Chopsticks are some of the simplest and most elegant eating utensils in the world, and also some of the oldest. The Chinese developed them about 5,000 years ago and call them kuai-zi. As they did with many important aspects of their culture, the Japanese imported chopsticks from China and made their own version, called hashi. There may be differences between Chinese and Japanese chopsticks, but their purpose is essentially the same.
The earliest chopsticks were undoubtedly the sticks and twigs that people broke to retrieve food from large communal pots. Their use became a matter of culture in China during the time of Confucius (500 BCE), who reportedly recommended them over knives at the dinner table for aesthetic reasons. When the Japanese imported chopsticks, they originally employed them for religious ceremonies, and the nobility were the first to use them as dinner utensils. They quickly spread to the lower classes, however, and soon became as ubiquitous as they had become in most other parts of Asia.
Shape and Size Differences
Owing to the Chinese custom of eating from a common bowl, Chinese chopsticks are longer than Japanese ones. Whereas Chinese chopsticks are a uniform 9 to 10 inches long, the longest Japanese chopsticks, traditionally reserved for men, are typically 8 inches. Women and children use shorter ones. Chinese chopsticks are usually straight with a blunt end while Japanese ones taper to a point, which may be ribbed or serrated to make it easier to pick up food. Both Chinese and Japanese chopsticks may have decorations, but Chinese chopsticks are more likely to have carvings on the ends.
Bamboo is a common material for chopsticks in both China and Japan, but traditional hashi are usually made from wood while kuai-zi may be made from a variety of materials, including jade and ivory. Early hashi were left unfinished, but by the 17th century, the Japanese began to coat them with lacquer, creating elegant, if somewhat more slippery, eating utensils. The Japanese were also the first to use disposable chopsticks, or waribashi, which they invented in 1878. They originally made them from wood, but modern waribashi may also be made from bamboo as an eco-friendly alternative.
Chopstick etiquette is similar in both Japan and China, but since Chinese people share food more often, they emphasize the proscription against touching the tips to your mouth. Moreover, you should never dig for food in a communal bowl, because whatever you touch is yours. In Japan, the custom is to take food from a communal plate with the opposite ends of the chopsticks once you have used them. You should never use the pointed tips of Japanese chopsticks to spear food. Playing with your chopsticks is bad table manners in both Japan and China, as is leaving them stuck in your food, which is a sign of respect reserved for funerals.
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