Understanding the History of Chinese Chopsticks
Different people around the world eat with their fingers, forks, or chopsticks. Cultures and eating practices are built on what tools we use for eating. For example, in the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and South Asia, using one’s fingers or a piece of bread between fingers to pick up food is the norm. Culturally, many of the people in these areas eat from communal bowl or pot of food.
In Europe, North and South America, South Africa, and Australia, people use forks, knives, and spoons to convey food from a plate to a mouth. Each person has food on a plate, which has been moved to it from a community bowl by a separate spoon or fork.
In China, Vietnam and Korea, each person uses chopsticks to take food from communal bowls and bring to their individual bowl of rice. Today, more than one billion people use chopsticks for eating and cooking food.
Using Chopsticks in Ancient China
Prior to 300 CE, the Ancient Chinese used sticks and bones, and later, knives and forks as tools to cook food. However, much like people elsewhere in the world, they used their fingers as tools to eat food.
In Northern China, the Ancient Chinese used spoons and chopsticks as eating utensils between 300 – 600 CE. Spoons were used to eat food that included grains, such as wheat or millet. Chopsticks were used to eat food that did not include grains. The following dynasties were in place during this time: Western Jin (265 – 316 CE), Eastern Jin (317 – 419 CE), Lui Song (420 – 479 CE), Qi (479 – 501 CE), Liang (502 – 556 CE), Chen (557 – 589 CE), and Sui (581 – 618 CE).
The Ancient Chinese, in Northern China, ground grains into flours over 4000 years ago, but it was not a widespread practice. During the Han dynasties [Western Han (206 BCE – 23 CE) and Eastern Han (25 – 220 CE)], more people began grinding grains into flour and using the flour to make food, such as noodles, pancakes and wheat buns. The Ancient Chinese shifted from using a spoon for grain-based food to using chopsticks.
The Ancient Chinese word for spoon is bi and the word for chopsticks is zhu. Using these two utensils together is known as bizhu. Early on, the Ancient Chinese held a spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating.
Between 1000 – 1450 CE, the Ancient Chinese began using spoons exclusively for liquid food, such as soups. Chopsticks became the prominent tool to use when eating all other foods. The following dynasties were in place during this time: Northern Song (960 – 1126 CE), Southern Song (1127 – 1279 CE), Yuan (1279 – 1368 CE), and Ming (1368 – 1644 CE).
In Southern China, the grain most predominately eaten by the Ancient Chinese was rice, which is easy to eat with chopsticks as the rice grains stick together. Chopstick acceptance as an eating tool was easier in the south as the clump of rice was easy to pick up from a bowl.
Benefits of Eating with Chopsticks
Using chopsticks creates a more demanding eating experience. You cannot get as much food in your mouth at one time as using a fork or spoon. Since it takes longer to eat, people may eat less because their appetite will diminish before they have eaten a lot of food.
Using chopsticks requires more hand-eye and hand-brain coordination than eating with your fingers or a fork or spoon. Chopsticks provide different muscle group exercise for the hands and may improve brain development in early childhood.
Using chopsticks gives you a tool to eat with anytime and anywhere. When no fork or spoon is available and eating with your fingers isn’t possible, find any two objects, such as sticks or straws, place them between your fingers and start eating.
What are Chopsticks Made From?
The Ancient Chinese made chopsticks from many different materials:
- wood, such as pine, sandalwood, and cedar
- grasses, such as bamboo
- metals, such as bronze, silver and gold
- stones, such as jade, crystal and agate
- animal bones, horns and tusks
Manners When Using Chinese Chopsticks
Here are some rules and manners to follow when using chopsticks.
Don’t do this with chopsticks
Avoid sticking the ends of chopsticks vertically into a bowl of food. When Buddhists offer incense and prayers to a deceased person, they stick the incense into a bowl of rice or sand. Placing chopsticks into your food makes it look like an offering to the dead.
Chopsticks are not a musical instrument. Using your chopsticks as drumsticks at the table will get you a stern look from your host.
Avoid using your chopsticks to point at people. Use words to get your point across rather than your chopstick.
Do this with chopsticks
When you want more food from a communal bowl, turn your chopsticks around and use the “clean” end to pick up the food. Alternatively, use a second pair of chopsticks exclusively for picking up food from a communal bowl or plate.
When provided wooden chopsticks that pull apart, remove splinters from the wood from them by rubbing the chopsticks together. Rub them away from your plate to avoid getting wood in your food.
If you have an individual bowl of rice, place small pieces of food on top of the rice. Bring the bowl of rice to your mouth and use your Chinese chopsticks to pick up the food and rice to eat.