Chinese Chopsticks: Facts, Traditions and Taboos

For those who have already been in China (or other Asian countries), it is not a secret that one of the biggest concerns here is food. And not only because the cuisine is very different from the one we are used to, but also because of the challenging way of having the meal – using chopsticks. Of course in the big international cities and in western restaurants you have a chance to be offered forks and knives, but if you want fully enjoy the real Chinese food and part of the culture connected to it,  you’d better be familiar with chopsticks. So, let’s have a short tour together 🙂

Chopsticks are the traditional table-ware in the Southeast Asia, you can hardly imagine a meal in Japan, China, Korea or Vietnam without them. However, according to different researchers, they were created in China and only then spread all over the Asia.

The dispute about the exact time and place of their origin still remains open. Some insists that the first chopsticks appeared in China during the Shang Yin dynasty and were used only by the Emperor and the officials. There are also hypotheses exist, claiming that chopsticks were originally used only for cooking, not for eating.

Nowadays, you can find chopsticks that made from a wide variety of materials: plastics, metals (including gold and silver) and even bones. But most common is to use wood of various breeds for their production. Chopsticks also can be one-time-use or reusable and vary in shapes and sizes. Chinese chopsticks (筷子, kuàizi) considered to be the most spread and the easiest to use. Usually, they are 20-25cm long and about 5mm thin, tapered from one end and widened from the other.

There is, of course, a common rule how to hold and use Chinese chopsticks. But if you pay attention, you will see that most Chinese people hold them in absolutely different ways. The most important – don’t  strain your hand and fingers, and try to make chopsticks as they are an extension of your palm. There are plenty of tutorials can be found on the internet, so you can train at home before trying to eat with chopsticks somewhere in the restaurant. However, if you need a guidance – waitresses and even owners of the small Chinese restaurants will be happy to give you a few private lessons if you ask them 😉 Here is just a very simple tutorial:

A small hint for the beginners: there are some special chopsticks, connected (or tightened) on the end, to teach kids how to hold them in the right way. Besides the fact that they are very cute, it is easier to hold such chopstick, as they are at least not sprawling in your hand. Big support for the start.

Did you know that Chinese chopsticks have great benefits for the body? While using them, almost all the muscles of the fingers, palms, and forearms are involved!

Many Chinese people say, that to be able to pick up the food from the plate using chopsticks, doesn’t mean to know how to use them. The cultural aspects are not less important. There is a number of traditions, believes and taboos you have to know before taking them in hand. Here are a few facts that will help you to avoid embarrassing situations.

  • One of the most important “never ever” – never stick your chopsticks straight into the bowl of rice. Chinese people do it on the funerals as an offering to the spirit of a deceased relative or friend.
  • Not to show accidentally disrespect to anyone at the table, don’t point your chopsticks at others while using them.
  • Make sure that both your chopsticks have the same lengths. This rule associates for Chinese with an idiom 三长两短 (sān cháng liǎng duǎn) which can be translated as “three long, two short”. The meaning of this idiom allocates to the ancient times, when the wood for the coffins was measured as “three long and two short”. Today this phrase (and fact of eating with different sized chopsticks) refers to misfortune, accident or even death.
  • Don’t lick or suck your chopsticks, in Chinese culture it is a sign of poor education and disrespect to the food on the table.
  • You should not knock with the chopsticks on the table, bowls or plates – in China it is associated with bagging. If you want to draw someone’s attention, raise your voice 😉
  • Don’t put your chopsticks in the crossed position on the plate or table, this sign can be interpreted as a “denying” of the people and food you were offered.
  • You should not dig or choose the piece you like from the dish, as people who will take next from the common dish will feel that they are eating food which you rejected.
  • Pay attention that you hold chopsticks right way, because mixing top with the bottom in China refers to loosing face. Especially embarrassing this situation can be during  the business dinner.
  • Don’t hold chopstick squeezed in the first, Chinese can think that you are threatening them (literally and metaphorically), unless you mean it.
  • Always remember, the chopsticks are made for eating, and all other actions with them can offend the culture and traditions of the country you are using them.

But what you should not be afraid of doing with the chopsticks is to present them! It is very common to give a pair (or set) of chopsticks as a wedding present. First of all, with this  action people express the hope and wish that the newly married couple will always be side by side. Also, a pair of chopsticks presented to the couple by family members is a way to wish them having a baby in the nearest future. This hidden meaning comes from the pronunciation of chopsticks in Chinese – Kuaizi – which is similar to the 快 (kuài, quickly) and 子 (zǐ, son).

Also, giving chopsticks to your family or friends means that you always remember about them and will be there whenever they need your support. Pair of traditional chopstick can be a great present for your business partners as a meaning of close and successful cooperation between two parts, as it always happens between two chopstick in one hand. But here you should avoid choosing chopsticks made of silver. In ancient times silver chopsticks were used to test poison in royal’s food – in toxic food silver chopsticks would turn black. So, giving your business partner silver chopsticks will mean your mistrust.

Did you know that in some Chinese companies, where being plodding and patient is one of the most important employee requirement, candidates are asked during the interview to pick up the small beads from the plates?

At first, you will find it very difficult to handle this unusual cutlery, but with time and practice, you will be able to fully enjoy not only the dishes of Chinese cuisine but also the specifics of the culture. You will appreciate all the advantages of these skills, since to eat with chopsticks in traditional restaurants is much more convenient and natural, than with a spoon, fork, and knife.

Hope this article will be helpful and interesting for you! Let us know about your experiences with chopsticks and if you know any other traditions. Don’t forget to share it with your friends and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and subscribe to our blog!

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