are a pair of small equal-length tapered sticks, which are generally believed to have originated in ancient China
, and are the traditional eating
utensils of China
, and Vietnam
Chopsticks are commonly used with their associated cuisine. Chopsticks can also now be found in some areas of Tibet and Nepal that are close to Han Chinese populations, due to cross-cultural influences. Chopsticks are commonly used in Xinjiang by Uyghurs and other nationalities to eat laghman. In much of Southeast Asia chopsticks are usually used when eating noodles. Chopsticks are commonly made of wood, bamboo, metal, bone, ivory, and in modern times, plastic as well. The pair of sticks is maneuvered in one hand – between the thumb and fingers – and used to pick up pieces of food.
Chopsticks originated in ancient China
as early as the Shang dynasty
(1600-1100 BC), and were widely used throughout East Asia
. The earliest evidence of a pair of chopsticks made out of bronze was excavated from Yin Ruins's Tomb 1005 at Houjiazhuang, Anyang
, dated roughly 1200 BC. Chopsticks were also common household items of civilized Uyghurs
on the Mongolian steppes
during the 6th–8th centuries.
The English word "chopstick" seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin in which "chop chop" meant quickly.
The Mandarin Chinese word for chopsticks is kuàizi 筷子. 筷 is a semantic-phonetic (xíngshēng) compound with a phonetic part of "快", which means quick, and a semantic part, 竹, meaning bamboo. In Chinese, the old word for "chopsticks", and also in some varieties of modern Chinese such as Hokkien, was zhù (MC: d̪jwo-) (箸 Pinyin:zhù, Minnan: tī). However, zhù became a taboo on ships because it sounded the same as another word meaning "to stop" (住). Consequently, it was replaced by a word of opposite meaning, kuài (fast, quick). This gradually spread until it became the word for "chopsticks" in most varieties of modern Chinese. The character for this new meaning of "chopsticks" (筷) for kuài has the semantic element of bamboo added to the character meaning "fast" kuài (快).
In Japanese, chopsticks are called hashi, written 箸. They are also known as , a phrase commonly printed on the wrappers of disposable chopsticks.
In Korean, 箸 (jeo) is used in the compound jeotgarak (젓가락) which is composed of jeo (chopsticks) and garak (stick). Jeo cannot be used alone.
In Vietnamese, chopsticks are called "đũa," also from 箸.
Spread to other Asian countries
While China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam had long included chopsticks as part of their traditional eating utensils, the use of chopsticks in a limited sense spread to other Asian countries in recent centuries with the influx of Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia
Many countries in Southeast Asia had traditionally eaten with their hands, but through the influence of Chinese immigrants, countries such as Thailand began to use chopsticks, almost exclusively in noodle dishes. However, the eating of rice and other foods is generally eaten with a western spoon and fork rather than chopsticks.
Many rules of etiquette
govern the proper conduct of the use of chopsticks. Held between the thumb and fingers of one hand, chopsticks are used tong
-like to pick up portions of food, which are prepared and brought to the table in small and convenient pieces. Chopsticks may also be used (except in Korea) as means for sweeping rice
and other nominal morsels into the mouth directly from the bowl.
Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand only, even by left-handed people. Although chopsticks may now be found in either hand, a few still consider left-handed chopstick use as improper etiquette. Some historians believe this rule of etiquette originated from a Chinese legend.
In chopstick-using cultures, food is generally made into small pieces; however, some chopstick designs have carved rings encircling the tips to aid in grasping larger pieces of food. Rice, which would be difficult to eat with chopsticks if prepared using Western methods, is usually prepared in East Asia with more water, which leads to "clumping" of the rice conducive to eating with chopsticks. The sticky characteristics of the rice also depend on the cultivar of rice; the cultivar used in East Asian countries is usually japonica, which is a more naturally clumping kind of rice than indica, the rice used in most Western and South Asian countries.
There are several styles of chopsticks that vary in respect to:
- Length: Very long chopsticks, usually about 30 or 40 centimeters, tend to be used for cooking, especially for deep frying foods. In Japan they are called saibashi (菜箸). Shorter chopsticks are generally used as eating utensils but are also used for cooking.
- Tapering: The end of the chopsticks for picking up food are tapered to a blunt or a pointed end. Blunt tapered chopsticks provide more surface area for holding food and for pushing rice into the mouth. Pointed tapered chopsticks allow for easier manipulation of food and for picking out bones from whole cooked fish.
- Material: Chopsticks can be made from a variety of materials: bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, jade, and ivory.
- *Bamboo and wood chopsticks are cheap, low in temperature conduction and provide good grip for holding food due to their matte surfaces. They can warp and deteriorate with continued use. Almost all cooking and disposable chopsticks are made of either bamboo or wood. Disposable unlacquered chopsticks are used especially in restaurants. These often come as a piece of wood which is partially cut and must be broken into two chopsticks by the user (demonstrating that they have not been previously used). In Japanese, these are known as waribashi (割り箸). Natural wood chopsticks, like natural wood food preparation surfaces, have an innate antibacterial property absent from other materials.
- *Plastic chopsticks are cheap and low in temperature conduction and are resistant to wear. However, due to their composition, plastic chopsticks are not as effective as wood and bamboo chopsticks for picking up food. Also, plastic chopsticks cannot be used for cooking since high temperatures may damage the chopsticks and produce toxic compounds.
- *Metal chopsticks are durable and are easy to clean. Like plastic chopsticks, metal chopsticks do not hold food as well as wood, or bone chopsticks. They also tend to be more expensive. Their higher heat conduction also means that they are not as comfortable to use in cooking.
- *Materials such as ivory, jade, gold, and silver are typically chosen for luxury reasons.
- Embellishments: Wooden or bamboo chopsticks can be painted or lacquered to decorate them and make them waterproof. Metal chopsticks are sometimes roughened or scribed on the tapered end to make them less slippery when picking up foods. High-end metal chopstick pairs are sometimes connected by a short chain at the untapered end to prevent their separation.
Styles of chopstick used in different cultures
- Chinese: longer sticks that are square in cross section at one end (where they are held) and round in cross section at the other (where they contact the food), ending in a blunt tip.
- Japanese: short to medium length sticks that taper to a pointed end. This may be attributed to the fact that the Japanese diet includes large amounts of whole bony fish. Japanese chopsticks are traditionally made of wood and are lacquered. Some chopstick sets include two lengths of chopsticks: shorter ones for women and longer ones for men. Child-sized chopsticks are widely sold.
- Korean: medium-length stainless-steel tapered rods, with a flat rectangular cross section. (Traditionally, they were made of brass or silver.) Many Korean metal chopsticks are ornately decorated at the grip. They are sometimes used to pick up food onto the spoon,which then sends food into the mouth.
- Vietnamese: long sticks that taper to a blunt point; traditionally wooden, but now made of plastic as well. A đũa cả is a large pair of flat chopsticks that is used to serve rice from a pot.
It is important to note that the chopsticks are used in a large area. While principles of etiquette are similar, the finer points may differ from region to region, and there is no single standard for the use of chopsticks. Generally, chopsticks etiquette is similar to general Western etiquette
regarding eating utensils.
- 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 crass).
- 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 pierce food, save in rare instances. Exceptions include tearing larger items apart such as vegetables and kimchi. In informal use, small, difficult-to-pick-up items such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be stabbed, but this use is frowned upon by traditionalists.
- Chopsticks should not be left standing vertically in a bowl of rice or other food. Any stick-like object 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.
- In Chinese culture, it is normal to hold the rice bowl up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth. If rice is served on a plate, as is more common in the West, it is acceptable and more practical to eat it with a spoon or fork.
- 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 impolite to spear food with a chopstick and/or play with the chopsticks.
- It is rude to use the chopstick to dig for food in the common dish.
- Chopsticks should not be left sticking on the rice because it symbolizes "feeding" the dead and death in general.
- 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 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.
- 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 or vertically stuck in the rice, as this symbolizes death.
- 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.
- Koreans consider it rude to pick up the rice bowl from the table to eat from it.
- Unlike other chopstick cultures, Koreans use a spoon for their rice and soup, and chopsticks for most other things at the table. (Traditionally, Korean spoons have a relatively flat, circular head with a straight handle, unlike Chinese or Japanese soup spoons.)
- Unlike the rice eaten in many parts of China, cooked Korean rice can be easily picked up with chopsticks, although eating rice with a spoon is more acceptable.
- 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 for deceased family members.
- The blunt handle ends of chopsticks are not used to transfer food from common dishes.
- When no communal chopsticks are available, it is perfectly acceptable to pick up banchan and eat it without putting it down on one's bowl first.
- Also, there is an old saying suggesting that the closer one's hand is to the tips of the chopsticks, the longer they stay unmarried.
- 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, because Vietnamese rice is typically sticky.
- It is proper to always use two chopsticks at once, even when using them for stirring.
- 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.
In China alone, an estimated 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used and thrown away annually. This adds up to 1.7 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million fully grown trees every year. To encourage that people use and throw away less, in April 2006 a five percent tax was added to the price of chopsticks in China. This measure is part of the first tax package in 12 years.
Reusable metal chopsticks have grown in popularity in recent years. The Taiwanese singer Wang Lee-Hom has publicly advocated their use.
A 2003 study found that regular use of chopsticks may slightly increase the risk of osteoarthritis
in the hand, a condition in which cartilage is worn off, leading to pain in the hand joints, particularly among the elderly.
There have also been concerns regarding the use of certain disposable chopsticks made from dark wood bleached white that may pose a health risk, causing coughing
or leading to asthma
A 2006 Hong Kong Department of Health survey found that the proportion of people using serving chopsticks, spoons or other serving utensils has increased from 46% to 65% since the SARS outbreak in 2003.