Chopsticks are a pair of sticks, usually wooden, used for eating Asian food. They originated in China sometime during the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C. ). As Chinese culture spread, chopsticks were introduced to other countries, and quickly became common across Asia. The English term chopsticks apparently is derived from the Pidgin English spoken in British Chinese colonies. A Chinese term, kuai-tzu, or quick ones became chop (Pidgin for quick) sticks.
Much lore surrounds chopsticks, especially in Japan. Their use is said to promote a child's intellectual development, and at home each member of the family has his or her own pair of chopsticks which are suited to his or her hand size. Many taboos govern the use of chopsticks. For instance, the two sticks must not be grasped in one fist or laid across a bowl. It is also forbidden to stab food with chopsticks, to lick the tips, or to beat on a plate or bowl with them to get someone's attention. The shape, size, and material of chopsticks indicate specialized uses. Chopsticks for personal use may be quite ornate and beautiful, hand carved, inlaid, and coated with lacquer in traditional patterns. Plain, long wooden chopsticks with blunt tips are used for cooking. For eating out, Asian restaurants provide disposable single-use chopsticks made of light wood. There are even special long chopsticks used only for cleaning out cat litter boxes in Japan. The sticks worn in the hair of Japanese Samurai warriors in pre-modern times were apparently used for grasping the severed head of a vanquished enemy.
The most prevalent material used to make chopsticks is aspen wood. Aspen is used to make the disposable chopsticks used in restaurants. About 20-billion pair are used yearly, mostly in Japan. Many other materials are used to make chopsticks designed for more than one use. Metal chopsticks are common in some areas, and elaborate chop-sticks may be carved of precious materials such as ivory or jade. Most chopsticks are made of some variety of wood, and coated with oil, paint, or lacquer. Some varieties of chopstick wood have superstitions related to them. Chestnut chopsticks are said to bring wealth, black persimmon chopsticks, long life. Other typical woods used for chop-sticks are pine, cedar, cherry, sandalwood, and paulownia. A traditional Japanese material is a sandwich of thin boards of maple, pine, and cedar called shuboku wood. In general, the wood used needs to be relatively hard and impervious to water. The color and grain of the wood is also important for fine quality chopsticks.
This is the process for fine quality, hand-crafted chopsticks.
Mass-produced chopsticks, especially the disposable kind, are made rapidly in a fully automated process. Aspen wood is harvested, and the finest grade wood selected. This wood is fed into a mill, which cuts it into blocks. This process typically happens at the site where the wood is grown. Then the aspen blocks are exported to the country where they will be used. The blanks are cut, sanded, and finished at a chopstick factory, which may churn out millions of pairs a year. Disposable chopsticks are typically "half-split." That is, the two halves of the chopstick pair are only half separated, and they are only snapped apart when ready to be used. So the blank in this case is actually for the pair of chopsticks, not the individual sticks.
The quality of the wood is very important to how well a chopstick will wear. Fine makers inspect the wood carefully before beginning, and are able to observe it throughout the manufacturing process. The maker picks the wood for a pleasing color and grain, and strives to bring out these characteristics in the shaping and finishing.
The disposable chopstick industry has been accused of exceedingly wasteful foresting practices. Because only very fine-grained wood is suitable for chopsticks, only some trees, or only parts of some trees, can be forested. In some cases, the forest is clear-cut, though only one quarter of the wood is then fed into the chopstick mill. The remaining lumber is left to rot or burn. The bulk of disposable chopsticks are sold in Japan, where using someone else's chopsticks is considered disagreeable. Restaurants almost always provide their customers with one-use chopsticks, but because of environmental concerns, some Japanese consumers are foregoing disposable chopsticks. Some corporations are providing their workers with reusable plastic chopsticks in company lunchrooms. Another replacement product growing in popularity is disposable chopsticks that are made only from wood obtained from forest thinning. This is supposed to represent wood that would otherwise be wasted, so the product is environmentally sound. Consumer boycotts and voiced concerns have already made disposable chopsticks a prominent environmental issue. Faced with growing opposition to their wasteful practices, chopstick manufacturers may be forced to come up with alternative.
Amaury, Saint-Gilles. Mingei: Japan's Enduring Folk Arts. Boston: C.E. Tuttle, 1989.
"Chopped Chopsticks." The Economist (August 4,1990): 56.
Karliner, Joshua. "God's Little Chopsticks." Mother Jones (September 1994): 16.
— Angela Woodward