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‘Chopsticks’ sifts through the cultural mysteries of Asia’s eating implements

by

Special To The Japan Times

In Q. Edward Wang’s hands, chopsticks are transformed from banal, everyday objects to a means of contemplating both the unfolding of world history and the subtleties of social norms.

Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History
Q. Edward Wang, by 224 pages.
Cambridge University Press, Nonfiction.

“Chopsticks” contains a fascinating description of the moment in the 7th century when the Japanese envoy Ono no Imoko was sent to the Sui Court in China and discovered a new means of eating. Chinese envoys and Buddhist missionaries to Japan subsequently taught the aristocracy how to employ both spoon and chopsticks when eating. (How wonderful it would have been to compliment a struggling Japanese aristocrat on his chopstick skills).

By the 8th century, construction workers at the Todaiji Temple in Nara were tossing away wooden chopsticks by the 100s, but like everywhere else in Asia, chopsticks careened off in their own culture-specific direction in terms of the materials used to make them, how they were used and their cultural associations.

In Japan, polished whitewood chopsticks became prized as a representation of the Shinto belief in purity, and chopsticks that tapered at both ends were used during multicourse kaiseki meals with each end used for different dishes.

Wang guides us through Asia’s history and cultural symbols, but also the myriad ways of using chopsticks: Laid horizontally usually indicates that the meal before one is to be eaten alone; “banquet” dining typically sees chopsticks laid vertically. In Korean cuisine, a rice bowl should never be lifted from the table as this is reminiscent of a beggar holding up his bowl; yet the Chinese do so because they frown on stooping one’s head. When it comes to table etiquette, it seems you just can’t win.