Chopstick culture

Contributor: Chang Soon He

One of the First Ladies of Korea once told foreign journalists that Korean craftsmen are far more skilled in producing handmade equipment, tools, or art…

Topic: cultural exchange, Food, People, Yongsan Legacy
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One of the First Ladies of Korea once told foreign journalists that Korean craftsmen are far more skilled in producing handmade equipment, tools, or art works than the peoples in other countries who use spoon or folk, or just fingers, because Koreans use chopsticks from child year.

That may be true in a way but she had forgotten to mention of the peoples in the East Asia who also use chopsticks as eating utensil. The chopsticks (called jeokkarak 젓가락 in Korean and hashi 箸 in Japanese) is known to be first invented and used by the Chinese during the Zhou dynasty (771 BC) and they later spread to other countries across East, South, and Southeast Asia including Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.

In order to use the two sticks with one hand, you would need to mobilize thumb, index and middle fingers and ring finger. This is how to hold the two sticks and utilize them to pick up food of any size on the table.

For the beginner, first pick up one stick and hold it as if you hold a pencil mobilizing your thumb, index and middle fingers. Insert the other stick under the first stick and let the side of ring finger and the base of thumb hold it, keeping the two sticks lined up at the same length. Then while immobilizing the second stick, move up and down the upper first stick with the thumb, index and middle fingers. Practice a few times until you can open the distance at the ends of the two sticks up to 5 cm (2 inches) or as narrow as 2 mm (1/16”), that’s when you need to pick up a grain of boiled rice stuck in the bottom of a rice bowl (Buddhists do that as they believe wasting a food is a sin).

Now you can use the chopsticks. But there are some etiquettes in holding it at the table which are being observed in China, Japan and Korea in different degrees at each country. Japanese are most strict in the chopstick protocol then Chinese.

Some classic taboos at the table are as follow;

  • Two sticks are not in the same distance that is one is extended longer than the other. (Chinese make coffin cover panels at unequal lengths so that holding chopsticks unequally or laydown them on the table reminds them of a coffin)
  • Holding chopsticks with ring finger, pinky and thumb while index finger is extended in the air. Or pointing the stick to other diner (a strict taboo in Japan and China).
  • Trying to arrange the ends of the two chopsticks with lips or teeth (not in Japan).
  • Hitting bowl or dishes with chopstick.
  • Chopsticks wandering around over the foods on the table undecided which dish to pick.
  • Scrabbling around chopsticks in search of something in a soup filled bowl.
  • Holding chopsticks upside down.
  • Piercing a food with one chopstick.
  • Sticking chopsticks into rice in a bowl.
  • Laying down chopsticks crossing each other like an X.
  • Picking up chopsticks or spoon before elder at the table does (in Korea).

I usually slice a take-out king size hamburger to pieces and use chopsticks to eat it at home. You can keep your lips and fingers clean in this way.

When ivory was freely traded I’ve collected some ivory chopsticks delicately engraved. When those beautiful chopsticks produced in China laid along with the Royal Copenhagen china brightened the dinner table.

When you realize that you can pick up small bones from fried fish using chopsticks, you would also notice that your penmanship has greatly improved.


The contributor of this article, Chang Soon He (78), is grandmother. Her husband, a Korean War veteran, has worked at U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison, K-6/Camp Humphreys, and U.S. Navy Seabees in Vietnam all together for 25 years.