Chopsticks are small tapered sticks used in pairs of equal length as the traditional eating utensils of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Chopsticks are most commonly made of bamboo or plastic, but are also made of metal, bone, ivory, and various types of wood. The pair of sticks is maneuvered in one hand, between the thumb and fingers, and used to pick up pieces of food.
Although the exact origins of chopsticks are unknown, many scholars believe they originated in China nearly five thousand years ago. At the time, people cooked their food in large pots and probably used twigs to remove it. The use of chopsticks was evident in 400 BCE, when a large population and dwindling resources forced people to conserve fuel. Food was chopped into small pieces so it could be cooked more rapidly, thus needing less fuel. The pieces of food were small enough that they negated the need for knives at the dinner table, and chopsticks became staple utensils. It is also thought that Confucius, a vegetarian, encouraged the use of chopsticks by advising people against using knives at the table because they were equated with the slaughterhouse and acts of aggression.
In Japan, the earliest chopsticks used for eating looked like tweezers and were made from one piece of bamboo that was joined at the top. By the 10th Century, chopsticks were being produced in two separate pieces. Japanese chopsticks differed in design from Chinese chopsticks in that they were rounded and came to a point; they were also shorter (7 inches long for females and 8 inches long for males). Chinese chopsticks are usually 9 to 10 inches long and rectangular with a blunt end.
Traditionally, chopsticks have been made from a variety of materials. Bamboo has been the most popular because it is inexpensive, readily available, easy to split, resistant to heat, and has no perceptible odor or taste. Cedar, sandalwood, teak, pine, and bone have also been used. The wealthy, however, often had chopsticks made from jade, gold, bronze, brass, agate, coral, ivory, and silver. In fact, during dynastic times it was thought that silver chopsticks would turn black if they came into contact with poisoned food. It is now known that silver has no reaction to arsenic or cyanide, but if rotten eggs, onion, or garlic are used, the hydrogen sulfide they release might cause these chopsticks to change color.
The English word "chopstick" seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin in which "chop chop" meant quickly. The Mandarin Chinese word for chopsticks is "kuai-zi", which literally means "quick bamboo". The old Chinese word for chopsticks was "zhu". However, "zhu" became a taboo on ships because it sounded the same as another word meaning "to stop". Consequently, it was replaced by a word of opposite meaning, "kuai" (fast, quick). This gradually spread until "kuai-zi" became the word for chopsticks in most varieties of modern Chinese.