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Chinese Chopsticks Culture

Chinese Chopsticks Culture

 The Chinese character “箸” is translated as chopsticks, which are a unique eating utensil invented by the ancient Chinese. During the Neolithic Age in 7,000 BC to 6,000 BC, ancient chopsticks were primarily made of animal bones. Today, among the various eating utensils available, chopsticks best embody Chinese cultural characteristics, becoming an important symbol of Chinese tradition.    

1. The origin and development  of  Chinese character “箸”(Chopsticks)

Chopsticks were pronounced “Zhu” in ancient China, while it is known today as “Kuaizi.”

It was written in Shuo Wen Jie Zi - the radical “bamboo”( 竹 ), which is theChinese dictionary of words and expressions. The Chinese character “箸” means an eating utensil with “竹” as the meaning element and “者”as the sound element. It was noted in Cihai Dictionary that chopsticks were a flexible tool in ancient China. Thus, the original meaning of “箸” was defined as a tool for picking up food.    

“箸”(chopsticks) was also named “jia”, “ti”, among others. It had various other Chinese characters like “筯” and “櫡”, etc. Originating in the Ming Dynasty, it is generally called “kuaizi.” The Beans Garden Notes written by Lu Rong recorded that everywhere had taboos in its folk customs, especially when people spoke. Thus, many avoid saying “zhu” (English: prevent) and “fan” (English: capsize) when ships are proceeding, so the Chinese character for “chopsticks” was “zhu” (箸) in ancient China, but was replaced by the pronunciation for the character “kuai”(快),meaning quick and the Chinese character for leaning cloth pronounced “fanbu” (幡布), but finally replaced by the pronunciation “mobu”(抹布). The Chinese character “箸” first appeared in the Curse on Chu in the early Qing Dynasty.

2. The characteristics of Chinese chopstick culture

Chopsticks are composed of two pieces of sticks with the same shape, size and material, created with integrity, tenacity and honesty. The two chopsticks have no mechanical linkage, but they can coordinate well with one another through the operation of fingers, which is the materialization of what China considers character.

The primary component of Chinese chopstick culture:

Popularity: 1.3 billion people in China and Chinese people that are abroad know how to use chopsticks from an early age (3 on average). In terms of necessary appliances, its popularity is second to none.

Diversification: the chopsticks are made of a wide range of materials including bamboo, wood, animal bone(horn), ivory, beautiful stone ( bowler, crystal, jade and Shoushan stone),mental(gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead, alloy and stainless, etc.), rare materials(dragon horn, rhinoceros horn, turtle, and the bone of peacock) and others (fish bone, coral and plastic, etc.), combining as more than 200 types of chopsticks. The chopsticks are designed with engravings in various colors, from short lines, and spiral lines to poems and couplets from ancient times, paintings and pyrograph. 

Inheritance: Chopsticks are representative of Chinese culture.  Whenever and wherever Chinese people are they find it difficult to have a meal without chopsticks. In addition, chopsticks can be presented as a gift or function as a unique handcraft for people to distribute and express their feelings.

Global Presence: According to the statistics, over 1.8 billion people use chopsticks. Chopstick culture has great significance around the world having become a common cultural marker of “the circle of Chinese food culture” which includes many other Asian countries, such as “Chopsticks Day” in Japan, “Golden Chopsticks Award” in France and the trend of “for your health, please pick up your chopsticks” in western countries.

3. The use of chopsticks:

The correct use of chopsticks can be described as follows: the right hand hold the chopsticks with thumb and forefinger pinching the upper end of the chopsticks and other three fingers naturally holding up the chopsticks, and both ends of chopsticks must remain aligned. Before a meal, the chopsticks are neatly placed to the right of the bowl and after the meal in the middle of the bowl in a vertical direction.

4. Chopstick Taboos:

Unexpected misfortune:

Putting chopsticks uneven in length on the table is regarded as a sign of misfortune.

Immortal guiding:

The chopsticks are pinched by thumb, middle finger, ring finger and little finger while index finger reaches out, which refers to blame.

Sucking chopsticks with a sound:

Having one end of chopsticks in the mouth and sucking it repeatedly with a sound is an impolite behavior.

Striking the cup:

Striking plates and bowls is considered disrespectful and is despised by others.

Holding chopsticks around the table:

Using chopsticks to select food in the plates over and over again indicates a lack of self-cultivation and defiance, resulting in disgust.  

Stirring for choices:

Taking chopsticks to “search” through foods on the plates is poor form as that is often known as “grave-digging.”

Dripping food:

Do not Drop soup into other dishes or on the table when picking up food with chopsticks, as it is deemed disrespectful.

Heaven and earth upside down:

When seated for a meal, using chopsticks upside down means that you are a beggar and a beggar cannot be a chooser.

Key stand:

Using a chopstick to stick foods on the plates is perceived as humiliating to others at the table.

Burning incense in public:

Burning incense in public

Chopsticks should not be left vertically ina bowl of rice, because it resembles the ritual of incense-burning that symbolizes “feeding” the dead.


Burning incense in public

During the meal, chopsticks should not be crossed on a table as it is perceived negatively. This is seen as the same when students make mistakes on their homework and are given a cross by teacher, the accused sign a cross to confess their crime.

Falling chopsticks disturbing the immortal:

At a meal, it is discourteous if chopsticks accidentally fall to the ground, because falling chopsticks stand for a disturbance of buried ancestors.

5. Chopstick Culture

Chopsticks originated from China. Though simple and little, they are a great invention in the history of mankind. “Chopsticks, although only two pieces of wood, represent the Leverage Theory in physics,” Dr. Li Zhengdao stated. He is a famous Chinese physicist in China. According to modern science, a long-standing use of chopsticks makes fingers flexible, which is beneficial for physical and mental health. Thus, among the various eating utensils available today, chopsticks with have a special charm stand and are popular for people.

Chopstick culture can be seen around the world. In Japan, people set August 4th each year as Chopsticks Day. In South Korea there are chopsticks lesson in primary schools. How to use chopsticks correctly is a part of the curriculum. In 1974, American President Nixon visited China where he talked immensely about China’s miraculous chopsticks. According to statistics, there are now over 1.5 billion people using chopsticks on a day-to-day basis worldwide. Thus, it can be seen that the chopsticks that were invented in China have become one of the most popular and important eating utensil in the world. Through the distribution of chopsticks around the world people have been able to learn more about China.

Chopsticks symbolize the age-old Chinese civilization and epitomize the 5,000 years of history China has had. Whether a Chinese person is living in China or abroad they cherish their bond with chopsticks.

“A chopstick can be broken easily; ten pairs of chopsticks hold each other tightly.” People are familiar with this fine and enlightened song by Fu Disheng, a well-known singer in China. Indeed, a chopstick is so useless and delicate that it can be broken readily. However, ten pairs of chopsticks possess strength, which is indestructible under any circumstance. All Chinese people draw on this unity and spirit, with which they boast perseverance and power. It will always influence, inspire and encourage people.

There is a poem by Cheng Lianggui, a famous writer during the Song Dynasty, who praises the selfless dedication to using chopsticks. For thousands of years, the reason people embrace chopsticks is not only because of their function but the spirit of the chopsticks.

In a word, chopsticks are a part of China’s catering culture that has a long history.

6. Chopstick Facts

One major characteristic of the culinary custom of China involves the use of chopsticks. Chopsticks, also called “zhu”(箸)in ancient times, have a long history in China. “One can’t have a meal without chopsticks,” which was stated in the Book of Rites. We know that chopsticks were used as early as the Sang Dynasty. 

1. Chopsticks

Lan Xiang, the curator of folk chopsticks pavilion, said that historical records date ivory chopsticks back to 3,100 years ago. As written in the records, “Zhou” (the emperor in late Sang Dynasty) used the ivory chopsticks while Ji Zi, Zhou’s uncle raised concern,” because it was too luxurious. After the emperor killed the elephant to show his wealth as an emperor he sawed the ivory for making chopsticks which is known as the first chopsticks in history. Historically, it was not the first chopsticks but the first ones made of ivory in China. 

The existence of Chinese chopsticks traces back to almost 1,000 earlier than ivory chopsticks. The earliest chopsticks were made out of bamboo because China’s ancestors lived in primitive forests. They broke down branches to get cooked food out a pot. It was impossible to grab food by hand because it was so hot. Thus, they came up with a way of using branches to pick up food. Alternatively, people took food by hand when it cools down. If people want to eat the hot food, they had to use branches as chopsticks. We can assume that ancient chopsticks differed in length and size in contrast to chopsticks that are used today. Ancient people in China transitioned from eating food with branches to chopsticks.   

Since the Sang Dynasty, chopsticks with the same length and size have been popular. They have about 4,000-years of history from the time they appeared in primitive times.

In ancient times, chopsticks were made of local materials such as branches, sticks, animal bones and horns. Chopsticks were mainly made of wood and bamboo in primitive society. Ivory chopsticks and jade chopsticks emerged in the Xiang and Sang dynasties, while copper and iron chopsticks during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States (from 770BC to 221BC), flamboyant lacquer chopsticks, delicate silver and golden chopsticks in Han-Wei and six Dynasties (the kingdom of Wu, Jing, Song, Qi, Liang, Chen). Today, there are chopsticks made of various materials including, ivory, rhinoceros horn, gilded ebony and assorted jades.         

2. Legend of Chopsticks

Burning incense in public

Chopsticks, two sticks, have various functions that include selecting and taking food. They are cost effective and convenient to use. People who have used chopsticks, including Chinese people and foreigners admire the inventor, but many don’t know who he is. When and where were the first chopsticks invented? No one is able to answer this question. There’s no specific data to record this invention which has made significant contributions to human civilization. Some believe that increased illiteracy among other reasons has created the lack of information linking the creation of chopsticks to a specific timeframe. There are, however, circumstantial evidence materials to study chopstick culture. Below is a summary of the three legends of many that center on the origin of the chopstick.

A. Jiang Ziya and Chopsticks

The legend was spread in areas such as Sichuan province. It was said that Jiang Ziya was capable of nothing but fishing. So poor he was that his wife couldn’t bear to live with him and planned to murder him to marry another man.

One day Jiang went back home after fishing, empty-handed. His wife said, “You must be hungry. I cooked meat for you. Come eat!” He was hungry so he stretched his hands to get the meat. Suddenly, a bird from the window pecked at his hand. The pain caused him to yell. Even in pain Jiang tried to drive the bird out of the window but the bird pecked him a second time. Jiang was so confused; he didn’t understand why the bird kept pecking him. To figure it out he tried to get the meat again but the same thing happened. He realized it was because the bird was a divine bird and went after it to send it to a hill so no one could see it. Standing on a branch of bamboo, the divine bird was singing, “Jiang Ziya, don’t eat the meat with your bare hands, use what’s beneath my feet.” On hearing this, Jiang took two small sticks from the bamboo tree and went home. However, his wife urged him to try eating meat again. So, he took the meat with two sticks. After he did that smoke came out of the bamboo. Jiang pretended to be unconscious of the poison that had been released, stating to his wife, “What’s going on with the smoke? Could it be toxic?” He picked up the meat for his wife who hurried outside with her face turning pale with fear.

Jiang Ziya knew that the magical bamboo given by the divine bird could detect poison. Thus, he ate every meal with them. After the incident, his wife dared not to poison his food anymore and his neighbors learned to eat with a bamboo branch. Later, more and more people followed, so the custom of eating with chopsticks has been passed down through generations.

The legend was an outcome of Jiang Ziya worship, which is inconsistent to historical records. Ivory chopsticks emerged during King Zhou in the later period of the Shang Dynasty where Jiang lived. King Zhou had ivory chopsticks and Jiang Ziya’s bamboo branch chopsticks were not invented simultaneously so the dates are inconsistent. But it is true that chopsticks were made of bamboo in that period of the Shang Dynasty.

B. Da Ji (the wife of Zhou emperor in Sang dynasty) and chopsticks

The legend was spread throughout Jiangsu province. The emperor of the Sang Dynasty was unpredictable, when he had a meal, either complaining that the fish was not fresh enough or the chicken soup was too hot or too cool to eat. As a result, many chefs were killed by him because of his disapproval. Da Ji, a new chef, and his wife knew it was difficult to serve him. Thus, she would taste the dishes before the meal, to ensure that the emperor was not disappointed. On one occasion, it was too late to change the hot dish as the emperor approached the table so she took down her emerald hairpin to pick up the food blowing on the food before putting it in his mouth. As he enjoyed the service offered by Da Ji, his wife was required to do this every day. After, Da Ji asked a craftsman to create a pair of emerald hairpins to pick up food for the emperor. Thus, this was the first type of chopsticks.

This legend is not full of myths like the first one, while it is similar to historical accounts there are some elements that are inconsistent. The steel chopsticks excavated by archaeologists in graves from the Sang Dynasty in Anyang, Henan province is proved to be earlier than the late Sang Dynasty (the times of Zhou emperor) in textual accounts. Obviously, chopsticks were not invented by Zhou emperor, or Da Ji, but the product of an earlier dynasty.

C. Da Yu and Chopsticks

This legend was spread throughout northeastern China. It is said during Yao and Shun times, Shun ordered Yu to control the flood. After receiving the order, Yu swore to eliminate the flood disaster. He tried his best to fight against the flood day and night, even to the point of not eating and sleeping, let alone rest.

Yu went to an island by boat because he was so hungry that he used an earth pot to cook meat. After the meat was well-done in boiled water, he was unable to take the meat by hand and didn’t want to waste time to wait for it to cool so he took two branches to pick up the meat from the soup. After, to save time, he always took small branches and bamboos to take out food from the hot pot so that he could save time. For a long time, he was skilled at picking up food with small sticks, which was imitated by his subordinates who believed this way of eating could allow them to not touch hot and greasy food by hands. Thus, the first types of chopsticks were born.

Although the legend isn’t historically inaccurate, it showed people’s way of thinking in the past. Compared with the first two legends, people were more convinced by the accidental process of discovering chopsticks in the third legend, because it was simple and realistic.

The main reason chopsticks were invented because of the hot temperature of the food. In ancient times, due to the lack of utensils and animal bones being short, flimsy and difficult to process, Chinese ancestors used fine branches or bamboos to eat. Furthermore, people lived in the wilderness where branches and bamboos were the most convenient materials to use. Through research on the shape of chopsticks, people can find chopsticks today that still have primitive characteristics. Even with over 4,000 years of development, the original features remain.

There is no doubt that a legend is formed with people’s selection, omission, fiction, exaggeration and even illusion, and Da Yu’s invention of chopsticks is no exception. Da Yu’s legend was no more than the integration of chopsticks into one character, Da Yu. The creation of chopsticks could be ascribed to time and how humans have evolved to use utensils to eat. However, it is also possible that chopsticks stemmed from the time where emperor Yu used it to eat in the Sang Dynasty. 

7. The composition of chopsticks

Chopsticks seem simple and flexible, but they vary in types and composition. There are over 100 types in Chinese history, of which the most common are made out of wood, bamboo and melamine. Lan Xiang divided China’s chopsticks into five types according to his collection and research. They are as follows: bamboo chopsticks, metal chopsticks, ivory and bone chopsticks, jade chopsticks and chemical chopsticks.
The first and most primitive, wood and bamboo chopsticks remain popular today. Among wood and bamboo chopsticks, bamboo chopsticks are made out of different types of bamboos including, nandina bamboo, mottled bamboo as well as phyllostachys pubescens, among others. Out of the many types of wood chopsticks, the most renowned are those made of nanmu, arbor and mahogany, and the most popular are ebony chopsticks in the Qing Dynasty. In the book, A Dream of Red Mansions the grandmother, Liu, went to the Prospect Garden, where Wang Xifeng gave her a gilded ivory chopstick during a meal. While grandmother Liu was not accustomed to it, it was similar to ebony chopsticks that were the most universal chopsticks with silver on the top, middle and bottom.

The materials that metal chopsticks were made of include bronze, gold, silver, iron into stainless steel present-day.

Ivory and bone chopsticks refer to chopsticks made of ivory and bone of animals like cow, camel and elephant, etc. Camel bones are often used in northern China.

The fourth type of chopstick is jade. The materials vary from the use of white marble, white jade, emerald used by Empress Dowager Ci XI of Qing Dynasty, as well as gilded emerald. Another type is the youngest chemical chopsticks made of melamine and plastic, etc. Many uncommonly used chopsticks today include those made of bamboo palm, silver ivory, ebony inlaid with silver, and gilded walrus ivory chopsticks.