Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
The Chinese have probably been using chopsticks for 5,000 years, although the first written mention of them, in Liji - the Book of Rites, dates back 2,000 years. It is thought that chopsticks developed from the use of twigs to move food about while cooking and eventually evolved into the familiar tapered sticks of today. The real name for chopsticks is kuai zi, which means 'picker uppers of small pieces'. It is not clear who first used the name chopsticks, but it was probably a European who was given kuai zi to eat with.
The chopstick of today has moved on far from its primitive form. They are now made from a variety of materials such as wood, bamboo, ivory, gold, silver, pewter and plastics. Some chopsticks are beautifully decorated and are collectors' items, while others are utilitarian or even disposable, the equivalent of the plastic fork.
Although chopsticks originated in China they are used widely in Asia, especially by the Japanese - the Japanese word for chopsticks is hashi - and Koreans, and they have developed slight regional variations. The Chinese chopstick has a rounded end while the Japanese one tapers almost to a point, and the Korean implement is usually smaller and made of stainless steel. But regional differences apart, all regular chopstick users develop a fine finger dexterity as can be seen in their calligraphy, embroidery and clay modelling.
With practice chopsticks are not difficult to use, but it is important to learn chopstick etiquette as well. Never leave the chopsticks stuck into the rice bowl or use them to pass food from one person to another as this is reminiscent of funerals where incense is stuck into bowls of rice and the burned bones of the dead are passed from person to person among the family.
Another faux pas is to spear food instead of picking it up and it is considered barbaric to lick or bite the sticks. However, shovelling is allowed. In all the best Asian circles the rice bowl is held in the left hand, near the mouth, and the rice is shovelled in with the chopsticks; take that Miss Manners!