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Edging Toward Japan: East Asians were once flummoxed by chopsticks

From left, Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. (Public domain)

By Damian Flanagan

Chopsticks are so closely associated with the cultures of East Asia that I'd always vaguely imagined that they must have been used in China for thousands of years. But while recently reading Edward Wang's book "Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History," I was surprised to discover that they are of more recent history than I supposed.

For millennia in ancient China, it seems that chopsticks were neither the chief means of eating one's food, nor indeed was rice the chief staple of the people. Right up until the 10th century, millet was the chief grain eaten throughout northern China and the most important dining utensil was a spoon. Chopsticks were a mere accessory if indeed one used anything at all: Confucius and his followers mostly used their fingers.

Several factors it seems powered the unstoppable rise of chopsticks. Around the first century CE, the Chinese started milling wheat flour and gorging on noodles and dumplings, best picked up with chopsticks rather than spoons. Then, the large movements of people between north and south and the government's encouragement of the cultivation of new strains of rice -- always the main staple in the warmer, wetter south -- pushed millet and spoons out of the way and opened up a new millennium of rice and chopsticks.

Knives were always the unspoken "other" of chopsticks. Indeed it was precisely because the aristocracy of ancient China were not required to kill animals or cut up their meat -- it being neatly prepared for them in bite size morsels -- that chopsticks found their way out of the kitchen and into a diner's hands. Why have knives and forks when there was no need to prong and cut meat?

The diversification of chopsticks use is affected not just by the food we are eating, but by the surrounding cultures. Koreans have stuck to the traditional combination of spoon and chopsticks, and prefer their chopsticks to be metal, both because of a fine metalwork tradition and because they are eating the meat-rich foods bequeathed to them by the Mongol invasions.

The Vietnamese, for long centuries under Chinese cultural dominance, eat all their foods with chopsticks, but the more culturally removed Thais use them mainly for noodles while often eating rice with their fingers.

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon and his advisers apparently practiced with chopsticks ahead of their momentous state visit to China in 1972. I was amused to read that Henry Kissinger was completely hopeless with them.

Yet there must have been a distant time when people from all the surrounding East Asian countries -- Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan -- first came into contact with chopsticks and were as flummoxed as Kissinger. It's ironic that when the ultra-xenophobic Shinpuren group of the 1870s attempted to resist all aspects of Westernization in Japan, they were supposed to only pick up banknotes, a new-fangled Western idea, with chopsticks.

It's strange how objects once considered utterly novel and alien can in time be transformed into something inseparable from our native culture.


(This is Part 10 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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