objects. Especially in Japan, they are made of laquered wood and are sometimes elaborately painted and personalized for their owners.

Chopsticks in China
In China, chopsticks are usually made of bamboo or other wood. They are called k'uai-tzu, meaning "something fast." This phrase is said to have originated among boatmen, who renamed the utensils, originally called chu ("help"), because the word sounded so much like their word for a slow or becalmed ship, and this struck them as particularly inappropriate for such an efficient eating tool. The word with which we are all familiar came into being during the 19th century, when the Chinese was translated by traders into Pidgin English. The word "chop" means fast--as in the phrase "chop chop!"

Chopsticks in Japan
The Japanese word for chopsticks, hashi, means "bridge." Unlike Chinese chopsticks, which are squared-off and blunt at the end, the Japanese utensils are rounded and tapered to a point. It has been suggested that this is in order to facilitate the removal of bones from fish, which makes up a great part of the Japanese diet.

Japanese Taboos
There are several taboos in Japan regarding the handling of chopsticks at the table, mostly derived from associations with the use of chopsticks in Buddhist funeral rites. Passing food to another person using your chopsticks resembles a ritual in which bone fragments from the cremated body are removed from the pyre and passed from chopsticks to chopsticks among the mourners. It is also important not to leave the chopsticks sticking upright in the rice bowl. A dead family member's personal pair is often positioned this way in an offering bowl of uncooked rice placed at the family altar.

Reading List:
The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: The John Day Company, 1945.
From Hand to Mouth, or How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks, and the Manners to Go with Them by James Cross Giblin. New York: Crowell, 1987.

 

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