The Chopsticks (you know and) you don’t know

When it comes to food cultures in different countries, one of the most distinctive differences are the tools people use to eat. We all know that Chinese people eat with two long sticks which are called chopsticks in English, and 筷子(kuài zi) in Chinese. But are you aware that chopsticks have a history of more than 3,000 years?  In this blog, we are going to explore many more stories about chopsticks.


Differences of chopsticks in countries

You may already know that chopsticks originated in China. Apart from China, chopsticks are also widely used in Japan and Korea. The shape of the chopsticks in these countries are not the same: Chinese chopsticks are mainly made from bamboo, with round tips and square ends. They are long, as Chinese people like to eat together with many people and share a whole table of dishes. Therefore, long chopsticks make it easier to reach dishes which are far away. Japanese chopsticks are made of wood, with pointy tips and broad ends.They are a bit shorter than the Chinese ones because normally Japanese food is served one portion per person. Korean chopsticks are made of metal with slight flat shape, and also not very long. This is because Korean people like roasted food and barbecues, and metal chopsticks serve this purpose the best.


Why chopsticks are called “筷子” (kuài zi)?

While the use of chopsticks is of a long history, it is interesting to note that the name of chopsticks 筷子(kuài zi) is comparatively “modern”. It came into being only in the Ming dynasty (1364-1683). Before the Ming dynasty, chopsticks were called “箸 (zhù)”. The upper part of the character “⺮” is the radical for bamboo, and the under part “者” stands for family. So 箸 (zhù) (chopsticks) means “the bamboos for the whole family”. But why did it become “筷 (kuài)”? That is because in the Ming dynasty, people in shipping business thought “箸(zhù)” has the same pronunciation with the word for stop / stay 住(zhù). The shippers can easily relate to the idea that the ships would stop and hence used the word “筷 (kuài)”. The under part of  筷 (kuài) is “快 (kuài)” which means “fast”. The shippers hoped this name would bring good luck for the shipping business and that all the ships would go very fast.

This is because, due to the same pronunciation of 箸(zhù, chopsticks)” and “住(zhù, to stop, stay)”,  in the Ming dynasty, people in shipping business had the superstition that the ships would stop and hence used the word “筷 (kuài)” instead, because the under part of that character is “快 (kuài)” which means “fast”. The shippers hoped this name would bring good luck for the shipping business and that all the ships would go very fast. We use the name “筷 (kuài)” until today, and it indeed justifies this name: you may get to eat very fast with chopsticks, once you know how!

How to use chopsticks?

Westerners are always fascinated by how well Asian people use chopsticks and how fast they can eat with them. Well, to be able to use chopsticks can be learned easily. The most important thing to keep in mind is that only ONE stick really moves. Here is a quick step by step instruction:

(1)    Hold one chopstick with your palm and thumb, and keep this stick (under stick) stable –let the broad end firmly rest in the crook of your hand;

(2)    Hold the other chopstick (upper stick) with your thumb, index finger and middle finger, just like holding a pen;

(3)    Keep the heads of the two sticks together at the same level and make sure the tips are even, otherwise it is very difficult to keep control or to take food;

(4)    Adjust your grip and make the position comfortable for you. To pick up food, move the upper stick with your thumb, index finger and middle finger.

(5)    Lift up the food –if it doesn’t feel stable, drop it and try again. From a 45 degree angle might be the easiest.  

Tips on effectively using chopsticks:

  1. Practice more. Repeat the“open-close, open-close” technique
  2. Try to hold the chopsticks at a higher position, at about 1/3 to 1/2 from the top. It gives you more control
  3. Make sure the broad ends of chopsticks do not cross, because that would make it difficult to grip the food.
  4. Do whatever works! If all the instruction falls, it is time to use your own creativity! The purpose of using chopsticks is to be able to eat. The result matters. Thus, if you are able to pick up food comfortably in your own way, that is also perfect! In fact, if you are in China, you might find many Chinese people hold chopsticks somewhat differently.


What to pay attention when using chopsticks:

Using chopsticks is part of your table manner. Pay good attention to the following:

  1. Once you pick some food from the dish, avoid putting it back, even if you change your mind and don’t want it anymore. Picking up food and then putting it back is considered not hygienic.
  2. Do not use your chopsticks to check food, touch food, search for the food you like or pick out the food you don’t like. Also do not circle the chopsticks in the air above the dishes while deciding what you want to eat.
  3. Avoid using your chopsticks to point at others when talking. Do not use them as part of your “body language”.
  4. Do not “fight” with other people’s chopsticks.
  5. Never plunge your chopsticks vertically in your bowl of rice. It is considered rude and would bring bad luck (People do so when giving sacrifice to their ancestors).
  6. When invited to dinner, wait for your host or elderly people to “move their chopsticks” first, and then you start eating. In this way, you show your respect to them.


Chopsticks as presents

Chopsticks not only can be used for eating, it can also be given as presents. As chopsticks are always in pairs, a pair of chopsticks is sometimes associated with the idea that “good things come in a pair=好事成双(hǎo shì chéng shuāng)”. Furthermore, people also relates chopsticks as “matching” “getting along well” or “good with each other”. Chopsticks that are nicely made with delicate patterns is also an art. Thus, chopsticks are good choices for present. In our previous blog, we discussed what you should avoid when giving present.

Learning how to use chopsticks may take time, but it’s worth the effort. Go ahead and practice how to use them. Before you get started, we do have one question for you:

 How do you say “Enjoy your meal” in Chinese?

Leave your answer and comment below. We are giving away 3 pairs of chopsticks to the first 3 users with correct answers!


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