4000-5000 years ago, there was a man who lived with his family and had settled down in a forested area. During that time farming had become a usual phenomenon. He was no longer forced to travel and hunt animals for a living. One day, he was wondering how hard it is to cook raw food. In the absence of utensils, people had to use their hands to reach the food in boiling water or blazing oil. While collecting wood for a fire, he saw some twigs and decided to shape them and make sticks out of them. He used a pair of sticks while cooking that day and realized how convenient it is to use them while cooking. This was literally the first version of chopsticks.
Chopsticks, which are known as an eating utensil to the majority of the world, were invented as a cooking utensil. It was not until 400-500AD (that is 1500-1600 years ago) that they were first used as an eating utensil. But the question is what led to this change? Before 400-500AD, the population of China began to grow to an exorbitant rate. But the availability of resources did not increase which led to a scarcity of cooking fuel. In order to sustain these resources, the Chinese people started cutting their food into smaller pieces so that it takes less time to cook. As the food was already cut before cooking, the use of a knife, as an eating utensil, started becoming obsolete, while chopsticks were being considered as a convenient table utensil.
First used by the Chinese, the use of chopsticks reached Korea, then entered Japan and gradually became a common utensil in many Asian countries including Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal.
Types of Chopsticks
These are mostly made of wood and have a rectangular shape. These are longer and thicker and have blunt ends when compared to Japanese and Korean chopsticks. Chinese people usually share food on a round table. Long chopsticks make it easier to pick food. The material used traditionally is wood as it is a bad conductor of heat and therefore, it becomes convenient to eat hot foo
These are shorter than Chinese but longer than Japanese chopsticks. This is because they are not used directly to put food into the mouth. Instead, they are used to put side dishes on a spoon and then, eaten with rice. The edges are supposed to be wide and flat in order to pick up side dishes (like Kimchi) easily.
Korean chopsticks are the only chopsticks which are made from metal since ancient times. These days, it is mostly stainless steel but in early times, the chopsticks of royal families were made of silver. This is because the silver would change its colour if someone tried to poison them. The use of first silver chopsticks is believed to have happened during the rule of Baejke (18BC – 660AD) in order to protect his family from an assassination plot of the enemies.
Chopsticks gained popularity around 500 AD in Japan. Initially, it was used only in the ceremonies, but gradually, it gained prominence as a kitchen and table utensil. They are traditionally made of bamboo and wood and are available in multiple sizes (shorter for kids and women, and longer for men).
These chopsticks are comparatively short and the edges are considerably sharp. Historically, the Japanese only ate cooked grain crops as rice farming was not prominent. Since grains are not as sticky as rice, they had to hold the bowl close to their face so that the cooked grains did not fall while eating. Therefore, shorter chopsticks were more comfortable to handle. Also, as Japanese are heavy fish consumers, it makes sense that the edges of chopsticks are sharp in order to remove fish bones easily.
What do Chopsticks symbolize?
According to the prestigious professor Oryung Lee, former Minister of Culture and Art in Korea, chopsticks are a symbol of consideration, harmony, and co-operation.
In East Asian countries, food is cut into small enough pieces that people do not need knives to cut food while eating. It can be eaten straight away with chopsticks. This highlights the budding relationship between the maker and the consumer. In contrast, knives and forks are used while eating in western countries which highlights individualism.
In Japanese, the word ‘Chopsticks’ is written as (著) and it is pronounced Ha Si. As eight sounds like ‘Ha’ and four sounds like ‘Si’, the Japanese celebrate 4th of August as ‘The Chopstick Day’. Also, the word bridge means ‘Ha Si’ in Japanese which makes chopsticks a symbol of connection and relationship between different people. In China, it is written as (著) similar to what it is written in Japanese but it is pronounced differently and means ‘Fast’. According to Chinese traditions, people give chopsticks to their daughters when they get married. It is considered a symbol of good luck for having a baby early.
Chopsticks are also a symbol of love. They are usually compared to married couples. This is simply because just like chopsticks, people live together after marriage. Both can deliver results if they work together. Also, just like eating food becomes convenient, an alliance among couples makes sustaining a life convenient.
In the recent past, Koreans have started to celebrate 11th of November as ‘The Chopstick Day’. This is because chopsticks resemble the number ‘1’ and there are four 1s in the date ‘November 11th (11/11)’. Chungju, a city located in the middle of the Korean peninsula, holds a chopstick festival in November every year.
Scientific research has suggested that the use of chopsticks leads to an increase in brain activity which leads to faster development of our brains. It is stated by Jang Rae-hyeok, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Brain Science, that we trigger more than 30 bones and 60 muscles in our fingers while using chopsticks. Chopsticks are given the credit for the talent that Korean people possess in different sports and professions which requires the use of hands. The chairman of Samsung group, Gunhee Lee, used to say that the reason behind the dominance of Korea in the semiconductor industry is the chopstick culture as there are similarities in the process of making semiconductors and using chopsticks.
Chopsticks are not just eating utensils. It is believed that the significance of chopsticks lies in the values along with the culture. Chopsticks have its roots dug way deeper than we could imagine; they are in education, brain development, history, science, and etiquette. As quoted by Lee Jong-Kuk in a festival brochure, “They represent the culture of partnership, the culture of affection, the culture of yin and yang, the culture of sharing; they contain the culture of life.”