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Two Sticks that Changed the World

Chopsticks originated in China and over time became one of the country’s unique cultural icons. The exact date as to when Chinese ancestors first started using chopsticks has not yet been confirmed. However, many Chinese folktales exist to help explain the mystery. Some people claim that Jiang Ziya, a historical figure from the Shang Dynasty, was inspired by a supernatural bird to invent silk chopsticks. Others maintain that Daji, an imperial concubine during the Shang Dynasty, invented jade chopsticks in an attempt to earn King Zhou’s favor. One other tale explains that King Yu, during his “taming the floods” period, created tree branch chopsticks to quickly reach hot food. However true these stories are, one thing we know for certain is that historical records date chopsticks to over 5,000 years ago.

In folklore, chopsticks are thought to have certain traits. At weddings, for instance, brides use red chopsticks to eat longan in hopes it will bring an early birth of a healthy baby, and in some parts of rural China, families put out new chopsticks on the eve of the Spring Festival to wish for better harvests in the coming year. Two chopsticks together forming a pair have a general meaning of harmony.

The invention of chopsticks is entwined with the deep culture of the Chinese nation. Although chopsticks’ design is extremely simple, they can handle a variety of complex functions, including clipping, stirring, picking, pinching, and ripping. Compared to Western cutlery, which is complicated and limited to a few functions each, chopsticks are compact and flexible. Long-term use of chopsticks enables users to become smarter and agiler. Some scholars even claim that using chopsticks has wider effects on your body than you would think, working over 30 joints and 50 muscles and stimulating a large part of your nervous system.

Although chopsticks got their start in China, they have become widespread throughout much of Eastern Asia. While the overall design remains simple and generally the same, the specific shape and materials used to make chopsticks vary from country to country. In China, chopsticks are rectangular and feature a square head and round tail, which are said to reflect a round heaven and square earth. They are typically made from bamboo due to the plant’s rapid growth and high availability. Chopsticks in Japan, on the other hand, usually have pointed heads and are made from willow, which is said to ward off bad luck. Coincidentally, the character for chopsticks in Japanese, 箸, comes from an archaic Chinese character also meaning chopsticks. In Korea, chopsticks are durable due to the chaos caused by war, usually being made of two flat pieces of metal.

The foods for which chopsticks are used also differ by nation. The Chinese use chopsticks to eat rice and spoons to drink soup. Koreans, however, only use chopsticks to pick up food; spoons are used for eating rice and soup. As for the Japanese, they use chopsticks for both eating food and drinking soup because they believe ingredients each have their own flavor and should be tasted one by one.

Despite chopsticks’ versatility, forks and knives remain the most popular tableware in the world. Which type of cutlery is more advanced and has more advantages, though? Both Western and Eastern cultures have their own wisdom on this matter, and it doesn’t boil down to dietary habits alone but also to different concepts of lifestyle. Westerners largely eat meats, and cooking methods for these types of Western food are rigorous and complicated. People use a simple knife and fork to divide their food, reflecting the direct, independent, and, at times, aggressive personalities of Westerners. In contrast, Easterners prefer plant-heavy diets, so Chinese culinary processes are intricate, and chopsticks are suitable enough for nearly any occasion. In China, feasts and banquets no matter the type all share the same dining routine; everybody sits at a round table and shares the delicacy. In fact, round tables at banquets are a must in order to foster a unitive and polite atmosphere. Guests at such events toast each other and share food together, indicating the virtue of community and mutual respect among neighbors. A pair of chopsticks delivers a meal with tenderness and creates an idea of sharing with family. Even more, chopsticks embody Chinese people's yearning for unity and advocacy for nature.

Some people compare Chinese and Western dietary customs to dancing. Chinese banquets are like a collective dance that emphasizes a comprehensive skillset; Western meals, on the contrary, are like a tango between a man and a woman, a moment more private and intimate than its foreign counterpart. Both types of feasting have their obvious purposes. Chinese meals hold companionship in the community in high regard whereas Western customs focus more on getting to know specific neighbors, demonstrating the Western value of individuality. Ultimately, this reveals the difference between emotionality and rationality.

It’s surprising that such a little pair of sticks can hide so many secrets after exploring the history of these ancient Chinese dining utensils. China’s culinary history runs deep, and chopsticks have endured 5,000 years, being passed down from generation to generation as a cultural treasure left by Chinese ancestors. Wherever we go in the world, a pair of chopsticks will always remind Chinese people of their homeland. Each Chinese person should be proud of this revolutionary invention and help share the culture of chopsticks with every corner of the world….

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