All about chopsticks!

Chopsticks (from top): Japanese, Korean, Chinese (click to enlarge)

Come on Seoul Searcher, we’re not dumb! We know about chopsticks! GOSH!

All right, Napoleon, settle down. I’m not going to explain in this article how to use chopsticks, introduce the history of chopsticks, or explain how they are exotically different from forks and knives. I have to this day never met a single person over the age of 10 who CAN’T use chopsticks, so I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligience by giving you a tutorial of the correct way to use them.

Well what are you going to talk about then?

This article, is about the different kinds of chopsticks. I have to admit that I was pretty ignorant on the matter when I was younger. I didn’t notice that China, Japan, and Korea all used different kinds of chopsticks. I just thought that some were metal, some were very long, and some short. I don’t think I really put any thought to it until college really. Furthermore, a lot of Asian restaurants in the U.S. compound the problem by simply offering a set of disposable wooden chopsticks.

Enlighten us, then.

The chopsticks that are generally used by Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese are each different and unique. Japanese have short, wooden chopsticks that have a pointed end. Chinese have long wooden or (recently) plastic chopsticks that are square on one end and round on the other. Koreans on the other hand have middle length chopsticks which are made of metal.

Metal?

Yes, metal. It’s very interesting that Koreans use metal and Japan and China don’t. There are many competing theories as to why this is so. First, China and Japan have far more bamboo resources than does Korea. It’s quite possible that the lack of available bamboo in Korea made metal the more economical choice. It’s also far more durable than bamboo, so theoretically one person would only need to use one set over his whole lifetime. Another theory is that metal implements are more easily washed, and are therefore more hygienic, but it’d be quite a stretch to suggest that Koreans historically cared more about their hygiene than did Japanese and Chinese. Finally a third theory, in direct competition with the first suggests that metal chopsticks were expensive and used only by the aristocracy. After the advent of mass production, those from lower social classes could finally enjoy something that had been previously denied to them. I don’t know which theory I like best, but the different choice of materials definitely have contributed to differing table manners in each culture.

The Chinese way to eat rice

What differing table manners?

Well, when Chinese eat meals, they hold the rice bowl in their left hands. They use the chopsticks to pick up the food, and when they eat the rice, they bring the bowl close to their mouths and scoop it in with the chopsticks. I’ve also heard that those from the higher classes in China grip their chopsticks closer to the square end (and thus further away from the food, keeping their hands clean), and the lower classes held the chopsicks closer to the round end (making it easier to shovel food into the mouth from a large bowl). Thus is was seen as a matter of good upbringing to have your hands furthest from the eating surface. This is probably why the Chinese developed such long chopsticks. They are long just to the point that they can be used effectively. Any longer and it might be too difficult for even the most experienced chopsticks expert to use.

Japanese donburi

Japanese on the other hand, were probably less influenced by this Chinese idea. Shorter chopsticks are definitely easier to use, so this is probably why they use shorter ones. Other theories suggest that the Japanese have had a donburi eating culture (donburi is the main dish served on top of rice in a large bowl), thus it’s less necessary to pick up individual items, and more necessary to use the chopsticks to slide food from the bowl into the mouth, which is difficult with longer chopsticks.

Finally we come to Korea. Korea is unique not only for the metal chopsticks, but also for use of the spoon as an eating utensil. In Korea it is improper to pick up the rice bowl, and to mix any other kinds of food with the rice before eating it (unless that’s specifically the way to eat the food, like bibimbap.. confused?). The spoon is used for rice, the chopsticks are used for food other than rice.

Why are Korea’s table manners so different?

Nobody has been able to explain to me why Korean eating culture differs so much from the other two countries. Korean people who don’t really know the answer but want to make up one so that they won’t be forced to say that they don’t know have given me a number of humorous answers to this question including:

Japanese and Chinese are less cultured.

Korea invented the spoon, but Chinese and Japanese resent Korea so they don’t want to use it.

Koreans have been influenced by the U.S. military presence and adopted the metal spoon and some table manners from the U.S.

All of these, especially the third reason, are LAUGHABLE.

A Korean metal rice bowl

If I had to venture a completely unscientific guess, I’d go with heat.

Heat? What does heat have anything to do with this?

Well, Koreans are also unique in that they have metal rice bowls. Metal bowls conduct heat much better than the Chinese and Japanese bowls do. Rice is very hot when it is cooked, therefore the metal rice bowl would also be quite hot, meaning that it would be uncomfortable to pick up. Therefore the metal rice bowl necessitates a spoon to get around this problem. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. I’m not an expert in the history of East Asian eating implement history. So again, this is a guess

Are there any other benefits of metal chopsticks?

Here’s an article about the topic. The second half of the article talks about how metal chopsticks have contributed to the manual dexterity of Koreans. It goes so far to claim that metal chopsticks are responsible for Korea’s cultural achievements.

“many of Korea’s national successes have been attributed to the mastering of such complex movements and feats of hand-eye coordination. Those achievements include consistent overwhelming victory in the global WorldSkills Competition (such as at the recent 2009 round in Calgary), outstanding performance in high-precision sports such as archery and golf, groundbreaking achievements in the field of stem cell manipulation, and world-beating growth in precision-intensive industries such as semiconductor production and specialist shipbuilding (e.g. airtight natural gas tankers)”

I personally don’t believe this to be true. I think the reason that anyone is a good golfer or archer is because of talent, hard work, and a lot of practice. The reason anyone is good a high precision job is because of a lot of training, hard work, and practice. Furthermore, the idea isn’t backed by any kind of scientific evidence. If it is the case, then why is it that people from countries that don’t even use chopsticks also excel in these areas? Is it that they also have a unique custom or trait that makes them more inclined in those activities, or is it because of talent, hard work, and practice? This is one area I wish people would think about seriously before writing.

Various chopsticks from China, Japan, and Korea.

Chopsticks for beginners!!!

46 Responses to “All about chopsticks!”

  1. Very useful information and good argument. I agree with you that Korea’s success on high presision industries even including plastic surgery is because of talent, deligent work, and a lot of practice. However, I assume that using metal chopsticks could be contributed more or less enhencing their finger talent.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      I don’t buy it, samy. Writing is way more complex and precise than using chopsticks is, and almost every literate person in the world can do that. I guess you could argue that metal chopsticks are heavier and more slippery and thus require more precision than wooden ones, but the Chinese also use really long chopsticks, thus increasing difficulty. China however can’t yet boast the same technological achievements that the article attributed to metal chopstick use. Japan on the other hand has shorter wooden chopsticks which are the easiest of the three to use, and Japan has great national achievements on par with Korea’s.

      Furthermore these achievements were made possible in Korea because of its rapid economic development, and specialization of the workforce.

      Wouldn’t it make sense then that the countries with developed economies probably make the most technological strides? And wouldn’t it also make sense that countries with developed economies probably have more people playing sports which require a lot of equipment or special grounds (Like golf, archery, ice skating, and speed skating)?

      I understand the argument, but there isn’t any scientific proof linking golf expertise to metal chopstick use.

      Break it down logically,

      Golfing is a sport which requires dexterity. Using metal chopsticks also requires dexterity. Koreans use metal chopsticks, therefore the Koreans who are good at golf are good because they use metal chopsticks. The model has the problem that it doesn’t account for outside sources besides metal chopsticks.

      Let’s try another idea.
      There are two animals, a green snake and a brown pigeon. I made a lot of noise and frightened them both. The pigeon flew away. I can then expect the same reaction from a brown mouse, because the mouse, like the pigeon, is brown.

      Obviously the second one sounds ridiculous because we know the pigeon flew away because he had wings, not because he was brown.

  2. Something gunuinely Korean!…

    Yes. Everyone can try to learn how to use them!…

  3. cha5667 Says:

    As we can see in the example of chopstics, the cultures between 3 countries, China, Japan and Korea, look similar, but quite different at the same time.

  4. Thanks for useful information.
    I have thought that the chopsticks of Asia is same things.

  5. NO!!! there is some differences among chopstickes of Asia because of thier food.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Because of their food? What do you mean? I suggested that Japanese use short chopsticks to better manipulate large bowls held close to the mouth. What Korean food requires that the chopsticks be made of metal?

  6. Great job! I thought about these differences several times and now thanks to your article I can finally reply to my questions.
    I asked myself why Koreans use metal chopsticks. The first possibility was due to the lack of wood and so they started using metal which is a very good idea also for preventing deforestation. In addition metal maintains the heat of the food. Other possibilities were exactly the same that you’ve listed in your article!
    Few weeks ago I went to one of the many chinese shops here in Lecco. I was looking for nice chopsticks and I asked to the chinese lady if they have metal ones. She looked at me strangely and said: “Metal chopsticks don’t exist!”. So I had to explain that Koreans use them. Then she said that for chinese it would be dangerous to use metal chopsticks because they would always hit their teeth while eating!
    Koreans have higher precision because of daily practice and also thanks to their traditions and culture, not because of genetic differences.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Well, I have plenty of Chinese friends who have no problem using the metal chopsticks in Korea. I don’t know why that lady gave you such a silly response. Perhaps she wanted to save face?

      As far as Koreans having “higher precision” I’d like to know what gave you that idea. I think any culture could produce high precision workers if economic conditions were right.

  7. Gina Joy Says:

    Personally, I prefer the metal ones. They don’t absorb any of the food juices or sauce, and as you mentioned they are easier to clean. And the painted lacquer ones have always made me fear a bit of poisonousness. You didn’t mention any thing about the lacquer, SeoulSearcher.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Yea, the lacquer ones are mostly ornamental in Japan. Most people just simply use bamboo ones there. I like the metal ones for most things, but I guess I’ll never have a chance at being a good golfer or archer, because I don’t like the metal ones for eating noodles.

  8. seulkee7 Says:

    It’s really interesting !! I never thought about that this three conturies use different type of chopsticks.
    I have metal chopsticks from Korea and the other day one of my polish friend said that it’s pretty and she wats to have it because in Poland they don’t have metal one , just wooden one. And now i can tell her about this story and i could give her metal chopstick as present from Korea🙂

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      That’s a really neat present then.

      I think it’s also good to mention that metal chopsticks are better for the environment than disposable ones.

  9. Hello! Sorry for the delay.
    Well… I do not agree with the fact that right economic conditions are important for the development of higher precision or better… it isn’t like that everywhere.
    Art doesn’t submit to this law. We can find artists with great precisions in countries that aren’t economically strong.
    Unfortunately people who are really talented in handicraft are becoming fewer because of the economic development and also because of lack of time. To be precise you need a lot of time and exercise. Some examples: persian carpets, indian decorations on walls, tunisian plate decorations, yemeni windows, korean silver art and so on…
    The fact of using chopsticks develops the quantity of movement that your hand can do. So it becomes easier to be precise. But in my opinion, the real reason why Koreans are precise in what they do is due to the confucianism.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Melek, I think you are misguided. The argument isn’t whether Koreans are precise or not. Some are, some are not. There isn’t any evidence to show that Koreans have more (or less) precision than any other population.

      You are right, economic conditions do not relate to precision. That’s not what I said. High tech, high precision jobs simply become more available and necessary in developed countries than they do in those which aren’t developed. When I tried to relate that to the economy, it wasn’t to say that a good economy makes people more precise, only that there are more opportunities to exercise the precision.

      You said it yourself, to be precise you need a lot of time and practice. If most of a country’s population worry about putting food on the table every day, how is the country going to be able to seriously consider developing semiconductors?

      I’m also not arguing that using chopsticks develops movement in the hand. What I am arguing though is that using chopsticks a lot will make someone good at using chopsticks… not golf. Like I said before, writing requires more precision than chopsticks does. Writing a lot will make someone a more capable writer.

      As far as the role of Confucianism in making a people more precise, I’m interested in hearing your theory. So if you could, please explain it.

  10. Thanks for these useful information! Even if I’m using the metal chopsticks everyday, I haven’t thought that 3 counturies you’ve metioned above have those differences because of their table manners.
    It’s true I prefer to use wooden chopsticks when I eat JjaJangMyeon(sorry, I don’t know this in English :P)

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Table manners difference? Yea, perhaps, but is it the table manners that make the different chopsticks, or the chopsticks that make the table manners?

  11. parkmyungsoo Says:

    interesting.

    I was thinking that maybe the lack of bamboo is not the reason, but the abundant steel resource and artisans were the reasons why metal chopsticks prevail in Korea. Especially, considering Korean metal artistry/industry has been popular since the time of Gaya. but yes yes yes. i, on the other hand agree that when it comes to natural resources, Korea can’t beat China. how come metal chopsticks aren’t so much in use there?

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Even though most Koreans use metal chopsticks now, I am willing to bet that it wasn’t always the case. It appears to be something that only the wealthy could afford. Most average Koreans I would think, used wood.

      Some people like to point out the fact that the Japanese imperial household uses metal chopsticks (which I actually don’t know to be true) as evidence that the imperial household is Korean. If they did indeed historically use metal chopsticks, I’d be more inclined to believe it was because they were super rich.

  12. Nam Joo Young Says:

    hm, actually most of South East Asians use chopsticks too and they’re all square on the end and round on the other, but not as long as the chinese chopsticks. I guess because these countries have been colonized by China for quite a long period of time, they were influenced much on the food culture.

    And it’s because koreans use metal chopsticks, they’re very dexterous. If u tell Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian etc, to try using metal chopsticks to pick up a tofu from the side without breaking it, they definitely can’t.
    And i heard by using chopstks (metal), ur brain works well too ?? Because u need to concentrate on picking up the food ?? idk, i heard something like that~

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      I don’t buy it Joo Young. Koreans aren’t any more or less dexterous because of chopsticks. Using metal chopsticks a lot will make you good at using metal chopsticks, and nothing else. The skills for chopsticks don’t translate into anything like golf, surgery, baseball, speed skating, or soccer. Plus, I know plenty of Koreans who are downright clumsy.

      People need to realize that the reason ANYONE is good at ANYTHING is not because he belongs to a certain race. It’s because of a lot of hard work and practice. Dexterity isn’t a racial trait!

  13. I’m sorry. You’re right. I didn’t explained myself very well…
    I agree with you about the fact that the use of chopsticks wouldn’t make someone good at playing golf but I think that it would make someone good at using tools similar to chopsticks. For example the tools of a silver artist. What I’m saying is that if someone uses chopsticks everyday and he concentrates on HOW he uses them, he will probably better his technique in what he does with similar tools. Of course, there are a lot of people all around the world that have developed high precision in what they do because of their everyday’s practice and not because they use chopsticks!!
    About confucianism, well… I’m not so good at it but I know that it’s a chinese philosophy that has influenced a lot of asian countries and actually Korea too. The aim of this philosophy is to guide someone to reach interior perfection and perfection in what he does as well. What I’m saying is that MAYBE in Korea there’s a stronger thought towards reaching perfection and precision because of their traditional national spirit. I also have to say that everyone’s goal is to better himself and it doesn’t depend on the fact that you are Korean or French or American etc…
    “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” (Confucius quote)

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      First.. nobody concentrates when they use chopsticks. They just do it. If they need to concentrate it’s because they can’t use chopsticks. Do you concentrate on how you write with a pen or walk? No, you just do it.

      Second… Confucianism is indeed a philosophy, and many experts say that Korea was traditionally more Confucian than China or Japan, but again, I don’t see any connection between precision and Confucianism. I don’t think that there’s any impetus to do well for Koreans than there is for any other people in our world. There are Koreans who are amazing, diligent, intelligent, profound, and industrious. There are also Koreans who are stupid lazy racist morons. They all grow up and live in Korea, going under almost the same cultural stimuli. So how can anyone possibly say that Confucianism or chopsticks or anything else makes Koreans good at this or that, when there are clearly examples of Koreans who aren’t good at this or that, yet still underwent the same stimuli.

      This whole argument about chopsticks making people good at stuff is like.. if someone were to say.. an American wins a gold medal in fencing, and suddenly people say, oh, Americans cut meat with knives and stab at it with forks, therefore it has prepared Americans for fencing skills.

      Or how about this one.

      The reason why Russians are so good at ballet is because they drink a lot. When they are drunk, they need to concentrate extra hard on balancing themselves as they walk. This skill directly translates into ballet.

      Do you not see how the very idea is ridiculous?

      • While I agree on some parts, you also have to understand culture to really understand parts of what the commenter meant – because I agree with them to some extent, too.

        Eating etiquette is just as much a part of any culture as any other part – it’s not just something random people do or don’t do. They’re trained from childhood – in most cultures – to “do” or “not do” certain things; the only exceptions being generational deterioration of the original culture and class differences in older times (because typically “lower classes” didn’t have the same kind of lifestyle or expectations growing up as higher classes did, historically – in almost ANY society).

        Because of the high importance of Confucianism in Korea’s upper class in the past, quite a bit of their current culture was actually effected from it simply from habits that sprung from that lifestyle traveling through the generations as “taught manners”. Of course, there’s always going to be a difference due to individual personalities (being taught them doesn’t equal using them) and not everyone WAS taught them so I’m sure there are a few here and there that don’t *know* etiquette.

        Koreans also aren’t too far from the rest of Asian mindset, either – they’re extremely driven, VERY competitive, and most take traditions, culture, and etiquette very seriously : simply due to 1) EXTREME pressure growing up to do so; disappointing your family or parents in Asia is generally something most go -entirely- out of their way to avoid if possible, and quite a lot of the older generations right now are still very “old school” and not as relaxed as the younger generations are becoming; 2) the basic “honour system” there – you don’t get much of anywhere if you’re seen as rude as most try to avoid it; and 3) appearances are HIGHLY valued there and that tracks back to 1 and 2. Of course there’s always going to be others who don’t “fit that mold” or care about it all – but they’re a minority, is the point.

        Things like this even effect their *drinking* etiquette – such as pouring drinks for older people or authority figures, NOT drinking face-to-face (you turn your head and face to the side to drink alcohol there, otherwise you’re rude if you don’t), supporting your glass (even just holding your glass with one hand instead of two towards someone older than you is rude), etc.

        So yes, this “precision” debate could in fact actually have been travel-down from the culture, upbringing, expectations, and habits of both their historical culture as well as Confucianism (and the two can’t really be separated there). The basic expectations of that filtered through EVERY aspect of life because that’s how they practiced those beliefs – eating etiquette, not walking inside with shoes on, being as clean and orderly as possible, etc.

        However, THAT being said – I also don’t think that had any effect on the overall *design* and material of chopsticks in general. They have a point – but it’s being extended a bit far in my opinion.

        • That is a very long winded answer. Metal chopsticks do not make one better at golf. Agree? Then argument over.

          • if you’re going to be a douche you could at least make the effort to make sense… Just sayin’. The original point that was being made by the commenter before was that precision was an adopted habit brought on by Confucianism – which is entirely possible given all circumstances and history. Had you bothered to actually use your eyes and READ the “long winded answer” – or the original comment it was backing – you’d have known that. You would have also seen that further down, I DID mention that point was being extended a bit too far. *rolls eyes* people today need to learn basic reading and comprehension skills, apparently.

          • My bad. In the smartphone app it isn’t clear as to what anyone is replying to. That said, I think that culture breeds the manners, not the other way around.

          • In reply to your last comment – you’re reiterating what I already said. I did not say manners bred culture at all. I very clearly pointed out that Confucianism is a part of their culture, their culture informs their habits/manners, and those do lead to a certain meticulous nature that could actually affect how precise they are in various different things – but especially eating/drinking habits. I’m not really sure if it’s just that you’re not reading what I said, or if you’re genuinely not understanding it for some reason; but, there was no “other way around” in anything I said in my comment.

          • Okay then we are in agreement.

  14. Well… I do concentrate when I use a pen, maybe it’s just because I like calligraphy.
    There are a lot of prejudices all around the world and I’m living in a country defined as “pizza, mafia and mandolino”. I’m not saying at all that Koreans are certainly more precise than others!
    I’m here to better understand the Korean culture and I surely have a lot to learn from it.
    As you explained me, the confucianism is one of the huge amount of prejudices.
    Thank you for releasing my mind from this prejudice.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      ? Ok

      I’ll try to make my view on the matter super simple.

      Clockmaking is a precise technology. The Swiss, a people who don’t use metal chopsticks (or any for that matter) excel at this. Where are the world famous Korean clockmakers?

  15. This post was very interesting ans easy to understand. So I can read this post entertainingly.

  16. You’re obviously hiding your true opinion about Koreans, and I’d appreciate some honesty.

  17. You’re obviously hiding your true opinion about Koreans, and I’d appreciate some honesty. ‘Stupid, racist, lazy morons’- how absolutely divine of you.

  18. One mistake on this, probably two, the Japanese do not slide things into their mouth, I’m betting the Chinese don’t scoop things in theirs either. Both cultures do condone placing the bowl neither the mouth. The Japanese slurp soup, yes, but without their chopsticks.

    • The Seoul Searcher Says:

      Your opinion is interesting… but I am not wrong. And how do you eat Japanese noodles without chopsticks?

  19. Cool!!! SO helpful casue i am writing a report on chopsticks!!!1

  20. Thanks!!!! U heplful!

  21. You never mentioned the highly prized and now rare Chinese ivory chopsticks. Do you have any input?

  22. Nice article, ran across it trying to look up a pair of Korean chopsticks I wanted LOL But I will say – the metal spoon actually did serve a functional purpose. As far as I’ve learned and been told, it was traditionally what royalty would use historically and within the Joseon Era. The spoons then were *silver* and actually used to “test” food for poisons due to silver turning odd colours and deteriorating from chemical reactions – it was eventually affordable for “lower classes” through the years and is now a staple in most households and public dining. I haven’t particularly researched the chopsticks, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if their material make was similar in history and/or simply economical. Koreans in general are fairly entrenched in a common-sense mindset so it would seem plausible to me that it was simply what material they had in abundance and was most practical for longer-term use and care.

  23. Chinese do no hold their bowls when they eat. It’s Japanese. I think you confused between China and Japan.

  24. Reblogged this on cornJi.

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