Beyond finger foods

By Liang Yu, Shanghai Star. 2002-01-17

Explore China with chopsticks
Chopstick collector Lan Hsiang displays his collection at his home-cum-museum on Duolun Lu.

Despite their inability as a weapon for direct attack,chopsticks in fact imply a covert and internal force.

CHOPSTICKS pose a tough challenge for many foreigners interested in avouring the wonders of Chinese cuisine.

Distinguished guests including Britain's Queen Elizabeth and former US President Bill Clinton have had to undergo intense chopstick training to prepare for official China visits. Given these anecdotes, foreigners still acquiring this skill should not feel embarrassed.

But chopsticks are more to Chinese culture than simple dining instruments. They are objects of speculation and legend with 4,000 years of history.

Legendary invention

According to a well-known overseas Chinese scientist, Li Zhengdao: "Chopsticks are an ingenious invention because the instrument cleverly applies the lever principle in physics, and it is in fact the extension of man's fingers."

Some research has concluded that more than 30 joints and 50 muscles as well as related nerves are involved in the use of chopsticks - a phenomena that exercises the nervous system and increases mental acumen.

However despite these scientifically proven benefits of chopstick use, most people attribute the birth of chopsticks to functionalism.

Chopsticks lack a written history, says the No. 1 chopstick collector in China, Lan Hsiang, but the story of their birth has been preserved in legend. An early folk tale about the instrument dated back to the time of Yu, a legendary leader of ancient Chinese tribes, hails Yu as the utensil's inventor.

According to the story, Yu was so devoted to his duties that he had little time to enjoy his dinner. He just grabbed food while on the run. Since he could not reach into the boiling water to retrieve morsels of food, he snapped a twig into two pieces to grasp food from the pot. This was the first set of chopsticks.

The instrument has since become part of Chinese life and, over the past 4,000 years, it has evolved into many forms. Chopsticks of ivory or jade are designed to reflect social status while others are crafted into fine works of art.

The longest chopsticks for practical use are found in Hunan Province in central China. With a length of nearly 40 centimetres, one third longer than their ordinary peers, such chopsticks are often used when dining at a large table - seating up to 24 diners.

The considerable length of such chopsticks has led to a well-known Chinese joke: A Chinese boasts about the greatness of China to a foreigner describing a round table with a diameter of nearly 3 metres as well as chopsticks almost 2 metres long. When asked how to use chopsticks that long, the guy says, since Chinese people are so hospitable they use their own chopsticks to feed the person opposite to them.

Graceful manner

Chopsticks have become such an important part of Chinese people's lives that some traditional taboos at the dinner table are observed.

For ex-ample, remember never to stab your chopsticks into the rice, thus leaving them standing straight up, because this looks too much like sacrificial offerings for the dead. Also, never tap the bowls on the table with chopsticks as many Chinese believe only beggars do this.

Despite the assorted types of chopsticks, their basic function has remained the same: to act as a bridge between the food and the mouth.

However, some see cultural elements in the pair of narrow sticks.

Roland Barthes, famous French essayist, believes there exists some natural "harmony" between Oriental food and chopsticks. In his essay "Chopsticks" selected from "Empire of Signs", he wrote as follows:

"In the gesture of chopsticks, further softened by their substance - wood or lacquer - there is something maternal, the same precisely measured care taken in moving a child: a force (in the operative sense of the word), no longer a pulsion; here we have a whole demeanor with regard to food; the instrument never pierces, cuts, or slits, never wounds but only selects, turns, shifts.

"In all the gestures they imply, chopsticks are the converse of our knife (and of its predatory substitute, the fork) ... by chopsticks, food becomes no longer a prey to which one does violence (meat, flesh over which one does battle), but a substance harmoniously transferred."

Yet Chinese author Shen Hongfei holds that, despite their inability as a weapon for direct attack (for this reason, some domestic scholars believe chopsticks indicate the non-aggressive nature of the Chinese people), chopsticks in fact imply a covert and internal force.

This element is often depicted in film and on television shows. The father or husband only has to slam his chopsticks on the dining table, instead of smashing bowls or roaring in a thunderous rage, to show deterrent authority.

However, chopsticks do not always provide grace at the dinner table. Many times, diners can be seen using their chopsticks to route through a dish to find the best morsel of food.

Given such considerations, it is really hard to judge which represents a more civilized approach to eating: the chopstick or the knife and fork.

Copyright by Shanghai Star.