Learning how to use
chopsticks is usually one of the first lessons expats undertake in
their China experience.
China's culinary obsession has grown ever stronger through
history, cementing the iconic status of the pair of thin sticks
that hold the key to sampling the vast and complex array of dishes
served up in the Middle Kingdom.
In the right hands, chopsticks are a simple and elegant means of
parlaying those tasty morsels from the table to your mouth,
eliminating the need to switch between various metal implements, as
it is done in the West with knife and fork.
Confucius, the father of Chinese thought, has been credited with
spurring the widespread and lasting adoption of chopsticks by
equating knives with acts of aggression, anathema to his peaceful
"The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the
slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his
Perhaps evolving from twigs used to spear food over an open
fire, chopsticks were in use by the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th
century BC) and have been the favored utensil throughout China
since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
During the Middle Ages, aristocrats favored silver chopsticks
since it was thought the precious metal would change color on
coming into contact with poison. Today, they are most commonly made
of unpolished wood or bamboo, though also seen in smooth plastic,
lacquer, porcelain, bone or metal.
Chopsticks are the first symbol many foreigners associate with
China, and have made their journey around the world as the constant
companion to Chinese fare, a firm favorite of diners in countries
At home, the Chinese are proud of their dexterity with the twin
sticks, and expats living here often find themselves the object of
amusement as they struggle to stop grains of rice from escaping
their tentative grasp en route from the serving plate.
The enduring appeal of chopsticks extends from the table to the
kitchen, where they are used as a cooking implement. Chefs first
cut meat and vegetables into tiny pieces, to be thrown into a wok
and stir-fried using the sticks, an efficient method cutting down
on cooking time and hence fuels.
In Chinese, the word for chopsticks derives its meaning from the
character for "fast", which is the way this style of fare is most
often devoured. For those more accustomed to a knife and fork,
however, using chopsticks can be a good way to slow down the
scoffing, and avoid overeating.
Like any true icon, chopsticks have lasted the test of time,
proving they are here to stay.
Last year saw the emergence of a new movement among the
environmentally conscious, who began taking their own set of
re-useable chopsticks to restaurants. This is a way to cut down on
the landfill contribution from the countless wooden chopsticks
disposed of each day, and another indication of the enduring
popularity of the pair of simple sticks that is so integral to life
(China Daily January 14, 2008)