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Exactly when the Chinese began to use chopsticks, as an eating instrument is anybody's guess. They were first mentioned in Liji (The Book of Rites), a work compiled nearly 2,000 years ago. Likewise they were initially in the form of twigs, which the primitive Chinese possibly used to pick up a roast after they began to use fire. The twigs evolved into the wooden, tapering sticks, as we know them today.

Chopsticks may be made of any from several materials: bamboo, wood, gold, silver, ivory, pewter, and plastics. In the cross-section, they may be either round or square. Some of them are engraved with colored pictures or calligraphy for decoration. Ordinary chopsticks used in Chinese homes are made of wood or bamboo; those for banquets are often ivory, whereas gold ones belonged only to the royalty and aristocracy.

The correct way to use chopsticks is to hold the pair in the hollow between the thumb and forefinger of your fork hand. The one closest to your body should rest on the first joint of the ring finger and stay relatively immobile. Hold the other one with the forefinger and middle finger, which manipulate it like pinchers to pick up the food. The strength applied by the fingers should vary with the things to be taken hold of. The skill to pick up, with speed and dexterity, small things like beans and peanuts and slippery things like slices of preserved eggs can only come from practice and coordinated action of the fingers.

Incidentally, using chopsticks has a great deal in common with wielding a brush to write Chinese characters. Those who write with a good hand, some scholars have observed, are invariably those who handle the chopsticks correctly. One holds the writing brush in the same way as one would the moving chopsticks and, while writing, one must achieve coordination in the movement of the shoulder, arm, wrist and fingers in order to write well.

Westerners are often impressed with the cleverness of the Chinese hand that makes embroideries and clay sculptures with such consummate skill. Couldn't this skill be attributed to the constant use of chopsticks?


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