What are Chopsticks?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Chopsticks are eating utensils used widely in Asia, particularly China, Korea, Japan, and Thailand. They take the form of two sticks which can be made from bone, metal, wood, jade, or ivory, depending on the owner and intended use. Chopsticks are used by billions of people, and probably originated during the Shang Dynasty in China, between 1766-1122 years before the common era. Using this tool properly does require some practice, and each culture which uses them has its own traditions and superstitions surrounding the eating utensils. These should be followed when in the culture to avoid a faux pas.

Chopsticks can be made of bamboo, wood, plastic, or stainless steel.
Chopsticks can be made of bamboo, wood, plastic, or stainless steel.

There are many different types of chopsticks, depending on the nation that they are made in and what they are being used for. As a general rule, all countries which use them make eating chopsticks in a variety of sizes for various hands, along with communal serving utensils and extra large ones for cooking. Those used for eating can be quite ornamental, and are usually personalized to the owner, while communal and cooking types are more plain. Blunt chopsticks are widespread in most Asian countries, although Japanese varieties are pointed at the business ends.

In China it is conventional to pick up a rice bowl and use chopsticks to shovel rice to the mouth.
In China it is conventional to pick up a rice bowl and use chopsticks to shovel rice to the mouth.

The English name comes from the pidgin word, “chop,” which means “quick.” It is derived from the Chinese word for “quick ones”, kuai-tzu. The sticks are typically held between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand, and a complex series of rules governs their use. As a general rule, eaters should never toy with their chopsticks, use them to move plates or bowls, or eat from communal dishes with personal ones. In addition, it is considered rude to beat a plate for attention using chopsticks, and it is bad luck to cross them, a Chinese symbol for death.

Many of the taboos related to chopstick usage are also tied in with death and funeral rituals. For example, diners should never pass foods directly to each other using them, because this is how cremated bones are handled after a Buddhist funeral. In Japan, chopsticks should never be stuck into a bowl of food facing up to the sky, as this resembles the funeral incense offering. Other taboos, such as not using communal ones to eat with, relate to common sense infection control.

Each nation also has restrictions related to general table manners. In China, for example, it is conventional to pick up a rice bowl and use chopsticks to shovel rice into the mouth. In Korea, this is considered very poor manners, and will be frowned upon. As a general rule when eating as a guest in a different nation, follow the lead set by your hosts, and apologize immediately if you cause inadvertent offense.

Chopsticks are widely used throughout China.
Chopsticks are widely used throughout China.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Markerrag

@Terrificli - That is not bad advice, particularly since it is becoming more common in the United States to see people using chopsticks at most restaurants featuring one kind of Asian cuisine or another.

It wasn't that long ago that you saw everyone at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. using a fork. The classic "fork and knife" combination is still favored, but it is becoming more in vogue to use chopsticks.

I'm not sure if that is good or bad, of course, but a trend has clearly developed.

Terrificli

Learning to use these requires some practice? You're darn right it does! The best way to learn how to use these is to go to dinner with someone who knows what they are doing, ban all forks from the table and ask for help. You'd be amazed at how well (and quickly) that "sink or swim" method works.

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