Saturday, 6 June 2015

Chopsticks and World History

You can read my review of Q. Edward Wang's new book, 'Chopsticks, a Cultural and Culinary History' in today's Japan Times by clicking the link below:

Here's a few more of my musings on the subject...

One thing that leapt to my mind reading Wang's book was a curious insight into Natsume Soseki's 1910 novel The Gate, a novel I feel have exhaustively analyzed in the past (See my blog: Visions of the Gate). The novel is a masterpiece of subtle psychological insight, full of incredibly important details. In one key scene the timorous, neurotic protagonist Sosuke inspects a Mongolian sword (example below) with a holder in its handle for a pair of chopsticks. What is the precise meaning of this detail? Certainly the symbolic combination of savagery (sword) and sophistication (chopsticks) - indeed the accenting of primeval brutality with the accoutrements of civilization - is a key factor in tipping the novelist's protagonist into complete spiritual turmoil.

Reading Wang's book, I finally saw just how perceptive Soseki was: knives it turns out were always the unspoken 'other' of chopsticks. Indeed it was precisely because the aristocracy of ancient China were not required to kill animals or cut up their meat - it being neatly prepared for them in bitesize morsels - that chopsticks found their way out of the kitchen and into a diner's hands. Why after all have forks when there was no need to prong and cut meat?

I was fascinated to discover too that for millennia in ancient China, chopsticks were neither the chief means of eating one's food, nor indeed was rice the chief staple of the people. Right up until the tenth century, millet was the chief grain eaten throughout northern China and the most important dining utensil was a spoon. Chopsticks were a mere accessory if indeed one used anything at all: Confucius and his followers mostly used their fingers.

Several factors powered the unstoppable rise of chopsticks. Around the first century CE, the Chinese started milling wheat flour and gorging on noodles and dumplings, best picked up with chopsticks rather than spoons. Then, the large movements of people between north and south and the government's encouragement of the cultivation of new strains of rice - always the main staple in the warmer, wetter south - pushed millet and spoons out of the way and opened up a new millennium of rice and chopsticks.

Wang persuasively argues in the book that the diversification of chopsticks use is affected not just by the food we are eating, but by the surrounding cultures. Koreans have stuck to the traditional combination of spoon and chopsticks, and prefer their chopsticks to be metal, both because of a fine metalwork tradition and because they are eating the meat-rich foods bequeathed to them by the Mongol invasions. The Vietnamese, for long centuries under Chinese cultural dominance, eat all their foods with chopsticks, but the more culturally removed Thais use them mainly for noodles while often eating rice with their fingers.

Chopsticks soon became important cultural artifacts. As symbols of inseparability, they are bestowed in Japan as husband and wife sets of differing lengths and colours. They are sometimes a symbol of life itself. A shogun who inauspiciously broken his chopsticks while eating, fell off his horse and died ten days later. A Chinese emperor continued to hold his chopsticks to allow his favoured minister to talk and eat at his leisure (though later had him killed).

My favourite, laugh-out-loud anecdote in this fascinating, handsome book concerned Nixon and his advisers practising with chopsticks ahead of their momentous state visit to China in 1972. It's somehow infinitely gratifying to know that Henry Kissinger was completely hopeless with them.

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