Elegant Replacement for Fingers
The Most Refined Eating Utensils

What They Are: Chopsticks are the principal eating tools of a large part of East Asia, centering on what Toynbee calls the Sinic culture sphere.

They are about 10 to 12 inches long, with longer ones used for cooking and serving. Children’s chopsticks are about 5 inches long. In Japan, chopsticks for use by women tend run smaller than men’s chopsticks.

Chinese chopsticks tend to be longer than Japanese, and have more rounded ends, while Japanese ones tend to have pointed ends.

Who Uses Them — The Chopstick Zone: Chopsticks are the traditional eating utensils of a large part of East and Southeast Asia — China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Chopsticks are also used in parts of Thailand, Laos, Burma, Tibet and Nepal that are close to Han Chinese culture.  This large, mostly contiguous area may be thought of as the Chopstick Zone.

In the outer  parts of the Pacific Rim, principal eating tools would be the human hands or a combination of flatware and fingers.  In some cultures like Thailand, chopsticks are not commonly used to eat Thai food, but they are used in eating noodle dishes.

What They Are Made Of: Mostly wood and bamboo, but also can be made of plastic, metal, including precious metals, ivory, and other materials.  Wooden chopsticks are sometimes lacquered, and this is frequently the case in Japan.

Jade Chopsticks

Jade Chopsticks

Use of plastic chopsticks has boomed in recent years, because they look like the prestigious ivory chopsticks, are easy to clean and care for.  But they are no good for cooking, because they cannot be exposed to high heat.

Chopsticks in History: Chopsticks have been in use in East Asia for several thousand years in the principal countries of the Chopstick Zone.

The earliest archeological record of chopsticks goes back to the Zhou Dynasty in China (1766 — 1122 BCE). The earliest chopsticks to be dug up are from about 1200 BCE.

The earliest known use of the term for chopsticks in Chinese literature goes back to a reference by the writer Han Feizi in the 3rd century BCE.

Chopsticks were first used in China for cooking and gradually spread to be used as eating utensils.

There’s a great deal of detailed information about chopsticks, their history and evolution, national differences in using them, etiquette and the like in the Wikipedia article on Chopsticks.

“They are called by the English seamen chopsticks.” — William Dampier, Voyages and Descriptions, 1699

How They Got Called Chopsticks: One explanation is that the name comes from the Chinese Pidgin word “chop chop” meaning “fast.”

This is supported by the writing of one of the Chinese characters for “chopsticks,” which contains the phonetic element meaning “quick, fast.”  The first use in English is in the 17th century, by traveler William Dampier.

Original Chinese Terms: There are two main characters used to write the word “chopsticks” in Chinese.

Chopsticks used to be known in ancient China by a term  箸 related to the word “help,” pronounced ju — something to help you eat.  But  because this word has the same sound as a homophonic word meaning “to stop,” Chinese boatmen did not like the sound of it.

So in ancient times they renamed chopsticks kwaizi  筷子;, meaning something fast, instead of the idea of being becalmed.

So kwaizi   筷子; became the current term for chopsticks.  The character for the earlier word is still used as a literary term and in some written and literary applications in Chinese, but not as the spoken word for chopsticks. Japanese still use the earlier character  箸 , pronounced hashi in Japanese.

Most of the Chinese dialects and other languages in the Chopstick Zone have followed the ancient Chinese boatmen in using the more modern character, but the Hokkien dialect uses the older character 箸 and term for chopsticks.  And the Vietnamese language uses a variant character to write the word.

Why Use Them Anyway? There are several reasons but sanitation and delicacy are primary.  Two technology innovations of ancient China were:

  • Use of chopsticks instead of fingers and
  • Use of really high heat for cooking

The use of chopsticks adds a note of refinement and delicacy to the act of taking food, and it even seems to make the food taste better.

“Chinese food seems to taste better when eaten with chopsticks.” — Gloria Bley Miller

There are several reasons: Since only a few morsels can be picked up at a time, the tempo of eating tends to be more leisurely and enjoyable. We’ll return to this factor later.

And each individual bite can be more fully tasted, combined as it is with sauce and ingredients.

Also, when chopsticks are used,  the sauce can never drown the food, as only the amount that naturally clings to the food is taken.

Also, there is no metallic taste in the case of wooden or bamboo chopsticks and also chopsticks canned burn the tongue.

In addition, it is commonly said that people tend to eat in a more slow and elaxed way and take less food and calories.

“There is of course only one way to hold chopsticks properly…you should master that as well.” — Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Difficulty Exaggerated:: General MacArthur, during the American occupation of Japan, thought the use of chopsticks was primitive and uncivilized.

MacArthur tried to replace chopsticks for school kids with an implement called a spork, which combines elements of a spoon and a fork. The experiment was not a success.

Westerners often incorrectly describe chopsticks as being somehow difficult to use.  This concept is not supported by the facts.

Since chopsticks are both identical, with no difference between left and right and no need to be held in the left or right hand as with Western tableware, they are really simpler to use. And there is no zigzag eating, as often with Western tableware.

“It’s the only way I can get Suri to eat.” — Katie Holmes

Suri Cruise knows better.  Even as a three-year old, she was proficient at chopsticks, and used them to eat everything, including sandwiches and pastries.  As her mother Katie Holmes said, “It’s the only way I can get Suri to eat.”

So chopsticks and their use are the ultimate of elegant simplicity and merely a matter of practice and getting accustomed.

Chopsticks and Health Aspects: Chopsticks play a major role in preventing spread of communicable disease.  There is however concern about the environmental impact of disposable chopsticks.

In China more than 45 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks are used yearly. This amounts to 1.66 million cubic meters of wood or 25 million trees.  This adds to the country’s deforestation.

Half of the disposable chopsticks are exported to Japan, the United States and South Korea. Japan takes the largest quantity. The state of Georgia has emerged recently as a major source of disposable chopsticks for East Asia, helping to reduce somewhat the impact on Asian forests.

“Eat Japanese — with chopsticks.”  — Kimiko Barber

Chopsticks and Weight Loss: Can chopsticks help you lose weight? Kimiko Barber thinks so, and has given detailed reasons why this is the case and even written a cookbook, featuring the use of chopsticks as an aid to weight loss.  “Eat Japanese — with chopsticks,” Barber says.

So if you are interested in Asian food, there are reasons to use chopsticks, both from health, weight control and esthetic viewpoints.

For further information:

[ 1 ] “Chopsticks,” article, Wikipedia —
[2] Tetsuji Morihashi, Dai Kan-Wa Jiten    大漢和辞典   for discussion of terms.
[ 3 ] Eileen Yin-Fei Lo —
[ 4 ] Gloria Bley Miller, The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook  –
[5] Suri Cruise Only Eats with Chopsticks  —
[6] Disposable Chopsticks Add to Asian Deforestation, New York Times –
[ 7 ] Kimiko Barber and Chopsticks Diet —

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