Wednesday, 3 March 2010


An old Chinese story tells of a wise and virtuous man who was granted a wish before dying: that he be able to visit both heaven and hell and judge for himself the difference between the two places. When he arrived in heaven, he found it to be a massive banqueting hall with long rows of narrow tables that were laden with dishes and pots of the most mouth-watering delicacies that could possibly be imagined. Every table was lined with diners, their smiling faces and light-hearted chatter demonstrating beyond all doubt that this was indeed heaven. The old man looked more closely, and he saw that everyone in that happy throng held a pair of chopsticks. And the chopsticks were more than three feet long. He looked more closely still, and he saw that in each diner’s hand, the lower chopstick was strapped securely around the thumb and could not be removed.

“I’ve seen enough,” said the old man. “Now show me hell.”

If you were expecting fire and brimstone at this point, I’m sorry to disappoint you, because when the sage arrived in hell, he found exactly the same scenario: banqueting hall, tables groaning with food, diners with three-foot chopsticks strapped to their hands. But there was one crucial difference: the diners weren’t smiling; they were scowling, glaring and arguing. And, unlike in heaven, no one was eating. The old man knew why this was the case. Do you?

In fact, variants of this story occur throughout East and Southeast Asia, and the details vary from teller to teller (I added my own embellishments), but it seems likely that it has its origins in Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. However, this is not about religion: it is about chopsticks.

How good is your chopstick technique? You will probably be surprised to learn that a lot of Chinese people aren’t very good, probably because it’s possible to get away with a very rudimentary technique. The giveaway is where a person holds the implements: the skill level is directly correlated with the distance of the hand holding the chopsticks from the business end: the further away, the greater the efficiency, and some tasks are impossible if the chopsticks are held halfway down. And when you see someone stab a siu mai (steamed prawn and minced pork dumpling) instead of picking it up, then you know that you’re dealing with a rank amateur, yet this is a remarkably common sight.

To be considered an expert, at least by me, you should be able to perform three tasks with panache and a pair of chopsticks. First, you must be able to scoop the rice from a bowl into your mouth in a continuous circular sweeping motion. This one is easy: all Chinese can do it, but not necessarily with the stipulated panache. And you’re not supposed to leave a trail of dropped rice grains on the table either, which is the likely outcome if your technique isn't up to the standard required.

Second, and considerably harder, you should be able to cut up a plate of cheung fan (rolled-up, steamed rice-flour pancakes that are usually about 15cm long and come in threes) into bite-sized pieces. Of course, chopsticks cannot be used to cut up a sirloin steak, but soft pancakes will yield if the chopsticks are correctly applied. However, the majority of Chinese achieve the desired end-result by using one chopstick in each hand, which I regard as very poor.

Now for the real test: pick up a straw mushroom. Like peeled quail eggs, these are oval in shape, but unlike quail eggs, which are hard enough to pick up, they are also slightly slimy on the outside. If you can do this every time without the object of your desire squirting across the table, you will not only impress your friends, you will also impress any Chinese who happen to observe your performance, not least because they probably can’t do it.

And if you can’t do it either, you can always take a leaf out of the bad worker’s manual and blame your tools, especially if you’re using Japanese chopsticks, which are entirely blameworthy. The Japanese have a long history of ‘improving’ items without considering the ergonomics of their use, and chopsticks are no exception. Like a modern digital camera with its LCD viewscreen, which is less efficient in use than a camera with a traditional viewfinder, Japanese chopsticks, the ends of which taper to a rounded point, are not as effective as traditional Chinese chopsticks, which have blunt ends. No doubt the Japanese would retort that it requires more skill to use their chopsticks, but I refuse to use implements that I think are badly designed deliberately just to make gaijins look silly.

So why not use a fork? Surely western cutlery is more efficient than either design of chopstick. As an Englishman, I lean towards this point of view, at least for food prepared in a typical western style. But what about noodles? If you were to watch my wife (who is Chinese) and I eating bowls of noodles at home, you would notice that one was using chopsticks, the other a fork. Nothing contrary to expectations there then. But who do you suppose would be using the chopsticks?


  1. You've really made me want to go and test my skills for Dim Sum right now. If only I lived near a 24 hour restaurant...

  2. I supposed you are the one using chopsticks. considering u knew the technique so well. I will try your advice at home. have a lot of chopsticks but I use them very rarely.

  3. The story as I've heard it is not about chopsticks at all. In Hell, the people can't eat the delicious food because they can't get the 3 foot chopsticks far enough away to get the business end to their mouths. In Heaven they are also given 3 foot chopsticks but they feed each other.

    So the chopsticks are merely a prop to facilitate the telling of the heaven and hell myth.


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