How good are your chopstick skills? It is well known that no eating tools on the Chinese dinner table are more magical and distinctive than the chopsticks. Chopsticks are shaped pairs of two sticks with equal length. At first, the Chinese invented them as convenient eating utensils, but as time goes by, you can see chopsticks on the tables of East Asians, such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and so on. Now more and more people like Chinese cuisine and try to use chopsticks. It is not an easy task. Although chopsticks are just made of two simple sticks, there’s a long story even with a mere pair of sticks. How do you know about them?
The history of chopsticks
Virtually according to historical materials, chopsticks have a long history of more than 3000 years. Chopsticks originated in ancient China and date back to as early as the Shang Dynasty(1600BC—1046BC). Han Feizi is a philosophical book written by Han Fei in the 3rd century BCE. It was the earliest known extant textual reference that mentioned chopsticks. In this book, King Zhou(1075 BC – 1046 BC), the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty used special chopsticks made of ivory, which proved he led a luxurious life. Therefore, we can guess at that time, it was ordinary for people to use chopsticks of other common materials, such as bamboo and wood.
The styles of chopsticks
There are several styles of chopsticks that vary with respect to materials, length, embellishments, etc. When it comes to materials, here are so many choices, such as bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, jade, porcelain, ivory, and so on. In ancient China, the commonly used chopsticks made of bamboo, wood, and bone. These materials were easy to be found and made. The royal family and other upper-middle-class could use chopsticks made of jade, ivory, and other precious materials. With the development of technology, there are more and more convenient and cheap materials that can be made into chopsticks, for example, plastic and metal.
Generally speaking, the length of chopsticks follows the design in the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644). A pair of common chopsticks is 22-25 centimeters in length. The upper section is a square column and the lower section is cylindrical. The cylindrical section is used to pick up food. The reason why the chopsticks are designed like this is to make it easy to put on the table. Just imagine it. If our chopsticks were entirely cylindrical, they will roll on the table. How embarrassing the scene! Hence, from the perspective of practicality and etiquette, chopsticks are not entirely cylindrical.
In fact, this design is good for people to embellish chopsticks. The square column can be carved with many patterns or characters. It is an advantage that the cylindrical ones do not get. These embellishments are related to Chinese elegant tastes. You can find various ancient goods with all kinds of carvings, which proves the exquisite craftsmanship. For this reason, their quality and elegance were remarkable. They are highly collectible. There are lots of museums with valuable and meaningful chopsticks in China.
Etiquette and taboos
Chopsticks are used in many places in the world. Even if the principles of etiquette and taboos are similar, some points can differ from region to region. China is the birthplace of chopsticks with some etiquette and taboos of chopsticks. Here are some important points.
1. Don’t insert chopsticks in the rice. One of the most important taboos is that chopsticks should not be put into a bowl of rice vertically because it resembles the ritual of incense-burning that symbolizes “feeding” the dead and death in general. Generally, when a child acts like that, he or she will get a scolding.
2. Be quiet. Tapping chopsticks on the edge of bowls is an impolite action. Chinese people think the action is similar to beggars’ actions that aim to attract others’ attention. Because in the past, only beggars will make this sort of noise to beg for a living.
3. Make sure what you want to eat. It is well-known that in China, many dishes are communal, and everyone picks up what they like with their chopsticks. But it does not mean that you can dig and search through food for something in particular, which is sometimes known as “digging one’s grave” or “grave-digging” and is extremely poor form. It is poor etiquette to pick up the food which you do not like and put it back. You’d better make sure what you want and pick it up in your bowl.
4. Don’t point at someone during the meal. Whether you are full or still eating, you should not point at someone with chopsticks. Some people would like to invite others to dine or talk with others and point chopsticks towards others, which is considered poor etiquette. It means to blame others.
5. Don’t move your chopsticks before the host or the people who have a higher status than you. If you are invited to a feast, you cannot take up your chopsticks before the superiors or the elders. It is a common custom that shows your respect to the host. What’s more, whether you hold your chopsticks or not, the chopsticks should be placed neatly. Traditionally, the chopsticks with the uneven length on the table mean the death and bad luck.
6. Pass food to the elderly first before you eat. It is a sign of respecting them. Generally speaking, family members or closely related people will transfer a choice piece of food from a dish to each other’ s bowl, which is a sign of caring. However, you ought to keep in your mind that you’d better use serving chopsticks which is also called public chopsticks to transfer food to others.
7. Don’t drop your chopsticks. If you drop your chopsticks by accident, you should pick them up quickly and make an apology to the others. It is poor etiquette. Because the Chinese think their ancestors have the everlasting rest underground, and they should not be disturbed.
8. Don’t cross chopsticks. This action implies a sign of negation to others. Sometimes this point will be always ignored. If you are full or you just take a break from eating, you can place chopsticks neatly on the side of your bowl. Pay attention to it, please. Don’t put your chopsticks at the top of the bowl. Since it will get your chopsticks off the ground easily.
There is an interesting culture of chopsticks. The more you learn about the culture of chopsticks, the more surprised you will be. Such a simple tool has a long history and culture. After getting this information about chopsticks, you can try to exercise the technique of holding chopsticks. So next time when you’re asked，“How good are your chopstick skills”，you can show your superb skills.