kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake

Today's post is sort of a combined concept/character one — I'm going to talk about chopsticks, and the Mandarin Chinese word for them: 筷子 (kuài zi).

According to China Radio International, chopsticks probably evolved from the use of twigs to pick up hot food. Relatedly, Fuchsia Dunlop's blog post on chopsticks recounts a memory of a camping trip in Sichuan where her guide cut and peeled some twigs from the trees to make chopsticks for their dinner.

Gong Dan's Food & Drink in China describes how in the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd century BC) chopsticks were used for eating meat and vegetables, while rice was still picked up with the hands. (Note, however, that [personal profile] pulchritude points out in comments that this may not be quite accurate.) These days, of course, rice is also eaten with chopsticks (assuming you're eating from a bowl — if you're given rice on a plate, often the most sensible way to eat it is with a fork and spoon).

Gong Dan also describes the etymology of the word. During the Zhou dynasty, chopsticks were known as 箸 (zhù). However, this is precisely homonymous with 住 (zhù), which means "to stop, to cease", and 住 was a taboo word aboard ships, since stopping a ship en route was considered bad luck. This problem was solved by referring to chopsticks as 快子 (kuài zi), a combination of 快 (kuài), meaning "quick", with the particle 子 (zi) as a suffix to make it into a "proper" word. Later, the bamboo radical (⺮) was placed above 快 to make 筷, since chopsticks are commonly made from bamboo, giving the modern word 筷子.

As someone who (a) didn't grow up using chopsticks and (b) was mildly teased at school for holding my knife and fork the "wrong" way, I'm reluctant to lay down any pronouncements about the right way to use chopsticks, but my preferred way of holding them is to lodge the bottom one firmly in the web between my thumb and index finger, resting it on my curled-in ring finger, and then to pivot the top one independently, pushing up with my third finger and down with my second finger as required, steadying it with my thumb the whole time.

I did find a pretty good YouTube video demonstrating this, but I've unfortunately managed to lose the link. There are lots of "how to use chopsticks" videos on YouTube, but be warned that some of them show rather suboptimal methods. Once you're holding your chopsticks in a way that you find comfortable, check out [personal profile] thorfinn's Chinese chopstick tips for what to do next.

Note also that chopsticks differ between cultures. Japanese chopsticks have pointed ends, while Korean chopsticks are made of metal and are flat rather than rounded in cross-section. Chinese chopsticks have blunt tips, and may be made from bamboo, wood, plastic, or less-common materials such as porcelain. I personally like the bamboo/wood ones because I find them more "grippy" than plastic ones.

The use of chopsticks to eat with is intimately connected with the way food is cut prior to cooking. Since there are generally no knives on the dining table, the cook must be careful to cut pieces of food in such a way that they can be picked up with chopsticks. This doesn't necessarily mean that everything must be bitesize — see for example this eGullet thread on ingredient sizing in Chinese cooking – but it's certainly something that must be borne in mind.

筷: kuài radical 118 (竹/⺮) Cantodict MandarinTools YellowBridge Zhongwen

Related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

Date: 2011-03-28 02:48 pm (UTC)
thorfinn: <user name="seedy_girl"> and <user name="thorfinn"> (Default)
From: [personal profile] thorfinn
Heh, old post, that one! Good to see it still comes in handy. :-)

Date: 2011-03-28 03:32 pm (UTC)
nanila: (kusanagi: amused)
From: [personal profile] nanila
I was taught to use chopsticks by my Japanese nanny. She tied the fatter ends of the chopsticks together with a rubber band, gave me my noodles and told me to eat.

I figured it out eventually.

Date: 2011-03-28 04:36 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (1)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
Using a spoon to eat noodles blows my mind. I either roll noodles onto my chopsticks until most of it is on there (I don't know if this makes sense, my ability to use words are failing at the moment), or I put the first bit in my mouth, then use my chopsticks to lift the next bit into my mouth, etc. until it's all in my mouth. Or I just bite down and let the rest slip back into the bowl (though I do this very rarely and only if my mouth is already full with other 菜.

Also the last time I read something about eating styles/methods during the Zhou dynasty, I recall that apparently the style of eating was 分餐制, i.e., all the 菜 were already portioned out and each person had their own portion with them. Chopsticks were used to transfer the 菜 to the rice bowl, at which point a spoon was used to eat the 菜 and 飯.

Date: 2011-03-28 05:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
Spoon and fork to eat rice from a plate is more of a Thai/Malaysian thing. For example, when I order a plate of roast meats with rice at Hung's, I eat it with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon.

Date: 2011-03-29 02:40 pm (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
During the Zhou dynasty, chopsticks were known as 箸 (zhù).

And that's (still?) how the Japanese word is written. (Pronounced hashi - though not synonymous with the hashi that means "bridge" (橋) nor with the one that means "edge" (端) due to the different intonation patterns, at least in the standard dialect. Not that I was ever told anything about intonation I learned Japanese, but when I read about the phenomenon later, apparently those three are a popular minimal triplet for explaining the phenomenon and showing that it's contrastive, i.e. the meaning changes depending on the pronunciation.)

Date: 2011-03-30 02:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] eatlovenoodles.blogspot.com
Neither Japanese nor Korean for that matter are tonal languages despite both using Chinese characters (albeit not in modern Korean) in their written script. F'more, the Japanese pronunciation is quite different from Chinese from my limited experience.

I'm not too sure about other languages in the region but I do know that Thai and Vietnamese are both tonal languages.

Date: 2011-03-30 06:39 am (UTC)
pne: A picture of a plush toy, halfway between a duck and a platypus, with a green body and a yellow bill and feet. (Default)
From: [personal profile] pne
I guess the change from 箸 to 筷 happened after Chinese characters were adopted for Japanese writing.

That seems quite possible.

Is Japanese intonation similar to Chinese tones?

No, not at all.

To my understanding, Japanese has pitch accent - so you don't have contour tones (rising/falling) on syllables, but each syllable is pronounced at a higher or lower level tone, and the pitch accent of a given word is (as I understand it) the position of the main drop from high to low in a word.

It's a bit more similar to English stress accent (the accented syllable is pronounced more loudly), except that instead of soft-and-loud, you have something involving low-and-high pitch.

For the three hashi, I think the intonation patterns are LH(H), LH(L), and HL(L) - the first two words sound the same in isolation (low "ha", high "shi") but are distinguished by whether there's a pitch drop after the second syllable or not, which can be seen by the pitch of a following particle - for example, in the phrase hashi ga (with the subject particle "ga").

Ways of using chopsticks

Date: 2011-03-29 09:41 pm (UTC)
thekumquat: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thekumquat
When I was in 6th form, a couple Chinese and Malay girls discussed how how you hold chopsticks can demonstrate your character (like palm-reading or handwriting analysis...)

So, having just been given a pair of enamelled Japanese chopsticks for my birthday, I picked up a few things and asked what they said about me.

The verdict, after some discussion, was "Mat salleh, lah" - which amusingly I understood (mad white person, eh!) and could respond accordingly.

My dad was convinced the only merits of my expensive education were my learning to use chopsticks and about Middle Eastern cultures (so could advise him when he moved to Kuwait/Abu Dhabi).


December 2012


Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags