Why Do Asian Nations Use Chopsticks?

TJ asks: Why do people in Asia use chopsticks?

chopsticksCreated roughly 4,000-5,000 years ago in China, the earliest versions of something like chopsticks were used for cooking (they’re perfect for reaching into pots full of hot water or oil) and were most likely made from twigs. While it’s difficult to nail down a firm date, it would seem it wasn’t until around 500-400 AD that they began being used as table utensils.

One factor that contributed to this switch was a population boom across the country. Consequently, resources, particularly for cooking, became incredibly scarce.  As a result, people began cutting their food into tiny pieces so it would cook faster.

The bite sized morsels rendered table knives obsolete, as there was very little left to cut. However, they were now perfect for eating with chopsticks, which were also made from cheap materials and easily made. Thus, a trend was born.

The table knife’s decline in popularity in these regions at this time can also be attributed to the teachings of Confucius, who was a vegetarian. He believed that knives weren’t appropriate to eat with. As Confucius supposedly said,

The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen.  And he allows no knives on his table.

It was due to this that it’s believed that Chinese chopsticks are traditionally blunt at the tip and thus somewhat poor choices to try to spear food as you would with a fork.

Within about a century of this, chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. One distinct difference between Japanese and Chinese chopsticks was that the former were made from a single piece of bamboo that were joined at the base. In addition, Japanese chopsticks were originally used solely for religious ceremonies. Regardless of their differences, chopsticks remained popular in both countries and are still the primary utensil of choice.

While the early chopsticks were more often than not made of some cheap material, such as bamboo, later silver chopsticks were sometimes used during Chinese dynastic times in order to prevent food poisoning. How? It was believed that silver utensils would turn black if they came into contact with any life threatening toxins. Unfortunately for those engaging in this practise, silver doesn’t turn black when it touches the likes of cyanide or arsenic, among other poisons. However, it most definitely can change colour if touched by garlic, onion or rotten eggs – all of which release hydrogen sulfide which reacts with the silver causing it to change colour.

For anyone that has ever had difficulty eating rice with chopsticks, you may have wondered why anyone would choose this particular utensil for consuming such food with. Perhaps one of the earliest of table utensils, such as the spoon, would work better here. But you see, in Asia, the majority of rice is either a short or medium grain variety often with starches that are particularly gummy or clumpy. As such, it sticks together and is quite easily picked up by chopsticks. In comparison, many Westerners eat long grain rice (often highly processed) with is much fluffier and the individual grains are more distinct and for the unpracticed hand, difficult to eat with chopsticks.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Ancient spoons in China also sometimes featured a pointy end to be used as a one prong fork / knife… perhaps the first known instance of the spork or spnife, depending on how you want to look at it.
  • The ruins of Yin provide both the earliest examples of Chinese writing as well as the first known chopsticks. They were a bronze set that were found in one of the tombs at the site.
  • Traditionally, Chinese chopsticks are made from wood or bamboo that’s unfinished. In comparison, Japanese chopsticks are traditionally finished.
  • Chopstick etiquette is also a highly important factor in Asian cultures and history. They can also vary greatly from country to country and from person to person, but in general:
    • In traditional Chinese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
      • Spear your food with your chopsticks.
      • Dig around in your food for a particular item. This is referred to as “digging your grave” and is considered extremely rude.
      • Tap your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl. This is what beggars do to attract attention.
      • Children to hold their chopsticks incorrectly, as this will reflect poorly on the parents.
    • In Japanese culture , it’s poor etiquette to:
      • Cross your chopsticks on the table.
      • Stick your chopsticks vertically in rice, as this is a practise reserved for funerals.
      • Transfer food from your chopsticks to another persons.
    • In Taiwanese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
      • Bite on your chopsticks or to let them linger in your mouth for too long.
      • Use your chopsticks to pick up contents from a soup bowl.
      • Place your chopsticks on the table. You should either use a chopstick rest or place them across the top of your bowl.
    • In Korean culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
      • Pick up your utensils before your elders.
      • Brings your bowl closer to your mouth to eat.
      • Use chopsticks to eat rice unless you’re someone considered lower class. Spoons should be used instead.
    • In Vietnamese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
      • Place you chopsticks in the shape of a V once you’ve finished eating. This is considered to be a bad omen.
      • Pick up food directly from the table and eat it. The item should be placed in your own bowl first.
      • Place your chopsticks in your mouth whilst choosing food.
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  • Wow I always wondered why they eat with chopsticks. I couldn’t manage to eat with them though.

    • It’s easy with practice. Especially food that, as the article mentions, is intended to be eaten that way.

      • With practice, yes. The sticking point is that eating with a spoon/fork is easy WITHOUT practice.
        Meanwhile, wok food might be good for eating with sticks, but is EVEN EASIER to eat with a spoon.

  • Thank you for the very interesting read, particularly about how the motivation for energy efficiency drove Asian food into small pieces that can be cooked quickly. I never thought of that.

    BTW, this is a question. Considering how relatively recent Asian people started eating food with chopsticks (500 year or so?) does anybody happen to know how they were eating food before then (by hand?). That would make their culinary list completely different though (they couldn’t eat noodles by hand, can they)?


  • Correction: Confucius was NOT a vegetarian.

    Source: Confucian Analects (Lunyu) which has a quote on preparing meat, and many references to animal sacrifice.

    Vegetarianism/veganism only became popular after the introduction of Buddhism.

  • I am watching my old Zatoichi tv series and I was wondering– why do they pour water or hot water into their bowl of rice? Is this still being done today?

  • The chopstics in ancient China symbolize the civilization, specially compare to the nomadic people like huns, Xianbei and Tujue (only use hands and knives).

  • How far you know about Vietnamese culture and our chopsticks culture??? -_-

  • It’s not at all difficult to eat long grain rice with chopsticks, but you have to cook it Asian style (absorption method), not Western style. You shouldn’t rinse it either. Besides, absorption cooked rice tastes much better than Western-style anyway. Especially if you use Jasmine or Basmati rice! 🙂

    • A lot easier with spoon or knife and fork. Give rice and a pair of chop sticks to a small child and it’s a no go, spoon or fork it no problem. Likewise Serve a steak to someone with chop sticks eerrr nup. The reason in Asia they have to serve food in small prices is that they have too. With knife and fork you have the choice how good is prepared. I often see users of chop sticks shovelling food due to the difficulties they pose. Hundreds of years of use and the best tool in place is two sticks!!!

  • Here’s an interesting sidenote to the use of the disposable chopsticks you get in (at least in Western) asian restaurants. You’ve probably been doing it wrong this whole time.
    I’ll just link to original article: http://www.seventeen.com/life/food-recipes/news/a38132/youve-probably-been-using-chop-sticks-wrong-this-whole-time/

  • The question (which was not answered) was, why do they CONTINUE to use chopsticks.
    No country INSISTS on driving a model T because that’s the car their country started with.

    • Probably tradition, habit and culture. So hard to change, certainly there is no way that they are better at any aspect of eating. I guess no one forces them to, they could use knife and fork they just choose not to. Unless it’s a formal occasion, I simply don’t bother I just ask (if they have) for a knife and fork.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve read somewhere on an article saying that the reason why Asians use chopsticks is because the animal that was killed for meat, shouldn’t be stabbed (like when you’re using a fork) when eating or it’d be disrespectful to the animal, so they use chopsticks to pick food up.

  • This begs the questions however:

    “Consequently, resources, particularly for cooking, became incredibly scarce.” – like Fire???

    “As a result, people began cutting their food into tiny pieces so it would cook faster.” – perhaps fire back then burned out quicker?

    “The bite sized morsels rendered table knives obsolete, as there was very little left to cut.” – so before that time, everything was eaten with table knives?

    “Within about a century of this, chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. ” – and what did they use before that was found to be a poorer tool than chopsticks?

    ” Japanese chopsticks were originally used solely for religious ceremonies. ” – so China brought an eating utensil to Japan and Japan said “wait just a friggin’ minute! those are to be used ONLY for religious ceremonies!”?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Kris, here are your very belated answers.
      1 Fire becomes scarce when fuel becomes scarce. As you have to forege farther for fire wood, you’ll be inclined to use less so…
      2. The fire will not burn as hot or as long
      3. Even in the west there was a time (not so long ago) before table forks. Food was loaded onto a a spoon with a knife, so yes. knives
      4. Fingers and knives
      5. China brought Buddhism to Japan as well, it could reasonably be assumed that the two ideas were conflated.