ALTHOUGH China was the first nation in the world to use chopsticks, a culinary tradition more than 3,000 years old, few young people today know the interesting stories and customs behind them.
That may soon change, however, as there is an application to include chopsticks culture and etiquette as part of Shanghai’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Xu Hualong, director of the Chopsticks Culture Promotion Association of Shanghai, tells Shanghai Daily that the group has entertained the idea of applying for several years.
“Chopsticks are widely used in China, but the related customs and etiquette are fading these days,” says Xu. “We feel a responsibility to revitalize its culture in this fast-paced modern society.”
The cultural heritage application will probably start in April. According to officials from the Shanghai Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center, after receiving the application materials, a panel of culture experts will decide whether the items have a long history, are of great cultural and historical value and have a close connection to people’s lives.
Xu says that according to traditional Chinese etiquette, seniors should be the first to lift their chopsticks to start a banquet. But today many young diners pick up utensils before their elders.
“The customs of chopsticks are now well preserved in other Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan,” says Xu. “But most Chinese young people have little idea of its culture and customs, and some even hold their chopsticks wrong. Poor table etiquette can also be frequently found in some domestic TV series.”
In ancient China, chopsticks were called “zhu.” At the very beginning, they were used to nip vegetables in soup. Their length, shape and materials have evolved over times. Chopsticks also spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
Chopsticks are usually made of bamboo, plastic, wood or stainless steel. Holding chopsticks correctly requires a lot of practice. Numerous joints and muscles are exercised, including the shoulder, arm, palm and fingers.
Chinese philosophy of “I Ching” is also identified in chopsticks. The two sticks of the same length and shape demonstrate balance and coordination of yin and yang.
Since chopsticks are light and small, some ancient Chinese travelers took them on their journeys for easy massage and guasha, a traditional Chinese medical treatment in which the skin is scraped to produce light bruising.
Folk culture experts note that chopsticks can reflect the historical background and culture of China. For instance, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), which was established by Mongol nomads, a new kind of Mongolian knife and chopstick set emerged. The utensils were usually attached to a person’s sash by means of pendants and toggles.
This ingeniously designed eating set of a sharp knife and a pair of chopsticks showed the strong influence of Han people on Mongols and a fusion of cultures at that time.
Chopsticks are also ideal gifts for the newly wed because the pronunciation, kuaizi, means to have babies soon. Some artistic chopsticks are painted with poetic scenery, making them a good alternative for collection.
The Chopsticks Culture Promotion Association of Shanghai was founded in February 2012. Xu says that he and his team will spare no effort in promoting and reviving the culture and etiquette by hosting a chopsticks festival, a series of exhibitions and cultural seminars.
The group is also developing chopsticks gifts for wedding, birthday and housewarming events. In the future, people are expected to have hi-tech chopsticks that will be able to quickly test and show the nutrients in food.
Shanghai has a total of 179 city-level items of intangible cultural heritage, 58 of which have been included on China’s state-level list. This year local government will allocate 10 million yuan (US$1.63 million) to preserve the items.
According to the center’s Qian Zhangfan, in addition to chopsticks, this year’s application list is expected to include items from the categories of music, traditional opera, painting, folk arts and handicrafts.
“Every year we conduct in-depth studies on the current condition of the items,” Qian says.
The center is broadening its visibility by bringing intangible cultural heritage to campuses, residential communities, shopping malls and other public venues. Local college students have been presented performances of traditional theater and art exhibitions of traditional Chinese costumes and accessories.
Protection of intangible cultural heritage in China began in 2005. The nation’s first law on intangible cultural heritage protection was passed in 2011.
Over the ensuing years, more and more enterprises, social organizations and individuals have been engaged in protection. Recently, Yuhu Group launched a charity event inviting performing artists Wang Rugang, Guan Dongtian and Sun Xuchun to be image ambassadors. About 5 million yuan has been raised to fund the inheritance and education of traditional theaters and other shrinking cultures.
Experts are also exploring new commercial values of the items of intangible cultural heritage for long-term sustainable development. More byproducts of the arts have been developed to cater to today’s young people, such as creative handmade souvenirs and gift packages of traditional Chinese cakes for the Double Ninth Festival.
Chinese chopsticks etiquette
Chopsticks etiquette is very important in traditional Chinese culture. It is poor manner for a diner to spear his food with chopsticks or dig around in the dishes for a particular item.
It is also rude to lick or bite on one’s chopsticks, use them to tap the edge of the bowls or point chopsticks at someone.