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Chinese Chopsticks — Legends, How to Use Them, and Taboos

chopstick

Chopsticks have a long history of more than 3,000 years in China. It is likely that chopstick use originated when people cooked their food in large pots, and hasty eaters then broke twigs off trees to retrieve food.

  • Chinese for "chopsticks": 筷子 kuàizi /kweye-dzrr/ or 箸/莇 zhù /joo/
  • History and Legends

    The recorded history of chopsticks is as early as the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BC), noting that the emperor of the Shang Dynasty used chopsticks made from ivory.

    Three Legends — Who Invented Chopsticks?

    There are three main legends about how chopsticks were invented.

    One says that master Jiang Ziya (姜子牙, 11th century BC, a famous master who assisted the emperor of the Shang Dynasty) was told by a bird to use bamboo sticks to pick up meat, and found out that his wife wanted to kill him using poisonous food, when smoke came from the chopsticks.

    Another says that Da Ji (妲己, 11th century BC, a beautiful woman who was believed to confuse Emperor Zhou, the last emperor of the Shang Dynasty) used to please Emperor Zhou by picking up hot meat with hair sticks.

    The third one says that Da Yu (大禹, 21st century BC, father of the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty) invented wooden chopsticks to pick up hot food to save time over the meal while preparing for flood control work.

    Chopstick Measurements and Materials

    Chopsticks are pairs of 15–25-cm (6–10") -long, about-5-mm (1/5")-thin sticks, usually tapered at one end. Materials used vary:

    • Bamboo has been the most popular material used for chopsticks because it is inexpensive, readily available, easy-to-split, resistant to heat, and has no perceptible odor or taste.
    • Wood: Cedar, sandalwood, teak, and pine have also been used.
    • Jade and metal: The wealthy, however, often had chopsticks made from jade, gold, bronze, brass, agate, coral, ivory, and silver.
    • Porcelain and plastic: These two materials are used in modern times due to the development of technology.

    Did you know China uses 45 billion pairs of chopsticks a year?! See more Chinese Food Facts >>

    Testing Food with Silver Chopsticks

    In fact, during dynastic times it was thought that silver chopsticks would turn black if they came into contact with poisoned food. It is now known that silver has no reaction to arsenic or cyanide, but if rotten eggs, onion, or garlic are used, the hydrogen sulfide they release might cause silver chopsticks to change color.

    How to Use Chopsticks — More Than One Way…

    using chopsticks

    Firstly, get your chopsticks the right way round. Chopsticks are usually made with around end and a square end, or with one end tapered. Use the round or tapered end to pick up food.

    There is not just one right way to use chopsticks. Here's a standard way to hold and use chopsticks:

    1. Put the lower (unmoving) chopstick with the food end protruding 5–15 cm (2–6”) on the 4th (and 5th) finger(s) with the middle of your thumb on top to hold it still.

    2. Hold the upper (movable) chopstick in the same way you would hold a pen to write, but with the end protruding more from the finger tips (the same amount as the lower chopstick).

    3. Pick up food by moving the upper chopstick and holding the lower chopstick still.

    pick up food

    4. To separate a piece of food into two pieces, exert controlled pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart from each other. This needs a lot of practice.

    It's said that, "The further apart you hold your chopsticks the further from home you will go." It can be observed that China's rural folks hold their chopsticks close and parallel like this: "ll", or even crossing like this 'X', but foreigners and richer urban Chinese tend to hold them far apart like a 'V'.

    Playing Games with Chopsticks

    After you learn how to use chopsticks, you can not only use them to enjoy your meals, but can also play some chopsticks games.

    • You can try picking up small objects with chopsticks and even challenge yourself to pick up a marble, a peanut, or even a needle.
    • Invite your friends to do a relay race by passing small objects with chopsticks.

    Chopsticks Culture — Gifts and Taboos

    A Wedding Gift — Meaning 'Have Babies Soon'

    Chopsticks are called kuaizi (筷子) in Chinese, which resembles the pronunciation of two other words: 'soon' (快 kuài /kweye/) and 'son(s)' (子 z ǐ /dzrr/). It is a popular good wish in China for newly married couples to have babies quickly. Therefore, it is a tradition in some areas to give chopsticks as a gift to newlyweds.

    Taboos — Five Tips for Using Chopsticks

    When using chopsticks to eat, people need to pay attention to some taboos and common conventions:

    • 1. Don't point your chopsticks (or index finger) at others. This is seen as a sign of disrespect. Likewise, don't wave your chopsticks around in the air or play with them while eating.
    • 2. Don't knock on tableware with chopsticks: this is seen as a sign of begging.
    • 3. Don't stir food with your chopsticks to find what you want. This is very rude (and unhygienic).
    • 4. Don't invert your chopsticks, i.e. use them the wrong way round (to avoid losing face).
    • 5. Never stick chopsticks into your food, especially not into rice. Only at funerals are chopsticks stuck into rice on an altar, where they look like joss sticks, also burnt on the altar for the dead.

    Enjoy Eating (with Chopsticks) on a China Tour

    chopsticks

    Most large restaurants in China now have forks available, and other places have (Chinese) spoons. If you are not used to chopsticks, you can ask waiters in the restaurant to provide you with forks or spoons.

    If you want to learn how to use chopsticks during your China tour, your tour guide will teach you how to pick up food with chopsticks and enjoy your meal. See our recommended tours below for inspiration:

    We have many more popular tour products and our tours can be customized. If you are not interested in the above tours, you can just tell us your interests and requirements, and China Highlights will create a China tour for you.

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