All about chopsticks!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.