Chop Chop! Make Sure you Know your Chopstick Etiquette Before you Travel

A young girl eating with chopsticks.

“The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.”(Confucius)

A Short History of the Chopstick

It is thought that the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius encouraged the use of chopsticks in Asia over 2,500 years ago. A vegetarian and an advocate of non-violence, he thought that anything resembling a weapon that could be used for killing should not be brought to the dining table. Yet well before the days of Confucius, an estimated 5,000 years ago, people used chopsticks to cook and eat. In Ancient China, people cooked their food in a large, boiling pot. The food was chopped into small pieces so that it would cook faster, therefore using less fuel and hence knives were not needed. It is likely that at first people used twigs to pluck morsels of food from the pot, which eventually developed into chopsticks. The oldest archaeological excavation of chopsticks date back to the Shang Dynasty. A bronze pair of chopsticks, dating roughly around 1200 BC, were discovered from the ‘Ruins of Yin’ in Henan, China. Utensils similar to chopsticks were also found in Israel, which may suggest an early trading relationship between the Middle East and Asia or perhaps an independent development. The Oxford English dictionary states that the earliest known mention of the word ‘chopsticks’ was by English buccaneer, William Dampier, in his 1699 book ‘Voyages and Descriptions.’ The word seems to have originated from the Chinese Pidgin English, where the words ‘chop chop’ meant quickly. In Mandarin Chinese, chopsticks are called ‘kwaitze’ which translates roughly as ‘quick ones.’

A Pair of Knitting Needles?

And despite the face that they have been used with love and grace in Asia since the days of antiquity, it is a well-known fact that Westerners find chopsticks difficult to get to grips with! Bill Bryson famously quoted “I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” On so many occasions in South East Asia I’ve spent hours trying and failing to eat my meal while local spectators gobble up and smile sympathetically in my direction. I used to refuse the gleaming promise of a fork, yet now with hindsight and fear of hunger I grudgingly accept immediately. Fumbling foreigners beware. Dropping your chopsticks is considered very bad luck!

NoodlesNoodles versus chopsticks in the crazy Vietnamese capital, Ho Chi Minh City

Chopstick étiquette & Bad Luck!

Chopstick etiquette is a complicated science and one that varies from country to country. However, there are a few universal rules that it is good for foreigners to know. Perhaps the most important cultural faux pas is to leave your chopsticks standing vertically in your bowl. It is said that the upward sticks resemble the incense sticks that many Asian people present as offerings to deceased ancestors. Some believe that it is symbolic of someone who is trying to summon the spirits, an act that should never be done at the dinner table! In a Chinese culture that is deeply embedded with symbolism, there are more many superstitions that revolve around chopsticks, some that the clueless tourist would no nothing about. Travellers keep an eye out for an uneven pair of chopsticks at your table setting, as it is believed that this is a sign that you will miss the next bus, train, plane or boat that you attempt to catch! As well as an eating instrument, it has been claimed that the use of chopsticks can improve memory, increase finger agility and help to develop skills such as painting and the art of calligraphy!

 Chopstick Dos & Don’ts:

  • No matter how much you struggle, never resort to stabbing or piercing your food with your chopstick. This act of desperation is considered the height of bad manners!
  • You should not wave your chopsticks in the air and gesticulate. Pointing with them is regarded as rude.
  • Chopsticks should not be used to pull plates or bowls towards you.
  • You should never eat off someone else’s chopsticks or pass food between two pairs!
  • You should never bite, lick or suck the end of your chopsticks.
  • Like with the knife and fork, the polite thing to do when you finish a meal is to leave the chopsticks laid together parallel on your plate or bowl.
  • In Korea, it is considered a bad omen if chopsticks are left in a V-sign.
  • Attempting to replicate a Foo Fighters drum solo with your chopsticks is culturally inappropriate.
  • Don’t poke someone with your chopstick under the table.
  • Don’t pick your nose, ear or any other orifice with your chopstick.
  • Do not stick a chopstick in each ear and pretend to be from out of space.

Crazy Chopstick Facts!

  • CHOPSTICK TREES: It is estimated that the Chinese alone use and discard 45 billion pairs of chopsticks each year which equates to around 23 million trees. Recent demonstrations across the country have been done in an attempt to halt the use of disposable chopsticks and stop the destruction of forests. Advertising agencies in coalition with Green Peace recently created various art installations across the city and one project in Beijing saw the creation of an entire ‘chopstick forest’ in order to demonstrate the huge and unnecessary wastage of disposable chopstick culture.
  • CHAVSTICKS: The French fashion house, Louis Vuitton has recently created a luxury designer set of elegant chopsticks costing $450. They are said to be the most expensive chopsticks in the world. Finely carved, hand polished rosewood, each one complete with the famous LV logo. Set in a decadent hinged presentation box the chopsticks, the elegant chopsticks are the embodiment of decadence.
  • WORLD RECORD CHOPSTICKS: The longest pair of chopsticks were created by Marco Polo hotel, Dubai in 2008. They measured 22.5 feet and beat the existing world record holding Shenyang province in China. Now who holds the record for the longest noodles?
  • PING PONG CHOPSTICKS: While most foreigners struggle to even pick up a piece of chicken with theirs, Chinese farmer Ma Dequi likes to catch ping-pong balls with his! Earlier this year he set a world record for the most ping-pong balls caught with chopsticks in 1 minute. The winning number was 40, which smashed his previous world record attempt of 17.
Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

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1 thought on “Chop Chop! Make Sure you Know your Chopstick Etiquette Before you Travel”

  1. Marysia @ My Travel Affairs

    Even though I’m quiet good with all those rules, do and dont’s. I remember that when I was visiting Seoul my friend told me about it ven before we start eating…I guess she was superstitious 🙂 Great article!

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