Origin and Construction
The first recorded reference to Chinese chopsticks was in Li Ji or The Book of Rites, which dates to the beginning of the Christian Era. However, it is commonly believed that the history of chopsticks is much older and most likely developed when people used twigs and sticks to stir heated foods.
It is known that as early as 400BCE, food in China was commonly chopped into small pieces to conserve fuel. Small pieces could be cooked much faster using smaller fires. It then stands to reason that chopsticks could have been used to transport such small pieces of food from the pan towards the mouth.
Kong Zi (Confucius 551-479BCE), who was reportedly a vegetarian, advised people not to use knives at the family table because it would remind them of the death of their animals. He equated knives with acts of aggression which violated his teachings. He was no doubt a major influence in the adoption of chopsticks throughout China.
Kuai zi, is the Chinese term for what we call chopsticks. You will find many translations like “small piece picker-uppers”, “quick little fellows”, “fast sticks”, etc. This is because the character “kuai” is composed of a symbol for “bamboo” and another symbol for “fast” or “quick”. But Chinese often use a second symbol simply to assign a sound to a new character. In this case, the character for chopstick may just be a term with the radical of “bamboo” and the sound of “fast”.
How they evolved
From their humble beginning as twigs or small branches, Chinese chopsticks (kuai zi) evolved into the modern square cross section with blunt ends and tapered length. They vary in length, but are usually around 9 to 10 inches. Children sometimes have smaller sets, and chopsticks that often top 20 inches are used in cooking.
Bamboo is the most common construction material. It is strong, flexible, and does not stain or splinter easily. Hard and softwoods are sometimes used, and soft wooden disposal chopsticks are now popular in tourist or fast food locations. Ivory was considered one of the most precious materials because it aged to a mellow color and texture. Jade and other precious stone was used for decorative sets. Imperial courts and wealthy landowners experimented with silver, gold, and ivory thinking that it would tarnish when exposed to poisons (it doesn’t). Chopsticks used at special functions were often elaborately decorated with engravings or paintings.
Despite experimenting with various materials, bamboo remains the most popular. Plastics which simulate ivory are difficult to use because their finish becomes slippery plus they have a tendency to warp after soaking in hot water. Most other woods either stain or retain flavors from previous uses.
The chopstick is a multipurpose tool. It serves as the fork, knife and light duty spoon. Despite the introduction of Western foods, chopsticks remain the most common eating utensil in China. In fact, chopsticks are the second most popular eating utensil in the world, ranking behind fingers. Americans fail to recognize that it wasn’t until the 18th century that settlers began adopting the fork as a utensil to complement their knife, spoon, and fingers.
By 500CE, the use of chopsticks had spread to Japan and other nearby Asian countries where their use was well documented in religious ceremonies. It is interesting to note that the first Japanese chopsticks were connected at the top, therefore the Japanese term for them “hashi”, meaning “bridge”. They were used like large tweezers to pick up food. They continued to evolve into the current Japanese round shape with pointed ends. Japanese chopsticks are often lacquered, delicately decorated, and usually smaller than their Chinese counterparts.
©Qi Journal, Winter 2003. The author, Steve Luo, is a regular contributor and long-time practitioner of Chinese martial arts and philosophy.