Since this is a food site, I thought it would be appropriate to write on cutlery or table utensils. As the country of origin of chopsticks, China was the first country in the world to use chopsticks (and forks) and has a history of at least 5,000 years of using eating utensils. Chopsticks play an important role in Chinese food culture. Chopsticks are called “Kuai zi” in Chinese and were called “Zhu” in ancient times. Chopsticks seem quite simple with only two small and thin sticks, but they are in possession of many functions, such as picking, moving, nipping, mixing and digging. Anyone using chopsticks would without exception admire the inventor of chopsticks although westerners might wonder if he was only trying to torment them. No one knows how they originated, but there is a myth that about 3000 BC two poor Chinese farmers stole a chicken from a storehouse. They hid out in a forest and cooked it over an open fire. They were so hungry that they could not wait for the meat to cool and pulled off the done portions with a pair of sticks so that they would not be burned. From their humble beginning as twigs or small branches, Chinese chopsticks (kuai zi) evolved into the modern square cross section with blunt ends and tapered length.
It was recorded in Liji (The Book of Rites) that chopsticks were used in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC – 1100 BC). It was mentioned in Shiji (the Chinese history book) by Sima Qian (about 145 BC) that Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty (around 1100 BC), used ivory chopsticks. Experts believe the history of wood or bamboo chopsticks can be dated to at least 1,000 years earlier than ivory chopsticks. Bronze chopsticks were invented in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC – 771 BC). Lacquer chopsticks from the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD) were discovered in Mawangdui, China. Gold and silver chopsticks became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). It was believed that silver chopsticks could detect poisons in food. You may have noticed I have included Sotheby’s photos. Chopstick collecting is very popular these days, especially in Hong Kong, and the best pieces are often snapped up by private collections.
The Chinese also invented the first forks, to be followed centuries later by forks in the west. Bone forks have been discovered at multiple burial sites dating from the Xia Dynasty, which was in power from 4205-1760 BC. In fact, finds from the excavation of the tomb of China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang (259 BCE – 210 BCE) have yielded a surprising find, a metal knife and fork. The first table forks in the Euopean world were reintroduced in 1004 when Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast and what a scandal ensued. Forks were used in Rome and thus in Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Large forks were used in ancient Egypt but were used primarily for cooking. Of course the average Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Medieval person probably just used a wooden spoon.
Chopsticks made of precious materials were signs of an extravagant life. An ancient case in point were the ivory chopsticks used by Zhou, the last king of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC). The elite, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BCE), delighted in using chopsticks made of expensive materials. Over the years, they ate with those made of ivory, the preferred material in the Guangdong province. Also popular all over China were chopsticks made of rosewood and sandalwood, polished bone, lacquer, and others made of amber, jade, bronze, silver, gold, even tortoise shell and rhinoceros horn. Some of the more expensive non-metal ones were tipped in silver. Why? Because people thought silver turned black at the touch of a poison (true for sulphur based poisons). Kong Zi (Confucius 551-479 BC), who was reportedly a vegetarian, advised people not to use knives at the family table because it would remind them of the death of their animals. He equated knives with acts of aggression which violated his teachings. He was no doubt a major influence in the adoption of chopsticks throughout China.
In the late Qing dynasty, the Empress Dowager Cixi in particular had set an even higher standard for luxurious chopsticks. Gold chopsticks and jade chopsticks used by Empress Dowager Cixi are on display in the Precious Treasures Museum of the Imperial Palace. The chopsticks pictured above form a pair, and are in round-stick shape. Each chopstick is composed of four sections, made of rosewood, jade, rosewood, gold respectively from the top to the bottom, in which the two rosewood sections are inlaid with gold and silver wire made flower pattern, while the two sections made of gold and jade are without decoration
A Chinese “trousse” (eating set), comprised a knife, possibly various other utensils (fork, spoon, pickle spear, etc) and chopsticks. This type of set was very common in China and in all the countries under the Chinese influence from Tibet to Mongolia. It was part of a man’s formal dress up to the turn of the 20th century and was usually accompanied with a variety of accessories like pickle spear, toothpicks, tweezers and the like. “Trousse” is a French word, encompassing such items as “case” and “tool kit.” In European cutlery it was first applied to Medieval and Renaissance hunting sets, with a large knife for killing animals, sheathed along with small tools for ‘dismantling’ them. By extension trousse has been applied to other cutlery kits, such as Asian eating sets like this one. The “pickle spear” is really a misnomer, probably applied by Europeans, in fact it would function as a simple fork, picking up things that were difficult to handle with chopsticks.
As we see examples from different areas, we can see the basic utensil set reflects the needs of the particular locale. Chinese trousse have delicate and refined utensils while sets from Tibet and Mongolia have beefier knives (probably used to butcher the meal) and even firestarters to start the camp fire. Also note the Malaysian wooden “tweezer chopsticks”, perhaps westerners were not the only ones having trouble getting the hang of chopsticks.
Korean chopsticks are unique. There is a huge difference between chopsticks from Korea and other Asian countries. Unlike China, Japan, Vietnam, and Thailand whose chopsticks are primarily made of wood and bamboo, Korean chopsticks are made traditionally of iron and today of stainless steel, much like most western flatware. Korean chop sticks are also flat, like the handle of a western fork or spoon rather than round or square like other Asian cultures. In addition, Koreans almost always use a spoon much resembling a western spoon, along with their chopsticks, to eat rice and soup and to prevent dripping from food held with chopsticks. In Japan and China, they raise the rice bowl to their lips and shovel the rice in with chopsticks. The Songsan-ri Tombs and Royal Tomb of King Muryeong (reign 462-523) contains representative relics of the Baekje period (234-678). The popular Tomb of King Muryeong (7th tomb) contained 108 kinds of artifacts found inside, totaling 2,906 items altogether, including the bronze spoons and chopsticks seen above. So we see that even two thousand years ago, Korean eating utensils included both chopsticks and spoons.
Chinese chopsticks are longer than other styles at about 10 inches, thicker, with squared or rounded sides and ending in either wide, blunt, flat tips or tapered pointed tips. Some of this is because of the communal dining setup seen in many Chinese homes and restaurants. Japanese chopstics are usually laquered wood, smaller with more pointed tips. Also, the Japanese (and others to be fair) are fussy concerning the chopstick tips and have Hashioki, which means literally in Japanese “what you put chopsticks on”. Hashiokis are used to rest the chopsticks tips and avoid staining tables. They are mostly made of porcelain but can be found in various materials and shapes. Naturally, you can fold the paper chopstick wrapper into a paper Hahoiki if you are really clever. It is perfectly good etiquette to raise the bowl to the face in China and Japan to eat rice or to drink soup. Both China and Japan use a huge number of disposable chopsticks. Using a set of chopsticks only once, and then throwing them away causes problems for the environment. There are some movements which aim at telling people to use a set of chopsticks more than once. In China, about 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used per year. This is equal to 1.7 billion cubic meters of timber–about 25 million fully grown trees.
Specialized bowls to be used with chopsticks have evolved Over time although the Chinese custom of placing the chopsticks on top of the bowl when one is finished eating may have to be rethought.
Fun modern chopsticks have appeared and include the screw together travel chopsticks (reminiscent of Trousse), samurai chopstics and even battery powered “Star Wars Lightsaber” chopsticks. So you can see that the simple act of getting food from the table to your mouth without using your fingers, has a long and colorful history. Sorry for the length of the post, I hope you enjoyed it, please leave a comment.
History of Chopsticks: http://www.eatingutensils.net/history-of-other-eating-utensils/chopsticks-history/
Laughing Medicine Woman, George’s Trousse: http://laughingmedicinewoman.com/George/trousse.htm
Museum of Sichuan: http://houseofhaos.com/2014/01/23/museum-of-sichuan-cuisine-pixian-chengdu/
Horniman Museum: http://www.horniman.ac.uk/home
Gansu Museum: http://www.gansumuseum.com/vm_bwg_en1/index.aspx
Bring Your Own Chopsticks Movement: http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/bring-your-own-chopsticks-movement-gains-traction-in-asia.html
Byzantine Food: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/what-did-byzantine-food-taste-like/
Roman Banquet: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/banq/hd_banq.htm
Unconventional Uses: http://lifehacker.com/top-10-clever-ways-to-use-chopsticks-that-dont-involve-1724255597