One of the biggest, but largely unexpected, obstacles to accessing life in China that visitors from abroad face is not a language barrier, hospitality customs, or new flavors – rather, it’s chopsticks!
Many people are excited to try the amazing dishes they see in front of them, but if you haven’t had the chance to practice using chopsticks (kuàizi 筷子) before you come to China, it’s going to be hard to get all that delicious food into your mouth!
Even though Chinese food, and Asian food in general, is becoming more and more popular around the world, many restaurants provide forks and knives for local patrons to eat.
Today we’re going to talk about a question you may not have considered before:
why do Chinese people use chopsticks to eat instead of forks and knives?
By the way, if you want to know what NOT to do when using chopsticks, we have a handy guide here.
First of all, I’ll let you in on a little secret: in the earliest times, Chinese people used forks and knives!
In, such utensils were invented in China (the earliest bone cutlery knives found in the world were found at the Hemudu site in Zhejiang, China) around 7,000 years ago, and were a breakthrough that allowed people to separate meat from bone.
发明 (fā míng): n. invention; v. to invent
Huǒ yào shì zhōng guó de sì dà fā míng zhī yī .
火 药 是 中 国 的 四 大 发 明 之 一。
Gundpowder is one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China
Tā yì shēng zhì lì yú kē xué shì yè ，fā míng le hěn duō dōng xi.
他 一 生 致 力 于 科 学 事 业, 发 明 了 很 多 东 西。
He devoted his life to science, and invented many things.
So, when did chopsticks appear?
During the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), chopsticks gradually replaced forks and knives at the dining tables of the nobility, though forks and knives remained for a period of time in the kitchen, used by chefs to cut food into pieces to serve to their employers.
Finally, over time, chopsticks spread from the hands of nobles to the hands of the people.
Because of this, the general population came to see chopsticks as a symbol of civility and civilization, a defining aspect of elegant dining.
People even started decorating their chopsticks with symbols of nature and religion, among other things.
Eventually, the history and culture of chopsticks unfolded and spread to other countries, brought back by traders and envoys.
Chopsticks developed in large part due to certain long-standing lifestyle habits of Chinese people.
Firstly, nearly all food (fruit, nuts, and seeds aside) is cooked, whether boiled, fried, or stemed, in traditional Chinese cuisine – there’s not a long tradition of things like Western salad or Japanese sashimi.
Thus, Chinese eating utensils must be able to withstand heat without burning the hands of the people eating it; and so the wooden chopstick emerged.
习惯 (xí guàn): n. habit; v. to be used to
Rén de yǐn shí xí guàn gè bù xiāng tóng.
人 的 饮 食 习 惯 各 不 相 同。
People have different eating habits.
Tā yǐ jīng xí guàn fán máng de dū shì shēng huó.
她 已 经 习 惯 繁 忙 的 都 市 生 活。
She is used to the busy pace of life in the city.
There’s one more important reason that chopsticks have become so inseparable from Chinese culture.
In the Chinese household, family is the most important thing, and meals are a shared experience.
Unlike in many other countries, in the Chinese household people do not have their own plates of food with individual portions – instead, there are communal dishes that everyone eats from!
In this context, chopsticks are nimble enough to quickly grab single pieces of food, clean enough to not drop crumbs or sauce all over the place, and refined enough to not have to stab the food to pick it up.
It’s no exaggeration to say that chopsticks have shaped and been shaped by Chinese culture and lifestyle, defining eating habits and familial interactions for thousands of years!