It’s funny how much you can pick up with just two simple sticks (and a bit of practice, of course) – which makes us wonder why the Western world even bothered with forks. But how did chopsticks make their debut?

The earliest pair was found in China and dates back to 1200BC. It’s believed that they were only used as a tool to grab food off fire and were considered to be an extension of the fingers. They slowly became common due to China’s population growth, as food gradually had to be cut into smaller pieces.

Confucius actually played a role in the rise of the chopstick. Around 500AC, the vegetarian philosopher stated that knives or anything sharp and pointy shouldn’t be placed on a table, as it would remind people of slaughterhouse violence. This also explains why Chinese chopsticks have a rounder shape, compared to the ones found in Japan or Korea. The latter only first appeared around 500AC – when Chinese culture began flooding into Japan via Korea.

The English word “chopstick” is an amusing translation of the Chinese word Kuaizi (筷子), which literally means “quick stick”. The word got derived from Chinese Pidgin English, where “chop chop” meant “quickly”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published use of the word was found in the 1699 book “Voyages and descriptions” by William Dampier

Japanese call chopsticks hashi (箸) or otemoto (おてもと), a phrase commonly printed on the wrappers of disposable chopsticks. “Te” means hand and “moto” means the area under or around something and the “o” is just a polite prefix.

At first, Japanese chopsticks were considered precious, and were only used during religious ceremonies.

Japan now has numerous styles of chopsticks used for specific purposes, including cooking, eating specific meals or sweets, and funerals. Wood, bamboo and plastic are the most common materials, but bone, metal, and ivory can also be found. Japanese chopsticks come in different sizes: kids and women don’t use the same ones as men, as their hands are smaller.

japanese chopsticks


Japan also invented disposable chopsticks in 1878, which triggered a serious deforestation. If approximately 4000 chopsticks are made out of one tree and China uses 80 billion disposable chopsticks each year, how many trees are cut yearly? That’s right, you suck at math. The answer is 20 million – so you might want to bring your own pair next time you’re going for sushi.

chopsticks disposable


Korea, on the other hand, is handling things with a bit more class, as it’s into metal chopsticks. The use of metal, instead of wood or plastic is due to an ancient (unpopular?) Korean king who only used pure silver, as the metal would change colour when it came in contact with poison.


all-chopsticksFrom top to bottom: Plastic chopsticks from Taiwan, porcelain chopsticks from mainland China, bamboo chopsticks from Tibet, Vietnamese style palmwood chopsticks from Indonesia, stainless flat chopsticks from Korea with spoon, a Japanese couple’s set, Japanese child’s chopsticks, and disposables.


Want to avoid any cultural faux-pas? Follow these simple rules!


Chinese etiquette:

–       Hold the bowl in one hand close to your mouth and use the chopsticks to push the rice directly into your mouth.
–       Don’t tap chopsticks on the edge of your bowl (beggars usually do this to grab people’s attention).
–       Don’t waste food because of chopsticks; use a spoon instead.
–       Don’t point with your chopsticks.
–       Don’t stick chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as it symbolizes death.
–       Use the “communal chopsticks” to serve food. If there aren’t any, use the back of your own chopsticks.
–       Let the elders grab their chopsticks first when seated.
–       Leave your chopsticks on top of the bowl once you’re done and on the side if you’re taking a break.


Japanese etiquette:

–       If the restaurant only has disposable chopsticks, fold the paper case into a chopstick rest.
–       Use the clean end of your chopsticks to grab food from the communal plates.
–       Don’t cross chopsticks, as it symbolizes death
–       Don’t stick them vertically into rice, as that’s only done during a funeral.
–       Chopsticks are placed by the glass; the pointy tips should be on the left.
–       Place disposable chopsticks into the wrapper at the end of a meal.


Korean etiquette

–       Let the elders take their chopsticks and spoon first when seated.
–       Don’t pick up a bowl to bring it closer to your mouth, use a spoon instead.
–       Don’t leave your chopsticks on the left side of your spoon, always on the right.
–       Don’t hold your chopsticks and spoon at the same time.
–       Use the spoon for soups, stews and rice.
–       Don’t use your chopsticks to eat rice, only to pick up a side dish.

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