Chopsticks: Bridges to the Dead, the Divine and the Delicious
While in the West chopsticks may seem to be entirely secular implements, serving solely to complicate the process of eating rice, in Japan, chopsticks are closely connected to death and the divine. Chopsticks are said to have originated over 5000 years ago in China. They became prominent in China as eating utensils, and not just cooking tools, when a lack of fuel and resources around 500BCE meant that food was chopped into small pieces to facilitate rapid cooking. The use of chopsticks spread to Japan around 500 CE where they were used solely in religious ritual. The Japanese name for chopsticks is hashi, which also can mean bridge. This is an apt correlation, for chopsticks were originally used in Japan to bridge the mortal and divine realms as they intermediated the feeding of food to the gods. This explained why chopsticks in Japanese religious ceremonies have tapered ends on both sides (unlike Chinese chopsticks which are uniform in thickness), as one end is said to be for the gods and the other for the mortal.
In Japan chopsticks are still shaped according to their purpose and owner. The Japanese style of chopsticks for common eating is tapered only at one end, and sized according to age and gender: chopsticks for men are longer and heavier than those for women which are shorter and lighter chopsticks. Chopsticks for children are fitted to a child’s small hands. In this drawing, the second, third and forth set of chopsticks from the bottom are made in the Japanese style, for the use of a child, woman and man respectively.
Proper chopstick etiquette is important, for mishandling of chopsticks can not only make one appear gauche, but can be quite offensive. Two things never to do with chopsticks would be to stick chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice and to reach for the same piece of food as someone else. Not placing chopsticks vertically is not done because this is how food is offered to deceased ancestors. Not reaching for the same piece of food as another person is not proper because in Japanese funeral ritual after the body has been cremated, two relatives of the deceased transfer the bones into an urn by together grasping each bone part with chopsticks. In both of these scenarios, chopsticks once again act as bridges, in this case bridging the world of the living with the world of the dead.
A final interesting note regarding chopsticks revolves around privacy, pollution and purity. In China, chopsticks are treated much like cutlery as in the West: large amounts of identical chopsticks are kept for general use by the household. However, in Japan, each member of the house typically has her or his own set of chopsticks and rice bowl which is used solely by them. It is worth speculating whether this is indicative of the transitory aspect of chopsticks in Japanese culture; in acting as bridges between worlds, chopsticks are powerful tools and thus have a flush of the divine even when used in secular contexts. This connection death and other worlds helps to explain why sharing one’s chopsticks would, in the Japanese context, be opening up oneself to possible pollution. By keeping individual chopsticks, one can monitor and protect their purity, a question we have been investigating thoroughly this semester.
How to use chopsticks as weapons (video).
Chopstick table etiquette (video).
The vast world of chopsticks (to see how many styles there are and for ordering).
An article about the ‘true cost’ of disposable chopsticks (in China, but still pertinent I thought).
~guest blogger, Lara Hollway