Chinese chopsticks: Three thousand years of history

Chinese chopsticks are consubstantial with Chinese cuisine. According to historical records, this kind of light and convenient eating utensil dates back to more than three thousand years ago, and today follow the design used in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Chinese Chopsticks
The chopsticks used today basically follow the design in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Cilindrical, 22-25 cm length.

Confucius Institute Reporter
Zhang Lili 
本刊记者 张丽丽
My friend Allen from the US has been studying in China for more than a month. He can now eat Kung Pao Chicken—his favorite Chinese dish—with skill using Chinese chopsticks. With the upper chopstick controlled by his thumb, index and middle fingers and the lower one kept still, he can pick up peanuts and diced chicken easily. In no time, only long pieces of scallion are left on the plate. Allen would pour the remaining gravy with scallion into the rice, mix them together, pick up the bowl and rake the rice into his mouth. It’s not bad, he’s using chopsticks like the Chinese! “I have no problem, even with the noodles”, Allen said proudly, raising his chopsticks.

Chinese cuisine can never be really appreciated without using Chinese chopsticks. According to historical records, this kind of light and convenient eating utensil dates back to more than three thousand years ago. In “Illustrations of Lao Zi’s Teachings” from Han Feizi, there is a record of “Of old, Chow made chopsticks of ivory” ( 昔者纣为象箸). In Chinese, the character 纣/zhòu/ refers to King Zhou (1075 BC – 1046 BC), the last sovereign of the Shang Dynasty (1600BC—1046BC) in Chinese history; and the character 箸/zhù/ is the ancient name for chopsticks. Emperor Zhou led The Chinese chopsticks used today basically follow the design used in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A pair of ordinary chopsticks is 22-25 centimetres in length. It is characterized by being a square column in the upper section and cylindrical in the lower section: the upper section is held while the lower section is used to pick up food. That is what differentiates Chinese chopsticks from those used in other Asian countries, especially Japan. In fact, the custom of using chopsticks in Japan and Korea was derived from China. In their evolution, however, eating habits, cultures and custom with national identities contributed a luxurious life and he used Chinese chopsticks made of ivory. It was common for people to use bamboo chopsticks during the Shang Dynasty, so it is likely that chopsticks came into being even earlier. According to some experts, chopsticks had their origins in the life of Chinese ancestors. At that time, people usually ate in the wild, boiling beast meats. Since the meat could not be fished out of the boiling water with bare hands, they had to make use of small branches to pick it up. at was how Chinese chopsticks came into being. Due to the lack of written or physical evidence from earlier times, the above views are merely speculative. However, they are logically plausible.

Chinese chopsticks
The upper section is a square column.

The Chinese chopsticks used today basically follow the design used in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A pair of ordinary chopsticks is 22-25 centimetres in length. It is characterized by being a square column in the upper section and cylindrical in the lower section: the upper section is held while the lower section is used to pick up food. That is what differentiates Chinese chopsticks from those used in other Asian countries, especially Japan. In fact, the custom of using chopsticks in Japan and Korea was derived from China. In their evolution, however, eating habits, cultures and custom with national identities contributed to chopstick designs. Today, chopsticks in different countries all have their own distinctive features. Before the Ming Dynasty, chopsticks were usually cylindrical in shape, sometimes hexagonal in cross-section, but rarely square. Later, out of considerations for convenience and table manners, the upper section of chopsticks was changed to be square. In this way, Chinese chopsticks can be held more tightly and are more effective in stirring and lifting up stringy foods. As for table manners, circular chopsticks roll easily on the table and are likely to be inconvenient for the guests, while chopsticks with a square head are much better in this regard.

As for chopsticks with square heads, there is one more advantage which has something to do with the elegant tastes of learned men in classical Chinese culture. In appreciating Chinese artefacts, one may notice that they are usually engraved with inscriptions which express the craftsmen’s aspirations and tastes. Inscriptions can be found on porcelain vases, jade articles, purple clay teapots, and even a pair of slim chopsticks. If the Chinese chopsticks were entirely cylindrical, would it be as easy to make such inscriptions? With the upper section cut into a square column, inscriptions can easily be put on its four sides. is way, a pair of chopsticks engraved with an ancient Chinese poem would become a work of art. We would probably hesitate in using such works of art for dining!

Chinese chopsticks

Indeed, apart from being used for dining, Chinese chopsticks can be collected as works of art because, for centuries, many skilled craftsmen have put enormous amounts of mental effort into creating such a small item. There is a private collection of chopsticks in the Shanghai Museum of Folklore and Chopsticks situated on Duolun Road Cultural Celebrities Street in Shanghai. The owner is an old man named Lan Xiang, a renowned private collector. According to Mr. Lan, although the museum is very small in size, there are over 1,500 pairs of “Chinese magic sticks” in exhibit, which have fascinated many foreign visitors visiting this place. Most of the visitors have seen bamboo chopsticks used by ordinary Chinese people. Some of them have even seen more expensive ones made of ivory or rosewood. But in Mr. Lan’s collection there are also silver-rimmed ivory chopsticks, silver-rimmed mottled bamboo chopsticks, silver-rimmed ebony chopsticks, and even chopsticks made of jadeite and rare stones. On those chopsticks, there are not only inscriptions but also carvings! ere is also said to be a museum of chopsticks in Germany, run by a collector like Mr. Lan, with a collection of up to a thousand pairs of Chinese chopsticks from different times in history.

At the first sight, 筷/kuài/ and 箸 /zhù/, the two Chinese characters for chopsticks, seem to have no connections structurally apart from the upper part  , which means bamboo. Their pronunciations are also completely different. How did the ancient name 箸 evolve into 筷子/kuài zi/ ‘copsticks’? According to Bean Garden Miscellanea written by Lu Rong in the Ming Dynasty, 箸 had the same pronunciation as 住/zhù/ ‘live; stay; stop’. For the boat people and fishermen who lived in Wuzhong (today’s Suzhou, Jiangsu Province), 船住/chuán zhù/ ‘boat stop’ was a bad thing because it meant they would have no business to do. Besides, 箸 had the same pronunciation as 蛀 ‘be riddled with woodworms’. If a boat was infested with woodworms, it would leak, which was even worse. Hence, 箸 became a taboo word. Instead of 箸, people decided to call chopsticks 快子 /kuài zi/ ‘fast+ nominal suffix’ for the sake of good luck. Later, in light of the material used for making chopsticks, the upper part was added to 快. Since then, the name 筷子 began to be widely used and has survived to this day.

Chinese chopsticks

Over the past thousands of years unique chopstick culture has emerged in China. For instance, every family will buy a set of Chinese chopsticks in anticipation of the Spring Festival. Even though custom varies from place to place, replacing old chopsticks with new ones always means saying goodbye to the past and looking forward to a new future. It also implies good luck and a bountiful supply of food in the New Year. ere are also strict rules for offering chopsticks as a gift. In some places in China, chopsticks are a must for a bride’s dowry because it symbolizes the parents’ wish “May the wellmatched husband and wife have an heir soon.” As a gift for children, a pair of Chinese chopsticks means “Grow up quickly.” There are also some table manners related to the use of chopsticks: in a formal dinner it is customary for the host to pick up chopsticks first to start the dinner; a pair of serving chopsticks should be used for giving out food at a meal; during the dinner, when you have raised your chopsticks but do not know which dish to choose, it is impolite to let them hover above the dishes without picking something up; once you pick up something with your chopsticks, you should not put it back; it is impolite to point at somebody with chopsticks; it is improper to cross other people’s chopsticks with yours; and you should never stick Chinese chopsticks in a bowl of rice because that is the practice in the rituals of ancestral worship.

 

More about Chinese Cuisine in ConfuciusMag:


Confucius Institute Magazine 28P

Published in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 28. Volume V. September 2013.

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