The Chinese never traditionally used forks or knives for eating food. Instead, they have been using chopsticks for centuries. To accommodate the usage of chopsticks, Chinese cuisine has developed dishes that feature small, bite-sized pieces of food. According to estimates, China uses almost 45 billion pairs of chopsticks a year. Considering its almost 1.4 billion population, this comes to two to three pairs of chopsticks per person every month.
The history of Chinese chopsticks
Historical research has revealed that the Chinese have been using chopsticks since 1200 B.C. In earlier times, chopsticks were long and primarily used for cooking. By A.D. 400, people started using them for eating food. Historians ascribe this trend to the changing food habits of the people.
As the population expanded, cooks were forced to innovate ways to cut down the usage of fuel. They started chopping food into bite-sized pieces to save cooking time. This resulted in the popularity of chopsticks, as people found it very useful in picking up the small pieces from their bowls.
Confucian philosophy also boosted the popularity of chopsticks. According to Confucius, sharp utensils at the dinner table must be avoided as it might remind the people of slaughterhouses. The sharp edges of knives were seen as evoking warfare and violence. With the spread of his teachings, people stopped using knives and started eating with chopsticks instead.
There are multiple legends in China as to who first came up with chopsticks. According to one, a woman from the 11th century B.C. named Da Ji is credited with the discovery. She apparently used to confuse Emperor Zhou by using her long hair sticks to pick up hot meat. This curious practice soon began to be imitated, leading to the development of chopsticks.
Another legend says that an 11th century B.C. master named Jiang Ziya, who used to assist the emperor of the Han Dynasty, was advised by a bird to use chopsticks for eating meat. Why? If his wife were trying to kill him by poisoning food, the chopsticks would act as a warning signal by emitting smoke in reaction to the poison.
A much older myth credits Da Yu, who lived in the 21st century B.C. and was the father of the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty, for inventing chopsticks. He was apparently looking for an easy way to pick up hot food while preparing for flood control work. Yu eventually used what we now know as chopsticks.
Taboos surrounding chopstick use
While eating with chopsticks can be tough for first-timers, there are a few taboos one must keep in mind. Breaking such taboos while dining with Chinese friends or relatives is not advised.
For one, never ever knock on the tableware with chopsticks. The Chinese see this as a sign of begging. So, if you are in a high-profile discussion with some Chinese businessmen, using chopsticks to knock tableware can actually bring down your reputation as being “uncultured” or “culturally ignorant.”
Avoid inverting chopsticks while eating food. Never point chopsticks at any person, especially older people, as the action is seen as being disrespectful. Pointing index fingers must also be avoided. Similarly, avoid sticking chopsticks in the food. Only during funerals do people stick chopsticks in rice. Finally, avoid stirring food with chopsticks since it’s considered rude.