Cumberland Times-News

February 11, 2012

History of chopsticks and related subjects

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

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Now there are some big questions in life, like where did we come from, and even bigger questions in life, like where are we going? Today, however, I prefer to talk about chopsticks.
I think we can all agree that the Chinese are brilliant and innovative, and have had a big hand down through the ages at making civilization more civilized in their own ways as time goes on. Which makes it all the more amazing that the Western world came up with forks and knives some centuries ago, and the Chinese, though earlier, with — chopsticks.
I believe that this has had such a tremendous impact on global development that it can even now barely be grasped. I try to, but it keeps slipping.
For one thing, I do think, historically, the Oriental part of the world has been less developed healthwise. I am sure chopsticks have something to do with that.
In China, perhaps they have fewer cows, because steaks are hard to navigate in a country where really sharp chopsticks are few and far between. So obviously a lack of cows would cut back considerably on the milk production for children throughout the country, which can’t be good. (On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that Americans who need to lose weight should change over to chopsticks immediately.)
The earliest written reference to chopsticks in English occurred in 1699. The Chinese word for them is “kuaizi,” which is translated (I love this) as “quick little bamboo fellows.” (Oh yes, and Wikipedia scrupulously points out that “chopstick” is not to be confused with “chapstick,” which we should all make a note of right now.)
It seems that, in general, the East has the West licked as far as food utensil history is concerned, since experts believe chopsticks originated first of all, at least 1500 years B.C. A set of bronze ones was excavated from about 1200 B.C, and the first written reference dates to about 250 B.C.
Still, spoons, which are sometimes used in China to assist in placing food on the plate, date back to about the first century in the East, but even earlier, to ancient Egypt in the West, perhaps even from Neolithic times. But forks, bless their pointy little hearts came along later. They were once two-pronged sticks in prehistoric times, and led to intentionally-made forks in Egyptian antiquity, and that was a long time ago, possibly preceding China.
In the 11th century AD, a Byzantine princess brought a gold fork to Venice on her marriage to a Venetian prince. She was clobbered by the Church which severely censured her, saying that the fork was an insult to God’s intentions for the fingers. (I am not making this up.) After which forks disappeared for some 200 years. Of course, they don’t seem to show up much at all as tableware in China, even up to present times, as far as I can figure out from the Wiki.
As for table knives, for centuries, most men, being manly, seem to have carried around at all times regulation, all-purpose pointy-ended knives, intended basically to threaten and kill people, (Guns were not yet commonly available). They were also handy for cutting meat at the table — I don’t know what the women used. Anyway, nobody saw a need for table knives as such until, in 1637, Cardinal Richelieu first introduced knives with rounded tips. You know why? To discourage his dinner guests from picking their teeth with the pointy ones. Apparently the good Cardinal was more squeamish than most. (Hey, all I know is what I read.)
Anyway, why is it that even in more recent times, when forks and knives have been available to Eastern diners, they seem to stick with the chopsticks? Even Westerners, given the choice, appear to gravitate to chopsticks, at least at Oriental restaurants. Frankly, I consider the use of chopsticks by non-Easterners to be a Western affectation. Although it does make mealtimes more leisurely and relaxed somehow, I guess, if you enjoy chasing teensy grains of rice around your plate with two tiny little sticks.
Here’s another interesting fact: because wood from suitable trees is no longer available in some Eastern countries anymore, they are now importing from the United States most of the chopsticks that are used in those places. It could be a lucrative market, because disposable chopstick users account for some 200 pairs a year. Apiece.
Sounds like a good investment to me.
Plus this additional advantage — murder by chopsticks is statistically rare.
Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.