Jul 27

(Letter) Why chinese use chopsticks (From Die Spiegel online)

Written by guest on Sunday, July 27th, 2008 at 1:00 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, culture | Tags:, ,
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Hefty discussions usually arise over the advantages and disadvantages of using chopsticks instead of fork and knives.

To show the western point of view, here is a is a translation of an article published in the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (Link to the original article)

Chinese for beginners: Why do Chinese use chopsticks?
Chopsticks represent the image of the Chinese cuisine and a hurdle for the each novice to the Chinese culture.
Why do Chinese refuse so adamantly to use fork and knife? Spiegel Online explains the love with chopsticks.

Basically the question should be: Why use forks and knifes? Considering the small size of the ingredients, cutting tools are superfluous at the eating table. The preparation in small pieces has also taste advantages, but there is also a more profane reason: Firewood was scarce even in ancient China. Quick and low energy cooking was the motto of the Chinese housewife, therefore she used as small as possible ingredients.

Quite probably did the ancient Chinese of the Shang Dynasty, 2000 years before Christ, “fish” their vegetable and meat pieces from the common saucepan using twigs. That they later turned to use bamboo and wood as chopstick material have simple reasons: both materials resists heat and are taste neutral. To give the chopstick a cultural background, did occupy even Confucius. For him were knifes at the eating table a barbaric bad habit. Whether he said something about forks remains unknown to us.

Eating slowly
The argument, “eating with chopsticks is a slow business”, contradicts the capability of Chinese people to achieve high revolution’s rate by hand rotation, literally. This is something that the foreigner does not know (and intentionally left out of the small instructions of the chopstick packaging). With the left hand will the bowl kept glued to the chin, while the right hand is kept busy with the transportation of the calories. This is accomplished not with a pinching but rather with shovel like movement. Accordingly, the typical Chinese salutation during eating is not “bon appetit”, but “eat slowly”.

Problems belong to the past: tepid and sloppy cleaning makes the chopstick a bacteria paradise and therefore a hygienic risk. Some years ago the Government required the use of disposable chopsticks. The people did as told – and the requirement must be now rethought. Around 45 milliards chopsticks are used each year in China, additionally 15 Milliards are exported to other Asian countries. No wonder that whole forests has fallen victim of the chopstick production. To brake the consumption of disposable chopsticks a tax of 5% was introduced in 2006.

Eating at the fair.
For the foreigner is this hardly enticing. Who goes to a restaurant in China, will quickly realize: chopstick are the least of the shocking differences. Romantic candle light ambient, subdued conversation, restrained waiters… quite the opposite. Chinese eating temples are illuminated to the last corner with 200 watts neon tubes. In the end the commensal want to see what is being served to him on the table. And the ambient is so loud that conversation is only possible in the upper band of the sound spectrum. Before such a sound barrier of the last popular Chinese-Pop-hits (all sound controls at full power so even the guest at the most remote corner can hear the song), and the lively drinking games of the neighbouring tables, the guest must be trained in lip-reading. Smokers can give a heavy sight of relief, and light up a cigarette.

A couple of cigarettes between each course? No problem. That will tidy up the stomach, is fun and it is expressly allowed. Eating is a delight, a pleasure and a social event. Loud entertainment go together with it, in the same way like the annoying piece of meat stuck between the rear molars.

Blowing one’s nose… Tabu!
In spite of all the supposed lack of restraint: there is a list of Taboos at the Chinese eating table. Blowing one’s nose at the eating table is held as extremely disgusting. If additionally the “big nose”(foreigner) put the wet rag in his pocket, will the Chinese look revolted away. Just as uncultivated would be to eat with one’s fingers. Even chicken, which is presented on the table with all its bones, will be eat using chopsticks. Foreigners must get used to this supreme discipline, and bear the involuntary amusement of the rest of the table before his fiddling with the chopsticks.

Not so amusing is the typical faux pas, to stuck the chopstick vertically in the rice bowl. A sure way to attract spirits and demons to the eating table, because this is the way offers are presented before the ancestor’s shrine.

The wrangling with the bill is an art in itself, which requires training and ability. With sporting ability they commensals will try to attract the attention of the waitress using bill bundles or credit cards. Sometimes one of them jump 10 minutes before the end of the last course, to go fast to the rest room. Not to avoid paying the bill, but to secretly go to the cashier to pay it and return to the table with a smug smile on his face. I win! The custom that each pay its share of the bill leave the Chinese frozen. How embarrassing and tight fisted!

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27 Responses to “(Letter) Why chinese use chopsticks (From Die Spiegel online)”

  1. Netizen Says:

    What about people using their fingers?

  2. Daniel Says:

    Ah, the memory of my father fighting his friends for the bill as the people in Sizzler looked at us curiously.

  3. deltaeco Says:

    “What about people using their fingers?”

    The article states that using fingers to eat at a Chines table is a Tabu. Is the information correct?

    In my country it is not necessary something to be looked down. There is a motto here.
    “If you really want to enjoy the food, you must put your fingers on it”

    It is allowed with the right food though; fried chicken, several kinds seafood, lamb ribs, etc…

  4. opersai Says:

    Um, is this article man translated? It reads a little awkward though.

    As for people using hand to eat. Sometimes it’s looked down upon, seen as uncivil and unhealthy (hands not clean). I remember getting scolded by my parents for eating with hands when I was little. Wait, but there are exceptions, like buns, pies(馒头,饼子) usually can be eaten with hands. Um… I’m confused myself now. I think maybe in the chicken case, you gets your hand all sticky and dirty, that’s why it’s frowned upon? I personally don’t like eating chicken legs with hand though, it get’s my figure all sticky in the end, even with the napkin wouldn’t help. Beside, I can eat the leg perfectly fine with the chopsticks. That’s just personal preference though, I’ve seen plenty of friends (Chinese) that eats with their hand.

    I guess, the conclusion can only be, be careful not to paint with a big brush. China is very diverse, not to talk about different ethnic groups, even if you only talk about Han people, it’s still vastly different from region, class, individual. The article mentioned the loudness of the general Chinese restaurant, and the eating habit of Chinese. That’s very grossly generalized. 食不言,寝不语, (Don’t talk while eating, don’t speak after lay down for sleep) is motto from Confucius. From here, we can see that in ancient China, the upper class (educated people) fashioned quiet eating at table. Talking during meal was looked down upon, and thought as uncivil, lower class – for the common folks. How true that still is I don’t know, but I doubt the restaurants the article described are the more expensive, and high end classed ones. I heard from friends, who once ate at a high end restaurant in China said the service there is unmatched to what she ever experienced before. The waitress were standing by the corners of the room observing her next need. She dropped her chopstick on the ground, before she could bent down and pick it up, the waitress handed her a new pair. Also, in ancient China, bigger restaurant usually separate into common eating area for loud discussions, and private rooms(阁间), which is meant for quiet and private eating. In modern China too, there are also private rooms(包间) you can eat in, whereas in common area, don’t expect for quiet dinning.

  5. opersai Says:

    By the way, I have trouble with that article, why does it sounds so… um… condescending?!

  6. MoneyBall Says:


    It’s not correct. In beijing if you go to one of those “lamb bone” (羊蝎子) places, everybody eats with their hands, they would give u a glove for it.

    When I was in Australia, eating burgers at Hungary Jack, my britsh friend used knife and fork cut his whooper to small pieces and ate it, amazing to me. I guess they have to be the only ppl in the world never use their hand

  7. deltaeco Says:

    “everybody eats with their hands, they would give u a glove for it.”

    No finger licking? 😉

  8. FOARP Says:

    @Moneyball – I think your friend was trying to show off, I do not know one British person who would do such a thing unless they were attempting to be ironic, but then I do know a lot of crazy expats.

  9. deltaeco Says:

    “Um, is this article man translated? It reads a little awkward though. ”
    Hand translated by yours truly…

    “why does it sounds so… um… condescending?!”
    Germans can sound…. quite condescending.

  10. werew Says:

    “Sometimes one of them jump 10 minutes before the end of the last course, to go fast to the rest room. Not to avoid paying the bill, but to secretly go to the cashier to pay it and return to the table with a smug smile on his face.”
    LOL. I have seen my relatives being extremely polite and fought for the bill for 5 minutes before, but that trumps everything that I have seen.

  11. Buxi Says:

    I think taste is the primary reason. To really enjoy your food, you should be eating bite-sized portions of 20 different ingredients… eating a big block of just one thing… what a waste. 🙂

    I think like almost all Chinese, I enjoy/appreciate our loud food culture.

  12. S.K. Cheung Says:

    I think this boils down to “when in Rome…” If I’m eating at a nice Chinese restaurant, I expect it to be brightly lit, and noisy. If I’m eating at a nice Italian place, I expect candles and muffled conversation. So if I want a nice romantic meal with my wife, we’re not going to a CHinese restaurant; but if we’re meeting up with 10 friends, we’d wouldn’t go to the Italian place where we’d be sitting there just looking at each other.

    The chopsticks vs knife and fork thing naturally relates to how different cultures cook and eat. Tough to eat steak with chopsticks; knife and fork just makes sense. Now, most Chinese dishes you could eat with a fork, but seldom would you need a knife, and obviously chopsticks work just fine. As for the hygiene issue, i don’t think you need disposable chopsticks…after all, how would it look if a fancy steakhouse gave you plastic forks and knives. But having a communal pair of chopsticks for each dish makes sense, so people around the table can share food without sharing germs.

  13. Soy Says:

    Chopsticks are great for noodles.
    It would be more efficient than eating them with fork and spoon (although they are used for eating spagetti).

    [8] Many kings and emperors used silver chopsticks to see if their food had been poisoned.

    [9] Chopsticks are traditionally placed in brides’ dowries, because “chopsticks” in Chinese is pronounced “kuaizi”, which sounds like “get a son soon.”…’

    from “The Story of Chopsticks”

  14. hell Says:

    —The article states that using fingers to eat at a Chines table is a Tabu. Is the information correct?—

    Spiegel did another piece of failed journalism..

    First of all whole North China eats with fingers and fork and knife. (there are many food wich cant be eaten with shopsticks)
    West China eat with fingers and knife.
    East China eats how it comes. but young people like western tools more.

  15. MutantJedi Says:

    @deltaeco, @opersai

    “why does it sounds so… um… condescending?!”
    Germans can sound…. quite condescending.

    One of my best friends in University was a Chinese fellow who was born and grew up in Germany. He reminded me so much of my maternal grandfather – from the button sweater to the air of German order.

    … I don’t know if it so much an issue of eating with fingers but licking them afterwards. Some things must be picked up with the fingers such as the buns opersai mentioned. “Finger licking good” was a tag line that just couldn’t find resonance in China.

    In my Canadian upbringing, the rule was if the thing had a “handle”, such as an exposed bone or the crust of a pizza, you could be forgiven for using fingers.

  16. Opersai Says:

    deltaeco Says:
    “Um, is this article man translated? It reads a little awkward though. ”
    Hand translated by yours truly…

    Thanks for the translation. As much as I don’t like this article, it’s interesting to see how other people interpret Chinese customs/ culture/ habits. =)

  17. deltaeco Says:

    To make a broad picture of a country is always bound to be imprecise. Journalist tend to focus on topics or on easy to spot differences, easier to understand and readily recognizable by their target readers.

    For preciser information you could turn to research journals, but its lecture is usually quite boring, sometimes even for the experts on the matter. That is why you wont usually find research journals on streets kiosks.

    All in all I do not consider the article outrageously incorrect. If the production figure of 45 Milliards is not way out of the mark, it means that eating with chopsticks, if not the most common eating technique, seems to be quite significant though.

    Of course, there are many differences inside a country, things may vary according to regions, age or social environment. Happens even in the smallest countries…

    A journalist does not only convey “raw” information, but also a framework to make the information more accessible to its readers. That is why sometimes topics or fixating on the most socking differences between cultures or social environments are taken a little to far.

  18. deltaeco Says:

    “it’s interesting to see how other people interpret Chinese customs/ culture/ habits. =)”

    That was the intention 😉

  19. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To MJ:
    agree about the pizza bit…I find it odd when people eat pizza with a knife and fork. Same goes for wings.

  20. oldson Says:

    I think the article left out a few essential parts of the “Chinese eating experience”:

    1) Chinese not only argue AFTER the meal is over but also BEFORE when trying to decide who should order. People will keep shoving the menus at guests and asking that they order. For foreigners its funny because unless the menu has pictures they have no idea of what to order. This usually takes 5-15 minutes.

    That is why when I was a foreigner manager I made sure to preorder the room and dishes so the foreigner employees would agree to eating out. Otherwise you wait for 10-30 minutes for food to be slowly put on the lazy susan, then you pick at the food and slowly gorge yourself for a few hours and then wait for people to duke it out over the bill.

    2) hell is right in that some areas in China it is acceptable to use hands – people in North China use hands with things like the famous ribs dish (plastic gloves are provided and straws to suck out the marrow), steamed buns, Chinese french fries (zha shu tiao), etc.

    3) Chinese restaurants are noisy, lively and crowded. They are not like the typical silent Western restaurant which sound like depressing libraries but with food being served. The Chinese eating experience is primarily a social one and yes, the music will be loud, people will be smoking and spitting and some guys will take off their shirts (especially if its a hot pot restaurant). Just because the Chinese have a different traditional way of eating doesn’t devalue their food/eating culture.

    Many younger Chinese prefer quieter Western style restaurants but when eating out with the family a large Chinese restaurant will be chosen.

  21. TonyP4 Says:

    Reasons abound.

    * Chop sticks are great to shovel rice from bowl.

    * Chop sticks are good to pick up small pieces of food. Most Chinese food have been chopped into small pieces so the eater does not have to waste time in cutting them and they’re easier to cook (evenly heated).

    * It is less barbaric 🙂 . Chinese enjoy meals and they do not want to fight during meal time. Chop sticks are never used as weapons (unless you’re Kung Fu master) compared to fork (to pierce) and knife (to kill).

    * It is for our entertainment. Do you enjoy the foreigners trying to balance the food with the chop sticks? 🙂

    * We’ve earlier civilization than the west. At that time making fork and knife with metal is not feasible but we have plenty of bamboo. Unless you eat with hands as in similar civilizations, it is quite logical to use chop sticks.

    I’m watching TV and waiting for my friends and can have so many reasons, so there must be more.

  22. TonyP4 Says:

    Again, not to be a racist but basing on fact, Muslims eat with one hand and use the other hand to wipe their asses (not at the same time 🙂 ). When I was in a Muslim country like Malaysia, I lost my appetite fast just in thinking of it – not a good poster for tourist ads.

    We may have another article in Beijing Daily titled “Why westerns use fork and knife?”. We should choose the best of each culture for a world culture and fuse/enjoy them together. It is always fun to learn other cultures different from our own.

  23. Kevin Says:

    Delightful article!

    I, for the life of me, can’t get myself to use chopsticks. I am one of those wretched folks you see struggling with chopsticks for half an hour at a sushi restaurant before finally giving in and using my fingers.

    All the same, it is a part of Chinese culture, and it fits their food and their dining manners. Why go sticking your forks into what is an already established practice in another culture?

    We should use our forks, let the Chinese use their chopsticks, the Indians their hands, and let everyone be happy.

  24. Sushi knife Says:

    Please note: One of my VERY BEST BFF’S, does cry easily. Salmon is particularly delicious as it melts in your mouth. Nigiri sushi sometimes comes with a thin strip of nori (seaweed) tying up the bundle or with a border of nori to hold in loose toppings such as fish roe, sea urchin and oysters.


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