Chopsticks: a Fascinating History

By Liv, DMT Collaborator on 6th February 2022 (updated: 24th January 2022) in Blog

Happy National Chopstick Day! 🥢 We’ve taken the opportunity to celebrate the utensil most associated with our beloved sushi, by taking a look at its storied past and current identity.

Read on to learn the origins, culture and some fun facts and superstitions around the tool that’s been used with Pan Asian meals for thousands of years. 

Did you know?

The Japanese were the first to invent disposable chopsticks in 1878. They are now used around the world and are common in Asian restaurants in the West. 

(History.com)

decorative image of chopsticks held aloft against a dark backdrop.

📸 Max Griss via Unsplash.

Invention

Archaeologists discovered the first examples of chopsticks in the Henan province of China, and dated them to around 1200 B.C. They were found alongside early versions of writing implements, hailing the advancement of Chinese culture and society. For context, this is around the same era as the Trojan War and the Bronze Age period in Britain.

It is believed that these earliest forms of chopsticks were used mainly for cooking, and were a simple adaptation of twigs used to stir a large pot of water or oil. They were capable of reaching deep into boiling pots to fish out small pieces of meat, fish and vegetables.

By 400 A.D., people had begun to eat meals with chopsticks, when a huge Chinese population boom put pressure on resources. To make food and fuel go further, cooks chopped it up smaller in order to decrease cooking times, perfect for the pincer grip of chopsticks.

The most common materials for chopsticks at first were wood and bamboo, which are still used today. Over time, more luxurious and decorative chopsticks have been made from materials including jade, bone, ivory, brass, silver, gold, agate and coral, reserved only for the most wealthy in society.

Ancient Chinese chopsticks were commonly kept as a set with a knife and pouch, bound together at the handle with a dual purpose decorative and functional chain.  

By 500 A.D., the Chinese weren’t the only culture to use chopsticks, they had evolved beyond their humble beginnings…

Did you know?

The English word ‘chopsticks’ is derived from Chinese pidgin English. The phrase “chop chop” means quickly. Chopsticks, by extension, means “quick sticks”, referring to the nimble ability of the Chinese when using chopsticks.

(Everything Chopsticks)

Chopsticks can be used to enjoy lots of different cuisines, not just sushi. 📸 Debbie Tea via Unsplash.

Adoption and Popularity

While the shrinking of food made chopsticks more practical, cultural changes made them the norm. This came as a result of the teachings of Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, politician, and teacher. His main message was one of benevolence, loyalty, knowledge, and virtue, which included vegetarianism 🌱 He believed that sharp utensils at the dinner table evoked violence and warfare and ruined the peaceful and contented atmosphere that should accompany a meal. As his teachings spread, so did the use of chopsticks and the abandonment of knives. In his own words:

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

It wasn’t long before different cultures also adopted chopsticks, giving their own twist to the classic Chinese style. While Chinese chopsticks are blunt-ended, as Confucius promoted, Japanese chopsticks are pointed. Traditionally, Japanese chopsticks are 8 inches long for men and 7 inches for women. 

The earliest Japanese chopsticks had a strictly ceremonial, religious purpose, and were made from a single piece of bamboo, joined at the top like tweezers. Today, this style of chopsticks is still used as a training tool for young children who are learning to eat with chopsticks.

Did you know?

When held correctly, chopstick use engages over fifty muscles! 

(School of Wok)

Superstitions & Faux-Pas

Chopsticks are more than just an eating implement, they have huge cultural significance for many people. Superstitions abound across multiple nations.

During Ancient Chinese dynastic times, silver chopsticks were believed to tarnish if they came into contact with poisoned food. This is in fact false, but they can tarnish in the presence of onions, garlic, or rotten eggs. We imagine a lot of people were unfairly charged with attempted assassination as a result!

Some Asian cultures believe if you’re given an uneven pair of chopsticks, it’s an omen that you’ll miss a boat or plane you wanted to catch. 

In Korea, there is an old superstition that the closer you hold your chopsticks to the tip, the longer you will remain unmarried.

Due to chopsticks’ deeply ceremonial associations in Japan, their use is fraught with potential faux-pas for those not in the know. There are dozens of misuses, including spearing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of food, which is thought to represent incense sticks at a funeral

It is also considered bad manners to rest your chopsticks sideways across the top of a dish, or use them to stir soup in search of the final few morsels. Check out this survey by What Japan Thinks to polish up on your chopstick etiquette. 

Did you know?

Today, around 80% of all chopsticks are produced in Obama, Japan. Considering over 22% of the global population use chopsticks as their primary eating utensil, this is a huge amount! 

(Everything Chopsticks)

chopsticks stick upright in a bowl of noodles

It is considered taboo to leave your chopsticks stuck upright in your bowl. 📸 Deniz via Unsplash.

Chopsticks at INTOKU

To eat at INTOKU, you don’t have to be a chopstick master! 

Visit to celebrate National Chopstick Day this February, and give chopsticks a try. We won’t complain if give up and grab your fork, as long as everyone can share the joy & flavour! 💕

Book your table via the links below:

Windsor 🌸

Chelsea 🌿

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