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Culture Note: Chinese Chopsticks

I remember that, when I was little, there were lots of riddles for kids. My grandma used to ask me time to time one of them in particular: ‘There are two equally tall brothers, they have good brotherhood, and are always together, but whenever they walk, it is like they are wrestling all the time. Guess what they are?’ —- A pair of chopsticks ! :)))) Even till today, I still think this is the best description of chopsticks.

Chopsticks are definitely *the* symbol of Chinese food culture. On the dining table, almost everything is picked up and brought to mouth by using chopsticks (apart from soup). From picking up the rice from the bowl, every piece of food on the plate, to picking the small tiny bones from the fish or eating half meter long noodles, or even cutting off some piece into half — all can be done by chopsticks. So the traditional way of laying the table is always having a pair of chopsticks along with a spoon placed next to the rice bowl, no knives, and definitely no forks.

I started using chopsticks at very early age, and I only properly learnt how to use knife and fork when I came to England.

A few months after my first arrival here, I went to an Italian restaurant with some Italian, Spanish and Japanese friends. We ordered spaghetti. When the plate was placed in front of me, I looked at the knife and fork next to the plate, turned around and asked my Japanese friend quietly, ‘do you think they would have chopsticks I can use’? Eventually, I did learn how to use a fork to roll up the spaghetti. Ha… Even now, I still can be confused by all those sets of knives and forks placed in front me.

Chopsticks are normally made of wood, bamboo or silver, or even gold. The price can vary a lot because of the quality of the wood. Some chopsticks with good quality wood like achiote and very fine details can be very pricey.

Gold chopsticks were used by the ‘emperors’ or ‘royals’ to distinguish their unique position, but silver chopsticks were more common. It is said that using silver chopsticks was the best way to check if the food was poisoned, as there would be a mark shown on the silver chopsticks if there was poison in the food — Not surprisingly, all those emperors needed to take pre-cautions.

Furthermore, silver chopsticks are probably the most ‘healthy’ ones, as the wood ones can be rotten after washing many times, and become not hygienic. On the opposite to that ‘posh’ story, my dad told me when he was little, sometimes he just picked up couple of branches from the tree, smoothed them a little bit, and used them as chopsticks.

Chinese chopsticks have normally a kind of ‘rectangular’ shape, and are longer and thicker, comparing to Japanese ones, for example. This is because of the traditional metaphor of ‘round sky and square ground’, so the tip of the chopsticks is always in ‘round’ shape, while the other end is ‘square’. However, nowadays, the ‘slim’ and all round shape chopsticks are also very popular.

At one time, ‘chopstick culture’ was very popular again — I mean the design of the chopsticks. On the upper part of the chopsticks, there are some pictures or words, normally are from famous influential traditional Chinese paintings or poems. These are very interesting to look at. So people can get some ‘cultural education’ while eating. :))

As for how to use chopsticks, there is no secret, really — even though I have been asked many times. We normally start using chopsticks at very early age, then you would develop your own habit to hold them. Different people, however, would hold chopsticks differently.

One of the most common ways of doing it is to first hold the pair of chopsticks upright, make them stand at same level, (you can hold them against on the table surface if it helps); and use the ring finger to support, index finger to hold the other side, while middle finger helps to make the movement more mobile. It is really a matter of practice. One day, we were having friends over, at some point, I suddenly saw all the Western ‘boys’ using chopsticks picking up peanuts, and these are the people rarely ate Chinese food only a few years ago!

Saying that it is a cultural thing, it is not only because of its usage on the table, there are also many phrases or stories symbolized by chopsticks. For example, the story of ‘united strength’, I think most of us have heard of that one – There was a dad who had three sons, who always fought against each other. One day, at the dad’s dying bed, the dad asked the sons to hold a bunch of chopsticks in their hands, and said, ‘now try to break one chopstick’, the sons did easily, then the dad said, ‘now try to break a bunch of chopsticks in your hands’, the sons found it was very difficult to do so, almost impossible. The dad looked at the sons — they understood that only unity is strength. The following story is … dad died peacefully, and the sons made a great future by working together. :)))

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