It is not known when chopsticks first began to be used, although it is
fairly certain that they were invented in China,
where they have been traced back at least as far as the 3rd century BCE.
There are those who say that the philosopher Confucius, who lived over
200 years earlier, influenced the development
of chopsticks with his nonviolent teachings. Thus, knives,
with all their associations with war and death, were not brought
to the dinner table, as they were in the West. Today, chopsticks
are used in Japan,
Korea, and Vietnam, as well as China, making them the
world's second-most popular method of conveying food to mouth,
the most popular being the fingers.
What Chopsticks Are Made Of
Chopsticks are most often made of utilitarian bamboo
or other wood, but they can also be treated as decorative
objects. Especially in Japan, they are made of laquered
wood and are sometimes elaborately painted and personalized for
Chopsticks in China
In China, chopsticks are usually made of bamboo or
other wood. They are called k'uai-tzu, meaning
"something fast." This phrase is said to have originated
among boatmen, who renamed the utensils, originally called chu
("help"), because the word sounded so much like their word for a slow or
becalmed ship, and this struck them as particularly inappropriate for
such an efficient eating tool. The word with which we are all familiar
came into being during the 19th century, when the Chinese was translated
by traders into Pidgin English. The word "chop" means fast--as in the
phrase "chop chop!"
The Japanese word for chopsticks, hashi,
means "bridge." Unlike Chinese chopsticks, which are
squared-off and blunt at the end, the Japanese utensils are rounded
and tapered to a point. It has been suggested that this is in
order to facilitate the removal of bones from fish, which makes up a great
part of the Japanese diet.
There are several taboos in Japan regarding the handling
of chopsticks at the table, mostly derived from associations with
the use of chopsticks in Buddhist funeral rites. Passing food
to another person using your chopsticks resembles a ritual in
which bone fragments from the cremated body are removed from the
pyre and passed from chopsticks to chopsticks among the mourners. It is
also important not to leave the chopsticks sticking upright in the rice
bowl. A dead family member's personal pair is often positioned this way
in an offering bowl of uncooked rice placed at the family altar.
The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser. New York: Penguin
Books, 1991. How to Cook and Eat in Chinese
by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: The John Day Company, 1945. From Hand to Mouth, or How We Invented Knives,
Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks, and the Manners to Go with Them
by James Cross Giblin. New York: Crowell, 1987.