Chopsticks play a vital role in Chinese culture. Even experts agree that chopsticks are a cultural symbol in China, with the country’s rich food heritage only one of the reasons why they are important. According to this research paper, chopsticks play a major part at the dinner table and in customs, rituals, and ceremonies, second only to the dragon as a significant cultural symbol.
For people visiting China courtesy of our Trans-Siberian trips, experiencing Chinese culture at its most authentic is high on their list of priorities. Living and eating like a local is a must on your upcoming trip, a fact that makes getting to grips with chopstick etiquette a vital part of your preparations.
The history of Chinese chopsticks
The history of chopsticks is an extensive one. Back in ancient times, chopsticks were actually referred to as ‘Zhu’ and were the best implements to handle the steamed and boiled food items that Chinese people like to consume and dip into soup. Chopsticks or Zhu started life as just one stick, only becoming the two sticks we’re familiar with today during the Shang dynasty, which ran from 16th-11th century BC.
Since their creation, chopsticks have remained a popular part of Chinese culture. In recent years, they have grown in popularity throughout non-Asian countries, too. The Spruce Eats explains more about the cultural phenomenon that is chopstick use:
“Poems have been written about them, and researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University put the basic concept behind chopsticks to good use when designing the Mars Rock Corer. Studies have been conducted on whether chopstick usage helps improve memory, and whether it can aid children in learning to write Chinese.”
Mastering the art of handling chopsticks
Holding and using chopsticks is a delicate art in itself, and that’s before we even get to chopstick etiquette. Using chopsticks in the proper manner is simply a matter of being polite in China. However, their widespread use doesn’t make this skill any easier to master.
Wood or bamboo chopsticks are generally much easier to handle than plastic, so select these as your weapon of choice if possible. Chopsticks should always be picked up from the middle with both ends remaining even and not crossing. One of the chopsticks should then be rested between the tip of your ring finger and the gap between your thumb and index finger. The other should be picked up and placed on top of this chopstick between the tips of your middle and index fingers, and thumb. The index and middle fingers should then be curled. People travelling to China with children may find that their children can handle chopsticks better when holding nearer to the bottom of the chopstick – rather than the middle.
Make sure the bottom chopstick is stationary when eating. Use the top chopstick to manoeuvre by straightening out your index and middle fingers to move the chopstick outwards. To pick up food: bring both chopsticks together by curling your index and middle fingers once more.
The etiquette rules of chopstick use
As with Chinese tea drinking, there are various etiquette rules that users of chopsticks should bear in mind. Playing with your chopsticks is a big no-no, as is stabbing your food with the chopsticks. Rubbing or clicking together your chopsticks, or leaving them standing vertically in a bowl or on a plate are also things that must be avoided to ensure offence isn’t caused to fellow diners. Using the chopsticks to point at things, or pass food, to other people are other serious food faux pas.