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

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

By Mike HoUpdated Dec. 27, 2021

The earliest chopsticks were used in the Shang Dynasty, around 1200 BC. They were made of bronze and were used primarily for cooking. After the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), chopsticks were used for eating, and their usage spread to other Asian countries including Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Thailand. Nowadays, chopsticks are made of many different materials, and they have become more and more popular all over the world.

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Chinese chopsticksChinese chopsticks

The History of Chopsticks

According to the historian Sima Qian (~145–~86 BC) in the Han Dynasty era, Chopsticks were used before the Shang Dynasty, about 4,000 years ago. Archeological analysis of six bronze chopsticks, excavated from the ruins of Yin near Anyang, Henan Province (a Shang city established around 1400 BC) concludes the earliest extant chopsticks were used as cooking tools. Before the Han Dynasty, people in the north of China used spoons to eat millet porridge, which was the main food of that time.

During the Han Dynasty, rice became the staple food, and chopsticks were used as utensils to eat rice and other foods. Spoons were also used alongside chopsticks at that time. Until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), chopsticks were the main eating utensils in all parts of China.

An Interesting Legend about Chopsticks

There is an interesting legend about how chopsticks were invented. It is said that Jiang Ziya (1128–1015), who was a famous military sage who assisted emperors of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–221 BC) against the Shang Dynasty, invented chopsticks…

One day, Jiang Ziya’s wife cooked some meat for him. When Jiang Ziya was about to grab the meat to eat it, a bird came flew in through the window and pecked him. He didn't eat the meat and hurried off to catch the bird. Jiang Ziya knew it was a divine bird, so he pretended to drive the bird and chased it out to a deserted hillside. The divine bird perched on a bamboo twig, and whispered, "Jiang Ziya, you should pick up the meat with bamboo fiber sticks.”

Jiang Ziya listened to the guidance of the divine bird and hurriedly picked two bamboo fiber sticks and returned home.

When his wife urged him to eat the meat again, Jiang Ziya put the two bamboo fiber sticks into the bowl to hold the meat. Suddenly, he saw the silk bamboo sticks hissing out a stream of green smoke. Jiang Ziya pretended not to know about the poisoning and said to his wife, “How can the meat smoke? Is it poisonous?” As he said it, Jiang Ziya picked up the meat and offered it to his wife's mouth. His wife's face turned white and she hurried out of the door.

Jiang Ziya knew that these bamboo fiber sticks were a gift sent by the divine bird, as poison could be detected by the bamboo sticks. From then on, he used two bamboo fiber sticks for every meal.

After the story was told, not only did his wife dare not poison him again, but also the neighbors learned to eat with bamboo sticks. Later, more and more people ate with chopsticks, and the custom was passed down from generation to generation.

Chopstick Materials

Bamboo

Bamboo has long 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.

Wooden ChopsticksWooden Chopsticks

Wood

Cedar, sandalwood, teak, and pine have also been used to make wooden chopsticks. Like bamboo chopsticks, wooden ones are light, functional, and easy to make… with the right wood. Some wood may rot, split, splinter, taint the food, etc. with long-term use and so is not suitable.

Metal

Metal chopsticks are easy to clean and much more durable than other ones. Most metal chopsticks are made of stainless steel, which is as cheap in price as bamboo ones (considering their durability). Some are made from titanium and silver, which are more expensive than other chopsticks.

Metal Chopsticks

During dynastic times, it was thought that silver chopsticks would turn black if they met 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.

Plastic

Plastic chopsticks are inexpensive nowadays. But they are not popular in China as they are very slippery and not easy to pick up food with.

Jade and Other Materials

The wealthy, however, often had chopsticks made from jade, gold, bronze, brass, agate, coral, ivory, and silver. In ancient times, they were used by royal families or wealthy families. Nowadays, jade or gold chopsticks are kept as souvenirs or as art collections.

Different Styles of Chopsticks

In China

Chinese chopsticks are round or square in cross-section with tapered eating ends. They are much longer than other styles. Most Chinese chopsticks are about 25–30 centimeters (10–12”) long. In Chinese restaurants, melamine, steel, or plastic chopsticks are often provided, because they are inexpensive and durable. Bamboo and wood chopsticks are commonly seen in individual households or with takeaways. There has been a drive to reduce one-use chopsticks in China.

Japan

Japanese chopsticks are shorter and sharper than Chinese ones. It is common for women to use shorter chopsticks. There are also small-sized chopsticks designed for children. Many Japanese chopsticks have some round grooves at the eating end, which keeps the food from slipping.

Japanese ChopsticksJapanese chopsticks

Korea

Different from other Asian countries, metal chopsticks are much more popular than other materials in Korea. Most of them are made of stainless steel. Rich or wealthy families use silver or bronze chopsticks. To get around metal's slippery nature, most Korean chopsticks have a flat side for better grip.

Vietnam

Vietnamese chopsticks are much longer than other styles in Asian countries. They are often thicker and bigger than other ones. The ends for eating are smaller. Most Vietnamese chopsticks are made of bamboo or wood, with bamboo being most popular in villages of Vietnam.

Thailand

Compared with other Asian countries, knives, forks, and spoons are much more popular than chopsticks in Thailand, as Western cuisines are more popular there. Since Chinese immigrants introduced the use of chopsticks, many Thai restaurants today offer chopsticks for Asian cuisines.

How to Use Chopsticks

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

how to use chopsticksHow to use chopsticks

1. Pick up two chopsticks with one hand’s fingers and thumb, holding them like a couple of pencils about two thirds of the way up from the tapered eating end.

2. Then hold the upper (movable) chopstick in the same way you would hold a pen to write (though with most of the chopstick sticking out), and let the lower (stationary) chopstick rest on your ring finger.

3. Pick up food by moving the upper chopstick and holding the lower chopstick still with your thumb and middle fingers.

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.

Chopstick Etiquette and Taboos

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

Chopsticks taboosChopsticks taboos

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.

6. Don’t suck your chopsticks. It is regarded as rude behavior.

7. Never overlap or cross your chopsticks. It is not polite to cross chopsticks when eating with others. It is seen as unwelcoming or a sign of displeasure if chopsticks are left crossed.

8. Don’t drop your chopsticks intentionally. It is rude behavior to drop your chopsticks, especially when eating with elders.

9. Don’t use chopsticks of unequal length. In Chinese culture, unequal length chopsticks remind people of funeral matters, which is deemed inauspicious.

Chopsticks as a Gift: Meanings

For new couples:

Sending chopsticks to a new couple (as a wedding present) means they are a perfect match for marriage (as two chopsticks are perfectly match for one another) and it expresses hopes they will soon give birth to a son (the Chinese for chopsticks is kuaizi, which sounds like kuai zi meaning ‘quickly a son’).

For lovers:

Sending chopsticks between lovers means wishes for a forever love and that they will never break up or be separated.

For friends:

Between friends, chopsticks mean equality, deep friendship, and harmony.

For teachers:

Giving chopsticks to a teacher speaks of honesty and integrity, as well as great rewards.

For elders:

Chopsticks mean eternal happiness and longevity when given to seniors.

For children:

Chopsticks given to youngsters are to wish them fast and healthy growth. The pronunciation of chopsticks (kuai /kwhy/) in Chinese is the same as the word ‘fast’.

For foreign friends:

Chopsticks can mean the keeping a long international friendship with friends.

For business partners:

Chopstick gifts mean long-term cooperation between business partners.

For friends moving into new house:

When given to new movers, chopsticks mean making a fortune in the new house quickly and living happily (kuai also sounds like the Chinese word for ‘happy’).

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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