This is serious, people. No wisecracks.

As maître of Chopsticks, I shall list a few things you should never do with chopsticks in the presence of Chinese people. Why? To be polite, cultured and not to act like a buffoon. This mini guide assumes that you know how to use chopsticks and that the obvious will not be listed (such as picking your nose with chopsticks).

    1. Never use them as drumsticks, never separate chopsticks from one hand.
    You should never do this, because the Chinese believe that everything that is good comes in twos. If you separate the chopsticks, you'll disturb the "peace."

    2. When setting down your chopsticks, never stick them into your food.
    If you stick them in the food so the chopsticks stand up, it will represent your tombstone! Death = bad! I know that this is the same in Japanese culture. If you must set them down, set them down on the table or sideways on your bowl.

    3. If one single chopstick is dirtied.
    A continuation of the first rule. If for some reason you can't use one of the chopsticks from your pair, get another pair, don't get a single other chopstick.

    4. Never point chopsticks at someone.
    Especially at your elders, you should never point chopsticks at someone, or even worse speaking with a mouthful of rice. It is impolite.

    5. Don't stick your finger.
    A continuation of rule #4, if you do not use chopsticks the "default/proper"* way, make sure one of your fingers (especially index) does not stick out. It is impolite.

*There is the default way of using chopsticks, which makes you look really suave. Funnily enough, this is the way foreigners learn how to use chopsticks. I, and most of my family and friends, don't use chopsticks the "default/proper" way. For example, the correct way urges you to articulate (only) your fingers, whereas I (the incorrect way) use the skin between my thumb and index to control the chopsticks. In other words, the "proper" way vs. the "natural" way, as MrFurious puts it.

In Japanese, chopsticks are called "hashi" or even "o-hashi", as sensei reminds us in his node.

The customs that maladrome speaks of are standard throughout East Asia. In Japanese, these are the things you shouldn't do with o-hashi:

  • SASHI. "Sashi" means "inserting". This means never stick your hashi into food, as though you were spearing food with a fork. And of course, never spear and leave them in your bowl of rice. At funeral services, a dish of rice with hashi stuck into it stands on the butsudan (altar). And never pass food from your hashi directly to someone else's; the cremated bones of the dead are passed from person to person this way, although usually with metal hashi. (Still, it's gross).
  • MAYOI. "Dithering". This means don't wave o-hashi around in the air, for example while trying to decide what to eat next. Also, don't point at anything or anybody with hashi.
  • YOSÉ means "drawing near". Never use o-hashi to pull dishes of food toward you.
And a few other points:
  • Always lift bowls to the level of the heart when eating rice or drinking soup.
  • Keep elbows in towards the body. Lift the bowl to your mouth rather than craning your head down into the bowl.
  • When you eat tempura, sushi, sashimi (raw fish) or other foods that you dip in a sauce, hold the dish with the dipping sauce with your free hand, though there is no requirement to lift it.
  • When you are eating foods from dishes that are too large to pick up (for example, the plates used for grilled fish), you would just leave the dishes on the table.
  • If you are eating a communal dish such as a hot pot or yakitori, transfer a portion from the communal pot to your own bowl, then lift the bowl toward you to eat from it.
A few miscellaneous comments, in the tradition of the Chinese biji or random note.

Most of Jinmyo's comments on chopstick etiquette, drawn from Japanese custom, apply in Taiwan, as well. Taiwan native (pre-1949) popular culture, while fundamentally Chinese, is heavily influenced by Japan. But many of these matters discussed by Jinmyo are widespread East Asian practices.

Not all, however.

We are told in Taiwan that the reason not to stick chopsticks unpright in a bowl of food (specifically, cooked rice) is that this is how food is offered to the dead. But I was surprised when living in Longyan (in western Fujian Province), an area of Mainland China with close historical links to Taiwan, to find that people did often stick their chopsticks upright in their food, even their rice, before eating it. This seemed to be a way of indicating that that particular bowl of rice was spoken for. The old men of the areas I was living in told me there was no taboo on this. The taboo was on placing the tips of the chopsticks on the edge of one's ricebowl, with the ends on the table. That is the taboo act, because that is how food is offered to the dead in Longyan.

In Taiwan there is no particular taboo on passing items from one pair of chopsticks to another, because (to my knowledge) this is not a funeral ritual. But it would be a strange thing to do, nonetheless - the tip of the chopstick often touches the mouth, and people would feel it was unclean to touch chopstick tips. (At formal meals, however, it is not uncommon for the host to take some food from his or her own plate and place it on the plate of the guest of honor, using the same chopsticks he or she eats with. This is not necessarily done before the host has begun eating.)

Chinese culture, both Mainland and Taiwanese, favors holding the rice bowl in one's cupped left hand, close to the mouth, and eating from it with the chopsticks. If you take a bit of food from a serving dish, you may place it briefly in the bowl, which thus serves as a kind of bib, catching dropped food and juice. As I understand it, Japanese people insist that the rice be kept clean of food and drippings. And I am told that in Korea it is considered undignified to lift the bowl from the table, while in China I have been told that "we pick up our bowls so as to be different from the animals", which eat with lowered heads.

I believe the English word "chopstick" is a kind of calque of the Mandarin word kuaizi (kuaytz), which is recorded to be a late "taboo avoidance" term. The classical word for chopstick is zhu4 (juh), which is still used in many southern Chinese dialects. But in the north, it sounds the same as “to stop” or "to get stuck", and so became considered unlucky by boatmen. In order to avoid this inauspicious sound, the custom came about of calling chopsticks “fast-moving thing”, or kuaizi. I believe our English word “chopstick” reflects the meaning “fast”, based on the Pidgin English word “chop-chop”, meaning “fast”.

The character 'kuai' in the modern Mandarin name for chopsticks (筷子) is different from the homophone meaning 'fast' (快) - the former has the bamboo radical. (Though perhaps they are related?) I understood the taboo on 'zhu' was related to its similarity to the Imperial surname of the Ming dynasty - emperor's surnames could not be used lightly.

This phonetic similarity has led to another interesting chopstick-related tradition in China though. Newlyweds are presented with a pair, because 'kuaizi' (筷子) sounds like 'have a son soon' (快子). (kuai = 'fast, soon' as mentioned above, 'zi' can be a nominalising suffix as in the word for chopsticks, but the base meaning of the character is 'son'). Sadly, having a son (as opposed to a daughter) is still the ideal for many families here.

A guide of what to do with chopsticks and what not to while in Japan or a Japanese Restaraunt...

5 things never to do with o-hashi

1. Never play with chopsticks. Using them to drum on the table, have mock sword-fights or such is ill-mannered.

2. Never pick something up with your hand without putting the chopsticks down.

3. Never pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another. This is a horrendous faux-pas.

4. When using the cheap, disposable chopsticks called "waribashi", which one pulls apart like a wishbone, do not rub the ends apart to remove splinters. By doing this you would be saying, "Your chopsticks are so poor I fear I may harm myself on them."

5. Do not dip your chopsticks into your water-glass before eating.

If it's something you should never do with your chopsticks, the Japanese have a special word for it. Observe:


hiroibashi, 拾い箸 ("picking up chopsticks")

Never pass food from your chopsticks directly to another person's chopsticks.

kakibashi, 掻き箸 ("shoveling chopsticks")

Never hold a bowl close to your face and rapidly shovel rice into your mouth.

kawaribashi, 変わり箸 ("changing chopsticks")

Never put back food you've already taken.

komibashi, 込み箸 ("stuffing chopsticks")

Never use your chopsticks to stuff an already full mouth with even more food.

kuwaebashi, 銜え箸 ("holding-in-mouth chopsticks")

Never let chopsticks dangle from your mouth or close your mouth around the ends of chopsticks for longer than is absolutely necessary to eat.

mayoibashi, 迷い箸 ("indecisive chopsticks")

Never wave chopsticks around in the air above your food, as if wondering what to eat next.

namidabashi, 涙箸 ("crying chopsticks")

Never wave wet chopsticks around so they drip soup all over.

neburibashi, 舐り箸 ("licking chopsticks")

Never lick or suck food off the ends of your chopsticks.

saguribashi, 探り箸 ("searching chopsticks")

Never stir your chopsticks around in a dish, looking for a certain thing to eat.

sashibashi, 刺し箸 ("stabbing chopsticks")

Never stab food with your chopsticks, like you would with a fork.

seseribashi, せせり箸 ("picking chopsticks")

Never use your chopsticks to pick your teeth.

tatakibashi, 叩き箸 ("beating chopsticks")

Never beat your chopsticks on the side of your bowl to demand attention.

tontonbashi, トントン箸 ("ton-ton chopsticks")

Never make the tips of your chopsticks even by hitting them against the table or dishes, which makes a sound like "ton-ton." Instead make them even by sliding them with your fingers.

tsukitatebashi, 突き立て箸 ("piercing chopsticks")

Never stick your chopsticks upright in your rice.

utsuribashi, 移り箸 ("capricious chopsticks")

Never pick up one kind of food with your chopsticks only to change your mind and pick up another kind instead.

yokobashi, 横箸 ("adjacent chopsticks")

Never hold your chopsticks side by side and use them as a spoon.

yosebashi, 寄せ箸 ("drawing-near chopsticks")

Never pull a bowl or plate closer with your chopsticks.

watashibashi, 渡し箸 ("bridging chopsticks")

Never rest your chopsticks across your bowl like a bridge.

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