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What are chopsticks?
The most straightforward definition for chopsticks is “a pair of slender sticks that you use to hold food or other things”. Every Chinese person would know that something “with a round head and a square end” is named as chopsticks, they represent the most traditional Chinese philosophical view of life – the Sky and the Earth. It’s because in the eyes of people in ancient China, the Sky is a circle and the Earth is a square.
You can find a lot of wisdom in a pair of chopsticks. Yin and Yang, the combination of two things are what constitute the roots of our Chinese culture. In Chinese ancient times, the Taoists said: “’Tao’ created the first creature, the first creature created the second, the second created the third, and the third created millions of others creatures”. All the varieties of things and organisms we have on Earth are created, and pro-created according to a set of rhythms of the Universe. And no matter in what shape or forms they appear to be, and how many varieties we see, they are all controlled by Tao. Naturally, the combination of Yin and Yang is under the control of Tao as well. Every Chinese call their chopsticks “a pair”, implying this combination of Yin and Yang. This is how a small pair of chopsticks carry this wisdom of the Universe, and the ancient Chinese culture of Taoism. They are low key, subtle yet profound.
What does a pair of slender chopsticks mean for the Chinese?
It means enlightenment. When we were small and our parents fed us food with a pair of chopsticks, letting us taste for the first time the different flavours in life, that is an enlightenment to our taste.
It is a heritage. The simple two wooden sticks are not just a kind of tableware, but also a medium of cultural heritage. With a pair of simple, practical chopsticks, they bring about the best of Chinese culinary culture, and firmly branded it with every Chinese generation.
It implies courtesy. The core of Chinese traditional culture is “courtesy”, and parents infuse this virtue to their children since they are little. The Chinese culture stresses the importance of education, reasonability, courtesy and humbleness.
It means care. With your pair of chopsticks, you enjoy the meal lovingly prepared by your parents, feeling their endless love to you.
It means longing. When we put a few pairs of chopsticks on our table, it means that we’re expecting our family members to come home. They might be returning from far away, and they are eager to come back just to enjoy the warm meal that we’ve prepared.
It means gratefulness. Since when we were little kids, we have been accompanied by our chopsticks. Through our chopsticks, we’ve learnt to be grateful to our parents who took care of us. Husbands and wives felt their love when they served food to each other; old couples reminded each other of their long-lasting company.
The relationship between chopsticks and family
It can be said that family culture acts as the “gene” of Chinese culture. If you understand the Chinese family culture, you also understand the Chinese mentality. It cannot be more common to see people in the same household preparing a delicious meal to their loved ones. There is a profound meaning inside a simple-looking bowl, as aside from food, it also carries the Chinese way of life and reflects the Chinese ethics. The bowl that you’re holding has witnessed all kinds of phases in life – kids growing up, parents who love each other, family members who leave the nest and those who come back.
Family is the softest spot in every Chinese’s heart. To describe someone having a happy, fortunate life, that is to say he/she has a loving and supportive family. The standard, most classic way of a happy Chinese family is shown by having everyone indulging in the most delectable food and chatting delightedly with each other. Their chopsticks play an important part in forming this harmonic picture.
The past and present of chopsticks
Chinese chopsticks definitely stand out among all kinds of table wares. In ancient times, our ancestors ate whatever they found and naturally, they made use of their hands. Since human differentiated themselves from apes, they discovered that cooked food was more delicious. In the pre-Qin Dynasty, people usually didn’t use chopsticks. Mostly, they just used their hands. And when they grilled their food, they had to make use of anything they could find – wooden sticks, branches or bamboo branches. Pieces of bamboo were also needed to place the food on top. Then, they had to think of a tool with which they could eat their boiling hot food with. That’s how our clever ancestors came with the idea of chopsticks.
Afterwards, there started to be crafting of chopsticks, and the production had become increasingly sophisticated. In the Xia and Shang Dynasties, we started to see chopsticks made of ivory and jade. During the Spring and Autumn Warring States, there were bronze and iron chopsticks that were more seriously-looking and ancient. When we looked at Han, Wei and the Six Dynasties, painted chopsticks also started to appear. They became more of a luxury with the silver and gold ones. People are pampered with different choices of chopsticks – they can be made of ivory, rhinoceros, ebony gold or all kinds of jade. The production of chopsticks is closely related to cooking with pottery. In East Asia, grains are the major agricultural products, and chopsticks have therefore become the most distinctive tool to eat with. According to researches, chopsticks have appeared in China for at least three thousand years. Nowadays, we don’t lack any choices of chopsticks. They come with a rich variety of forms and materials, the only thing that hasn’t changed is its shape. They have always been two wooden sticks. However, people still go for a simple, natural and authentic look. They mostly prefer the traditionally hand-made ones.
A side note on chopsticks
The standard length of chopsticks is 七寸六分长 7 cun 6 fen (around 25.33cm). It somehow reminds us of “seven emotions and six desires’ in Chinese, reminding us to control ourselves while eating. Its standard varies in different dynasties.
The chopsticks unearthed from Mawangdui Han Tomb are about 17cm long; those of the Tang Dynasty were around 29cm, the longest was 33.1cm. Those found during the Spring and Autumn periods were around 17-18 cm. Chopsticks from Song and Liao Dynasties were about 25cm long. The wooden chopsticks in the early Qing Dynasty were between 27 and 30cm long, and the copper chopsticks were about 21 to 25cm long. The chopsticks we use today are generally 7 cun 6 fen (25.3 cm) long, as this is the most suitable length to hold. The front of the chopsticks is rounded, and the end is squared, representing the “round Heaven and the square Earth”, picturing how our ancestors viewed our mother nature.
There is a strict standard in holding your chopsticks – you need to place your index finger and thumb on the top half, your ring finger on the bottom half, and your middle finger on the middle part. Visually, this looks like “the Heaven, the Earth and the man”.
The cultural connotation of chopsticks
You might discover many philosophical changes in a pair of chopsticks. You can see the philosophies of the Heaven and the Earth, Yin and Yang and the two sexes in them. In Chinese, we say “when we’re together, we benefit from each other; when we separate, we suffer from the loss it brings.” This means a spirit of cooperation and unity. As chopsticks are straight (it has a straight body), uniform (they have the same length) and they only work when they’re in a pair, people often relate chopsticks to “righteousness and harmony”. In Tang Dynasty, when the Emperor gave a pair of chopsticks to an official to compliment on his righteous character, he was making a metaphor between a man’s personality and the shape of chopsticks. You have to make sure to hold your chopsticks correctly. They have to function simultaneously and closely. Just like humans have to coordinate well in a team to achieve righteousness, unity and great cooperation. That is often how a task is smoothly completed. There is so much wisdom to learn from our pair of chopsticks.
Although they seem to be no more than a tool, they do imply so much culture and wisdom. The design of chopsticks is closely related to the Chinese mentality. Some people even differentiated the world cultures according to the tools we use to eat – the chopsticks culture, the fingers culture and the cutlery culture. The ‘chopsticks culture’ is also a culture where people make their living by farming. Such a culture means a combination of human and nature. People’s mentality in this agriculture culture is more focused on integration. They care a lot about humanity, rationality of values, human relationships and virtues.
This mentality is apparently different from people living in desert areas, who eat with their hands, or people mainly engaged in industrial, commercial activities, who eat with forks and knives. In the two latter cultures, one has a first-hand experience in nature and the other (using cutlery) has a more indirect one. In the cutlery culture, people are generally observed to have a stronger ability in analyzing. They have a stronger sense of science and rationality in their tools. They are supporters of individuality, liberalism, democracy and human rights.
So how do chopsticks inspire us?
First, they inspire us to be a righteous person. You need to be always on the right side. A pair of chopsticks must be straight or they won’t work. It implies what a person should be – righteous, honest, loyal and fair.
Second, unity is essential. The length of the two chopsticks should be the same or you’d have problems using them. Just like in reality – we have to be united, work at the same pace and share the same goals. In Chinese, we say that you can break a chopstick easily but you can’t break a pair as easily. Unity generates power.
Lastly, they inspire us the spirit of cooperation. When we’re alone, we cannot achieve anything big. A pair of chopsticks must function in sync with each other, they must be at the same pace. If they are at different rhythms, it’s impossible to use them to deliver food to your mouth. The same applies to our daily life. If we do not have righteousness, and if we do not share the same goals with our team or our actions are different, it’s impossible to reach success.
The etiquette of using chopsticks in the folk culture
China has accumulated a rich chopsticks etiquette culture in history, after using them for more than 3,000 years. This culture is profound, intriguing and meaningful. This etiquette is expressed through our daily use of it – people use it to express their wish for fortune and avoidance of crisis, through the shape of their chopsticks and different situations of using them.
After accumulation of experience in life, people express it through marriage customs. Chopsticks happen to be a way to represent this particular custom, and they also reflect a unique wisdom in life. The Chinese have a habit of pursuing things that reassemble other good things. For example, when we say “kuai zi” (chopsticks) in Mandarin, it sounds like “a baby will be born soon”, “a lot of happiness”, “amazing academic performances”, etc.
However, there are certain taboos to pay attention to:
Chopsticks must be of the same length. If they aren’t, people believe that either the husband of the wife would die earlier. That’s why they make sure that every pair is of the same length.
If anyone uses chopsticks with different colors, it might bring quarrels to the family.
If a chopstick is broken, it means a bad incident is going to happen soon. That’s why people avoid breaking them at all costs.
Children are taught to never use their chopsticks to point to the others as this is very impolite.
People have also been told, since they were little, to never make any sounds with the chopsticks, such as using them to hit a bowl, as only a beggar would do the same.
They also can’t make noises with the chopsticks in their mouth as this is also very inappropriate.
Using your chopsticks to choose and pick food randomly is also considered a rude manner.
Inserting chopsticks on top of a bowl of rice looks like burning incense to an ancestor. Kids are taught to never do it.
In a nutshell
As a product of civilization, chopsticks bring to you a rich Chinese gastronomic and social culture. This seemingly simple, slender bamboo sticks have made smart use of the principle of leverage in physics, and people can showcase their skills vividly on the table. Each motion interprets the intriguing Chinese traditional culture. They are the identity of civilization in the East and can very well be the essence of the Chinese civilization.