The Importance of Chopsticks筷子的重要性
13. The Importance of Chopsticks
In the 17th century when the British businessman heard that there were one hundred million people in China, he was determined to go there and sell spoons. He thought even if a spoon would only sell for one penny, he would still make one hundred million pennies. But he didn’t succeed. The Chinese people use chopsticks not spoons.
Some people did some research on the origin of China’s chopsticks compared to the knife and fork in the west. One theory is that China was an agricultural society and relied on vegetables for food. Chopsticks were very convenient to those for eating. The westerners, on the other hand, were nomads and lived on meat. The knife and fork were more practical. Others believe that China didn’t have much industry and therefore people use chopsticks. The west was an industrial society, so their eating utensils were made of metal.
Sounds interesting. When I first learned that the Chinese use a pair of sticks to eat with, I was curious how they would drink soup. Just like the Indians who use their fingers to eat, do they also use their fingers to drink soup?
Whatever the reasons why the Chinese use chopsticks and westerners use knife and fork, it is a result of their respective cultures. Chinese culture is developed around collectivism, which stresses communion and harmony. The western culture emphasizes individualism. In terms of eating customs, chopsticks and knives and forks are two desperate expressions of this cultural difference. The Chinese like to have communal meals where everybody eats out of the same bowl of food. Chopsticks were used in order to discourage people from eating more than others. This was not only a good way to preserve collectiveness, but also to limit individualism. It is more straightforward in the west. People eat their meals on their own, and there’s no restriction on how to eat.
That sounds quite reasonable.
In addition, table manners are very strict during the Chinese meal. Respect has to be given to the elderly. Each time a dish is served, everyone has to wait until the elder person starts or to cut the ribbon as it is now called. The westerners will simply say “Help yourself” to start. The food is brought to the table all of the same time, so everybody is on the same starting line. This lacks the warm atmosphere which prevails at the Chinese dinner.
This may be the reason why it is always very noisy at the Chinese dinner, but quiet in the western restaurant.