BEIJING — Throughout the world, people eat in one of three ways: with a knife and fork, with chopsticks, or with their hands. Though the knife-and-fork folk seem to be the most powerful and widespread group, those who use chopsticks most clearly reflects human wisdom when they eat.
Nobody is sure when chopsticks were invented, nor by whom. Most believe, they go back at least 3,000 years. In the Shiji text, also known as The Records of the Grand Historian, finished around 109 AD, there is a mention that at the end of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC) King Zhou used ivory chopsticks. King Zhou's favorite consort was Daji, a famous but vicious beauty. Legend has it that it was she who invented the idea of using her long jade hairpins to pick up food to offer to the king. Note that history also holds her responsible for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty.
Over the past three millennia, chopstick etiquette has expanded and evolved. There are some important taboos to be avoided. The mistake that Westerners make most often is to stick and stand a pair of chopsticks up in a bowl of rice, a practice used exclusively at a funeral or a sacrifice.
Second, never tap the crockery and or make any noise with the chopsticks. This has been a behavior associated with beggars.
It's also considered bad manners to use chopsticks to turn food around or pick up food from a dish before putting it back again. Nor must you gesture with your chopsticks at mealtime. Ok, you have been duly warned.
Of course, there are some who claim to master the art of holding the pair of thin sticks, elegantly picking sesame from a flat palette, nipping vermicelli from a bowl of broth, snagging a quail egg from a wok, or helping oneself gracefully at a banquet to a piece of tofu. All of these are high risk endeavours not to be undertaken by beginners. There is good reason why spoons are always provided.
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Dueling chopsticks — Photo: Hsing Wei
In the West, continuous improvement is made to cutlery for their practicality, but paradoxically, despite all the rules about the use of chopsticks, there exists no universal or unified criteria for making chopsticks, such as diameter, length or shape. Nor has anyone, even after 3,000 years, so far studied how the weight or location of the center of gravity of the chopsticks would be most suitable for use.
Your "extended hands"
As one's "extended hands," chopsticks are to be selected with care. Think of Roger Federer choosing a tennis racket. They must be pleasing to the eyes and well-manufactured.
The Chinese chopsticks are in general much longer compared with those of its neighbors. In ancient times, chopsticks were made of animal bone, ivory, jade, coral or even gold, though the most commonly used were made of wood or bamboo. Today plastic is used. For those who look for something unique or personalized, you can find them made of mahogany, ebony, jujube, rosewood, snakewood from the Amazon, or horn and silver. They can also be decorated with various themes such as marriage, birthdays, housewarming or, if you fancy, Mao Zedong.
As for the Japanese, if one understands how much time they ponder about how to clean a wooden bathtub, we know how seriously they'll take selecting a pair of chopsticks.
Shorter than those of the Chinese, Japanese chopsticks are usually lacquered and are also very finely pointed, which is supposed to be easier for attacking fish bones. Superbly crafted ones can be inlaid with glossy shells or mica and are given as gifts for such happy events as a high school graduation or wedding anniversary.
The Japanese also are the source of endless ideas for this tableware in accordance with different occasions. Chopsticks made of willow wood are given to the newly wedded because willow symbolizes endurance. Meanwhile chopsticks pointed at both ends are traditionally used on special days, such as when treating guests or in a formal tea ceremony.
Korean chopsticks are known for being flat-headed. Like in China or Japan, they used to be made of brass, silver and gold for the rich and wood for the common folk, but today chopsticks are mostly made of steel, in accordance with government regulations. That keeps them shiny and hygienic — and saves the forests!