When visiting a Chinese restaurant, it would be inconceivable not to use the proper eating implements, the ubiquitous chopsticks. But there is now concern around the world that this is contributing to a huge waste of natural resources in the form of trees. In China alone, it is estimated that 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are produced yearly adding up to 1.66 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million fully grown trees every year!
In April 2006, the People’s Republic of China imposed a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks to try and reduce the waste of natural resources. Japan was most affected as many of its disposable chopsticks are imported from China. There has been an enormous review over the past few years on the type of tree best adapted for chopsticks. Wood, artificially lightened with chemicals or bleach, is now frowned upon and American manufacturers have begun exporting sweet gum and poplar wood to China.
There has been a move to use reusable chopsticks. But, since the SARS epidemic, people are concerned about spreading infection and to keep personal chopsticks for one’s own use. For communal dishes separate chopsticks are generally being used.
A 2006 Hong Kong Department of Health survey found that the proportion of people using distinctly separate serving chopsticks, spoons, or other utensils for serving food from a common dish has increased from 46% to 65% since the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Chopsticks originated in ancient China as early as the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE), replacing the fork! Six chopsticks, made of bronze, 26 cm (10 inches) long, were excavated from the ruins of Yin, near Anyang, Henan, dated roughly 1200 BCE and were probably used for cooking. The earliest known textual reference to the use of chopsticks comes from the Han Feizi, a philosophical text written by Han Fei (c. 280-233 BCE) in the 3rd century BCE.
The first chopsticks were probably used for cooking, stirring the fire, serving or seizing bits of food, and not as eating utensils. Chopsticks began to be used as eating utensils during the Han Dynasty but it was not until the Ming Dynasty that chopsticks came into normal use for both serving and eating. They then acquired the name kuaizi and the present shape.
Many Westerners find using chopsticks very difficult, especially when trying to cut up meat. To use them, the lower chopstick is stationary, and rests at the base of the thumb, and between the ring finger and middle finger. The second chopstick is held like a pencil, using the tips of the thumb, index finger, and middle finger, and it is moved while eating, to pull food into the grasp of the chopsticks. Chopsticks, when not in use, are placed either to the right or below one’s plate in a Chinese table setting.
Chopsticks are made from a variety of materials: bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, jade, porcelain and ivory. Bamboo and wood chopsticks are inexpensive and provide a good grip for holding food but they can warp and deteriorate with continued use. These are mostly used in restaurants. They often come as a piece of wood that is partially cut and must be split into two chopsticks proving that they have not been previously used.
Plastic chopsticks are relatively inexpensive, although they tend to be slippery and cannot be used for cooking since high temperatures may damage them. Silver chopsticks are common among wealthy families and other materials such as ivory, jade, gold and silver are chosen for luxury items. Other materials such as ivory, jade, gold, and silver are typically chosen for luxury. Silver-tipped chopsticks were often used by the wealthy as a precaution – it was believed that the silver would turn black upon contact with poison. Wooden or bamboo chopsticks can be painted or lacquered for decoration.
The English word “chopstick” may have derived from Chinese Pidgin English, in which pidgin “chop chop” meant “quickly”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published use of the word is in the 1699 book ‘Voyages and Descriptions’ by William Dampier: “They are called by the English seamen Chopsticks”.
The Chinese term for chopsticks is kuaizi (筷子; pinyin: kuàizi). The first character (筷) is a semantic-phonetic compound with a phonetic part meaning ‘quick’ (快), and a semantic part meaning ‘bamboo’. ‘Kuaizi’ also literally means a sort of imperative good wish, such as the wish for newlyweds to have sons soon.
Guide to the use of Chopsticks:
There are many rules regarding the use of chopsticks and these are:
- When eating rice from a bowl, it is normal to hold the rice bowl 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. It is poor etiquette to tap chopsticks on the edge of one’s bowl; beggars make 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 considered poor etiquette to point rested chopsticks towards others seated at the table.
- Chopsticks should not be left stuck vertically into a bowl of rice because it resembles the ritualof incense-burning that symbolizes “feeding” the dead and death in general.
Traditionally, everyone would use their own chopsticks to take food from the dishes to their own bowl, or to pass food from the dishes to the elders’ or guests’ bowls. Today, serving chopsticks (公筷 – pinyin: gōngkuài, “community-use 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.
- 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.
In China, there is a specific seating order to every formal dinner, based on seniority and, where appropriate, company hierarchy. The place of honour, reserved for the guest with the highest status or a foreign guest of honour, is usually in the centre preferably facing east or facing the entrance. Others with higher status then sit in close proximity to the place of honour, while those with lower positions sit further away. The host usually takes the least prominent seat, generally the one nearest the kitchen entrance or service door.
– Teri France