* Date : 2019-05-15
Historians divide the world civilization into three cultural spheres based on which utensils they use – one in which people eat with their hands, one with knife and fork, and one with chopsticks. About 30 to 40% of the world population that reside in Africa, India, and the Middle East eat with their hands, while another 30% in Europe and North America use knives and forks. The remaining 30% belong to the culture that uses chopsticks, roughly 1.5 billion people in Korea, China, and Japan.
China is estimated to be the origin of the chopstick culture. Ancient records and artifacts indicate that the Chinese began using chopsticks about 3,000 years ago. The Lushun Museum in China stands testament to the history of chopsticks.
The discovery and use of chopsticks took mankind from the prehistoric era when people ate with their hands to a more civilized period of using eating utensils. Chopsticks in the early years of humanity were considered sacred utensils. Chopsticks were used to pick up offerings to gods in prayer services.
The godly utensils were later used by kings and aristocrats, and eventually became a commonplace tool for the masses. But the Japanese still regard chopsticks as a divine utensil that enriches the human body. On the Day of the Chopsticks, the usually quiet Hie Shrine in Tokyo comes alive with people who come to burn their old, used chopsticks.
The oldest chopsticks discovered in Korea are the bronze chopsticks from King Muryeong’s tomb in Gongju. Buried together with other artifacts from the royal tomb, those chopsticks are estimated to be at least 1,500 years old. Chopsticks were precious tools that have been with the Korean people in sickness and in health. They served as a divination tool at a baby’s first birthday party and a yardstick to measure a groom’s health and character based on how well he handles the chopsticks. From birth to death, chopsticks have been a steadfast companion in Korean people’s daily lives. Even in death, a pair of chopsticks would be buried together with the dead lest the deceased loved one should go hungry in the netherworld. A case in point is a pair of chopsticks discovered in a Goryeo-era tomb was engraved with parting words from a grieving mother to her dead son.
Chopsticks have long been an integral part of Asian peoples, as chopsticks contain a meme of Asia. Chopsticks have also shaped a culture represented by Korean table manners. The culture of “bite-size pieces” versus the culture of “lump,” the culture of thoughtfulness in which even a single bean is split and shared – these aspects have ultimately shaped the “we” culture of chopsticks, which is quite different from the individualistic western culture of knives and forks. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, but simply an Asian cultural tradition embedded in chopsticks. Furthermore, chopsticks are valued as a tool that induces positive changes in brain development. Chopsticks are, therefore, an amazing cultural tradition as well as a meme of Asia for the future generations.
Futurist Alvin Toffler once said that “the nation using chopsticks will sway the world in the 21st century.” In that quote lies the reason we have to rediscover the value of chopsticks, the carrier of a meme of Asia.