Hefty discussions usually arise over the advantages and disadvantages of using chopsticks instead of fork and knives.
To show the western point of view, here is a is a translation of an article published in the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (Link to the original article).
Chinese for beginners: Why do Chinese use chopsticks?
Chopsticks represent the image of the Chinese cuisine and a hurdle for the each novice to the Chinese culture.
Why do Chinese refuse so adamantly to use fork and knife? Spiegel Online explains the love with chopsticks.
Basically the question should be: Why use forks and knifes? Considering the small size of the ingredients, cutting tools are superfluous at the eating table. The preparation in small pieces has also taste advantages, but there is also a more profane reason: Firewood was scarce even in ancient China. Quick and low energy cooking was the motto of the Chinese housewife, therefore she used as small as possible ingredients.
Quite probably did the ancient Chinese of the Shang Dynasty, 2000 years before Christ, “fish” their vegetable and meat pieces from the common saucepan using twigs. That they later turned to use bamboo and wood as chopstick material have simple reasons: both materials resists heat and are taste neutral. To give the chopstick a cultural background, did occupy even Confucius. For him were knifes at the eating table a barbaric bad habit. Whether he said something about forks remains unknown to us.
The argument, “eating with chopsticks is a slow business”, contradicts the capability of Chinese people to achieve high revolution’s rate by hand rotation, literally. This is something that the foreigner does not know (and intentionally left out of the small instructions of the chopstick packaging). With the left hand will the bowl kept glued to the chin, while the right hand is kept busy with the transportation of the calories. This is accomplished not with a pinching but rather with shovel like movement. Accordingly, the typical Chinese salutation during eating is not “bon appetit”, but “eat slowly”.
Problems belong to the past: tepid and sloppy cleaning makes the chopstick a bacteria paradise and therefore a hygienic risk. Some years ago the Government required the use of disposable chopsticks. The people did as told – and the requirement must be now rethought. Around 45 milliards chopsticks are used each year in China, additionally 15 Milliards are exported to other Asian countries. No wonder that whole forests has fallen victim of the chopstick production. To brake the consumption of disposable chopsticks a tax of 5% was introduced in 2006.
Eating at the fair.
For the foreigner is this hardly enticing. Who goes to a restaurant in China, will quickly realize: chopstick are the least of the shocking differences. Romantic candle light ambient, subdued conversation, restrained waiters… quite the opposite. Chinese eating temples are illuminated to the last corner with 200 watts neon tubes. In the end the commensal want to see what is being served to him on the table. And the ambient is so loud that conversation is only possible in the upper band of the sound spectrum. Before such a sound barrier of the last popular Chinese-Pop-hits (all sound controls at full power so even the guest at the most remote corner can hear the song), and the lively drinking games of the neighbouring tables, the guest must be trained in lip-reading. Smokers can give a heavy sight of relief, and light up a cigarette.
A couple of cigarettes between each course? No problem. That will tidy up the stomach, is fun and it is expressly allowed. Eating is a delight, a pleasure and a social event. Loud entertainment go together with it, in the same way like the annoying piece of meat stuck between the rear molars.
Blowing one’s nose… Tabu!
In spite of all the supposed lack of restraint: there is a list of Taboos at the Chinese eating table. Blowing one’s nose at the eating table is held as extremely disgusting. If additionally the “big nose”(foreigner) put the wet rag in his pocket, will the Chinese look revolted away. Just as uncultivated would be to eat with one’s fingers. Even chicken, which is presented on the table with all its bones, will be eat using chopsticks. Foreigners must get used to this supreme discipline, and bear the involuntary amusement of the rest of the table before his fiddling with the chopsticks.
Not so amusing is the typical faux pas, to stuck the chopstick vertically in the rice bowl. A sure way to attract spirits and demons to the eating table, because this is the way offers are presented before the ancestor’s shrine.
The wrangling with the bill is an art in itself, which requires training and ability. With sporting ability they commensals will try to attract the attention of the waitress using bill bundles or credit cards. Sometimes one of them jump 10 minutes before the end of the last course, to go fast to the rest room. Not to avoid paying the bill, but to secretly go to the cashier to pay it and return to the table with a smug smile on his face. I win! The custom that each pay its share of the bill leave the Chinese frozen. How embarrassing and tight fisted!