I was wondering last night if chopsticks were a Chinese or Japanese invention. Today, courtesy Wikipedia, I know:
- Chopsticks originated in ancient China as early as the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE).
- Are the traditional eating utensils of China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Northern provinces of Laos, Thailand and Burma. They can also be found in some areas of Tibet and Nepal.
- Chopsticks are most commonly made of wood, bamboo or plastic, but are also made of metal, bone, ivory.
- The English word “chopstick” seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin in which “chop chop” meant “quickly”.
Styles In Different Cultures
- Chinese: quite lengthy at an average of 10 inches, thicker than other styles, with squared sides and ending in wide, blunt, flat tips. Chinese sticks may be composed of almost any material but the most common is melamine for its durability and ease of sanitation. The second most common type of material is lacquered bamboo.
- Japanese: shorter length sticks tapering to a fine, pointed end. Japanese chopsticks are traditionally made of wood or bamboo and are lacquered. It is common for Japanese sticks to be of shorter length for women. Child-sized chopsticks are widely sold.
- Korean: medium-length with a small, flat rectangular shape. Traditionally they were made of brass or silver. Many Korean metal chopsticks are ornately decorated at the grip. They are sometimes used simultaneously with the Korean spoon.
- Vietnamese: long sticks that taper to a blunt point, quite like the Chinese style; traditionally lacquered wood or bamboo. A đũa cả is a large pair of flat chopsticks that is used to serve rice from a pot.
- Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand, even by left-handed people. Although chopsticks may now be deployed by either hand, left-handed chopstick use is considered improper. This practice prevents a left-handed chopstick user from accidentally elbowing a right-handed user seated nearby.
- Chopsticks are not used to make noise, to draw attention, or to gesticulate. Playing with chopsticks is considered bad mannered and vulgar (just as playing with cutlery in a Western environment would be deemed rude).
- Chopsticks should not be used to dig around in the food looking for a particular morsel, which is known as “digging your grave.”
- Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates.
- Chopsticks are not used to toy with one’s food or with dishes in common.
- Chopsticks are not used to impale food, save in rare instances. Exceptions include tearing large food items asunder, such as vegetables and kimchi. In informal use, small, difficult-to-pick-up items such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be lanced, but this use is frowned upon by traditionalists.
- Chopsticks should not be left standing vertically in a bowl of rice or other food. Any pair of stick-like objects pointed upward resembles the incense sticks that some Asians use as offerings to deceased family members; certain funerary rites designate offerings of food to the dead using standing chopsticks.
- It is normal to hold the rice bowl—rice in China is rarely served on a plate—up to one’s mouth and use chopsticks to push or shovel the rice directly into the mouth.
- It is acceptable to transfer food to closely related people (e.g. grandparents, parents, spouse, children, or significant others) if they are having difficulty picking up the food. Also it is a sign of respect to pass food to the elderly first before the dinner starts. Often, family members will transfer a choice piece of food from their plate to a relative’s plate as a sign of caring.
- It is poor etiquette to tap chopsticks on the edge of one’s bowl; at one time, beggars made this sort of noise to attract attention.
- It is impolite to spear food with a chopstick. Anything too difficult to be handled with chopsticks is traditionally eaten with a spoon.
- It is unacceptable to point rested chopsticks towards others seated at the table.
- Chopsticks should not be left vertically stuck into a bowl of rice because it resembles the ritual of incense-burning that symbolizes “feeding” the dead and death in general.
- Holding chopsticks incorrectly will reflect badly on a child’s parents, who have the responsibility of teaching their children.
- Traditionally, everyone uses his own chopsticks to take food from the dishes to his own bowl, or to pass food from the dishes to the elders’ or guests’ bowls. Today, serving chopsticks are used. These are used to take food directly from serving dishes; they are returned to the dishes after one has served oneself.
- When seated for a meal, it is common custom to allow elders to take up their chopsticks before anyone else.
- Chopsticks should not be used upside-down; it is “acceptable” to use them ‘backwards’ to stir or transfer the dish to another plate (if the person does not intend to eat it). This method is used only if there are no serving chopsticks.
- One should not ‘dig’ or ‘search’ through one’s food for something in particular. This is sometimes known as “digging one’s grave” or “grave-digging” and is extremely poor form.
- Resting chopsticks at the top of the bowl means “I’ve finished.” Resting chopsticks on the side of one’s bowl or on a chopstick stand signifies one is merely taking a break from eating.
- Food should not be transferred between chopsticks. Food in need of transportation should be placed onto the recipient’s plate or on a new plate for collection.
- Using chopsticks like a knife and fork to cut soft foods into smaller portions for children is widely accepted.
- Chopsticks should not be planted on the rice such that they stand up, as this resembles incense stuck in the ash of a censer and is thus connected with death.
- Chopsticks should not be rested on the table but rather on a provided chopstick rest or lying across the rice bowl in a sideways fashion. Alternatively, they can be placed flat on the bowl when finished.
- Chopsticks should not be bitten on, or linger in one’s mouth for too long.
- Food should not be transferred from one’s own chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks. Japanese people will always offer their plate to transfer it directly, or pass a person’s plate along if the distance is great. Transferring directly with chopsticks is how bones are passed as part of Japanese funeral rites.
- The pointed ends of the chopsticks should be placed on a chopstick rest when the chopsticks are not being used. However, when a chopstick rest is not available as it is often the case in restaurants using waribashi (disposable chopsticks), a person may make a chopstick rest by folding the paper case that contained the chopsticks.
- Reversing chopsticks to use the opposite clean end is commonly used to move food from a communal plate, although it is not considered to be proper manners. Rather, the group should ask for extra chopsticks to transfer food from a communal plate.
- Chopsticks should not be crossed on a table, as this symbolizes death, or vertically stuck in the rice, which is done during a funeral.
- It is rude to rub wooden chopsticks together after breaking them apart, as this communicates to the host that the user thinks the chopsticks are cheap.
- Chopsticks should be placed right-left direction; the tips should be on the left. Placing diagonal, vertical and crossing each stick are not acceptable both in home and restaurant manners.
- In formal use, disposable chopsticks (waribashi) should be replaced into the wrapper at the end of a meal.
- In Korea, chopsticks are paired with a spoon, and there are conventions for how these are used together.
- The elders pick up the utensils first, then the younger ones do.
- It is considered uncultured and rude to pick up a dish or a bowl to bring it closer to one’s mouth, and eat its content with chopsticks (except certain noodle dishes like naengmyeon). A spoon is used with chopsticks, if the food lifted “drips”. This is in stark contrast to Chinese and Japanese convention.
- When laying chopsticks down on the table next to a spoon, one must never put the chopsticks to the left of the spoon. Chopsticks are only laid to the left during the food preparation for the funeral or the memorial service for the deceased family members, known as jesa.
- It is rude to use the same hand to hold both chopsticks and a spoon at the same time and laying the spoon down on the table while one uses chopsticks.
- Use a spoon to eat soup, stew and liquid side dishes, and chopsticks for solid side dishes. Either may be used for eating rice.
- Vietnamese etiquette
- As with Chinese etiquette, the rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice is pushed into the mouth using the chopsticks.
- Unlike with Chinese dishes, it is also practical to use chopsticks to pick up rice in plates, such as fried rice.
- One should not pick up food from the table and place it directly in the mouth. Food must be placed in your own bowl first.
- Chopsticks should not be placed in the mouth while choosing food.
- Chopsticks should never be placed in a “V” shape when done eating; it is interpreted as a bad omen.
1. Merriam-Webster Online. “Definition of chopstick“.
2. Norman, Jerry (1988) Chinese, Cambridge University Press, p267.
3. “Difference“. Chinatoday.com.cn. Retrieved 2009-07-14.
4. “Pandaphone“. Pandaphone. Retrieved 2009-07-14.