The significance of chopsticks in China

By Fei Gao on Dec 27, 2023

Chopsticks are an indispensable utensil for East Asians. Their first apparent use in China was around the Shang Dynasty. At the time they were primarily used for cooking, but as the Han Dynasty came around, they were adopted for eating as well. They were the main utensil used for food until the Ming Dynasty.

Chopsticks soon spread to other East and Southeast Asian countries such as, Japan, Vietnam, Korea etc., and now they have become a popular utensil used around the world.

The Legend of the Chopstick

Apparently, there is a legend that credits Jiang Ziya as the inventor of chopsticks. Jiang Ziya was a well-known military sage. On one fateful day, the sage’s wife had prepared some meat for him. But before he could eat, a bird happened to fly in and began to peck at him. Due to nature of the bird’s appearance, the sage believed it to be a divine sign, and as such the sage began to chase it. The sage gave chase to the bird until it perched itself on a bamboo twig, and said to the sage that he should pick and eat the meat using bamboo sticks.

Being the sage that he was, Jiang listened, and immediately found some bamboo sticks and went home. His wife then prompted him to eat the meat, but as soon as he began to use them, green smoke appeared. Jiang at that point knew the meat was poisoned. Instead of eating the poisoned meat, he brought it up to his wife’s face and requested her to try it first. However, his wife knowing it was poisoned, quickly turned pale and ran out of the house.

From this day forward, Jiang continued to eat every meal with these bamboo sticks, as they had the ability to detect poison. Once the neighbours heard this story, they too began to eat with bamboo sticks until it became widespread, and known as chopsticks.

Types of Chopsticks

Chopsticks generally come in 4 forms: Bamboo, Wood, Metal and Plastic, but the wealthy have some made from Jade, Gold, Ivory, Silver etc. Anything that is expensive or makes a statement about their wealth.


Bamboo has been the most common and popular material to make chopsticks out of. They are cheap, no obvious taste, resistant to heat and in abundance.


These are as common as bamboo. However, due to the nature of certain types of wood, they are not used for the long-term, as they can taint the food with prolonged use and are more susceptible to rotting.


These are much more durable than bamboo or wooden ones, and just as easy to clean. These have become more common as the price of steal relative to bamboo is quite cheap.

During ancient times, they were made from silver, as it was believed they would change colour when they came into contact with poison. However, this has since been disproved, but they do make for some fine cutlery when the need to impress arises.


These are quite cheap and readily available, but are not as popular as they do not easily pick up food.

Chopstick Styles Across Asia

Different Asian countries have different styles of chopsticks. Here we list the country and their unique style.

China: these chopsticks have round or square cross-section with tapered ends, and are typically 25–30 cm in length.

Japan: these are generally shorter than their Chinese counterparts and have round grooves to prevent food from slipping.

Korea: here metal ones are more common than any other material. To prevent food from slipping, these chopsticks have a flat side.

Vietnam: these are the longest type of chopsticks and at times thicker than others, with small ends.

Chopstick Etiquette

China alongside other Asian countries have certain etiquette when eating with chopsticks. Learn 5 of the common ones now to avoid any embarrassment:

1. Do not point your chopsticks or index finger at others. It is a sign of disrespect.

2. Do not stir food with your chopsticks. It comes across as rude.

3. Do not invert your chopsticks unless you are happy with losing face.

4. Do not stick your chopsticks in food, as they appear like joss sticks, which are reserved for funerals.

5. Do not cross your chopsticks. It is impolite and appears as if you displeased with your current company.

Gifted Chopsticks

Chopsticks are used as common gifts. Let’s explore the meaning when chopsticks are gifted to different groups of people.

For Couples

When people become engaged or married, gifting a pair of chopsticks implies the couple are meant for each other and that they may soon birth a son.

Between Lovers

By sending chopsticks between lovers, the lovers express there love will never die and that they will stay together.

Between Friends

By gifting a chopstick, you express deep, meaningful friendship, and for the friendship to always be in harmony.

For a Teacher

By giving a chopstick to a teacher, you express integrity and honesty. It also hoped for rewards to come your way. Here’s hoping that chopstick will get you that much deserved A*.

For Elders

When given to elders, it implies a long life and eternal happiness.

For Children

When given to a child, you wish for them to grow fast and healthily.

For Foreign Friends

By giving this to a foreign friend, you hope to have long and fruitful friendship, regardless of the distance.

Between Business Partners

When given to a business partner, you hope to be in business for a long time.

To People Moving Homes

By giving chopsticks to friends or relatives when they move, you hope good fortune will enter their home.

There we have it. A utensil that has much more interesting story to tell then the ‘Hey, diddle, diddle.’

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