Chopsticks are tools with a significant purpose; the manipulation of objects, practice of philosophy and religion, and the spread of cultural ideals. This utensil is used to consume food and to symbolize a variety of ideas, including death in traditional Asian religion. It is also useful for showing the differences and culture of various Asian countries. Different people also see chopsticks in very contrasting points of view; using this tool is a very personal experience. This unique tool can be analyzed through a variety of ways, such as its structure and mythical qualities.
The sign for chopsticks is somewhat complex; the spoken sound of the word (the signifier) evokes the image of a pair of equal-sized bamboo, plastic, or wood sticks held in one hand (the signified). On the other hand, the signifier is a simple sound made up of two short and concise syllables- "chop" and "stick". When this signified is coupled with the sound (the signifier), it establishes that when the word "chopsticks" are said, most people would usually think of a pair of sticks used for eating. The word "chopsticks" is actually a syntagm because of how the words "chop" and "stick" are used together as one word. "Chop" and "stick" have two very distinct and separate meanings, but when placed side by side as one word, they are interpreted as a tool. Associative relationships involving the term "chopsticks" are also evident, even though these relationships tend to be based on signified concepts such as chopsticks, fork, and knife (all three of these items are eating utensils). The associative relationships that the word "chopsticks" show can also relate to concepts such as Asian cuisine and culture because of how it spread from China to the neighboring countries in Asian and Southeast Asia through immigration (in other words, people associate chopsticks with Asian culture and food because of its prevalent use in Asia and Southeast Asia).
There is a long history associated with chopsticks; this tool was developed in Ancient China during prehistoric times and was widely in use by the Shang Dynasty (about 1200 B.C.E.). The use of chopsticks eventually spread to nearby Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam around 500 C.E. through Chinese immigrants, though the Japanese initially used chopsticks in religious rituals. After chopsticks became extremely common in those four countries, their use spread to countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Thailand through immigration. People from the Southeast Asian countries often preferred to use chopsticks for consuming noodles and similar dishes rather than for eating rice. In modern times, using chopsticks is associated with Asian or Southeast Asian cuisine and culture.
Chopsticks are very distinct tools, usually made from materials such as wood, bamboo, plastic, or lightweight metal. They are usually held in the hand and maneuvered to pick up various objects, and they function not only as an eating utensil, but also as an extension of a person's limb. Using chopsticks allows for a person to pick up and manipulate food without getting their hands dirty. Even though they are all the same in usage, each Asian region has developed certain styles of chopsticks. For example, Chinese chopsticks tend to be rectangular on one end and ovular on the other, whereas Japanese chopsticks taper to a point on the end used for food. Each different type of chopstick from a specific country can therefore be considered as a sign, because when a specific type of chopstick is mentioned (such as Japanese chopsticks, which is the signifier), a specific image of the chopstick is brought to mind (Japanese chopsticks are short and pointed on the end for eating from, which is the signified).
Chopsticks can even vary between each individual pair created; some of these variations can be extremely important and personal to certain people. For example, a person might choose to only use a certain pair of chopsticks to eat because of the specific characteristics of that pair of chopsticks. These special chopsticks can have characteristics as specific as being a certain length, texture, weight, or even material (such as a pair of long, lightweight bamboo chopsticks). When someone chooses a specific, special pair of chopsticks, it may have a psychological effect on the person; he or she may believe that food eaten with that certain pair of chopsticks is much more enjoyable.
Surprisingly, chopsticks can also be seen as a sign for protection against danger. During some of the early dynasties in China, the emperor and the royalty would often use chopsticks made out of silver. They believed that using chopsticks made of silver was a form of protection because the chopsticks would supposedly turn black if there was any kind of poison in the food. This shows how chopsticks can be used to represent other ideas that are usually not associated with eating. The silver chopsticks' turning black is a signifier for the concept of the poison in the food, which is danger (the signified).
Chopsticks have been used since the Shang Dynasty in China, and they were developed as an alternative eating utensil to forks and knives because it was commonly believed that the use of forks and knives for eating was a show of aggression (and therefore, affinity with war and conflict). The use of chopsticks also reflected some of the values emphasized by the philosopher Confucius, as well as values based on Buddhism and Taoist religions (in which vegetarianism is encouraged this negates the need for a knife to eat with because there is no meat to cut and eat). When people use chopsticks, it allows for practicing the philosophical belief of maintaining peaceful actions. Chopsticks may be used for taking food apart (in other words, cutting food apart), thus it may be used as a substitute as a knife. This philosophical ideal also extends into religion, especially the major religions prominent in Asia, where chopsticks are most commonly used. In addition to the philosophical belief of promoting peacefulness, the use of chopsticks symbolizes how culture and scholars were starting to become more important than military strength and warrior culture.
There are a few religious taboos (especially in Taoism and Buddhism) involving chopsticks, even though these utensils are generally thought of as showing peacefulness while eating at the table. When chopsticks are placed improperly at the table, it can symbolize death. These kinds of taboos occur in several different cultures. Chinese people often avoid placing their chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice because it mirrors the incense offerings burned for the dead at funeral ceremonies. Similarly, Japanese and Vietnamese people believe that crossing the chopsticks or placing them in certain formations symbolizes death or bad omens. It seems ironic that chopsticks are used for good (eating), but may also mean something considered bad (death and funerals). Therefore, chopsticks are not only used as an eating utensil; these tools also symbolically represent other serious religious or cultural beliefs. Chopsticks can also be seen as signs in this situation, in which the placement of the chopsticks in a certain position (signifier) can mean a specific concept such as death (signified).
Chopsticks are also related to the traditional practice of ancestor worship; people would often leave chopsticks at an ancestor's altar or burial site. People believed that chopsticks are used in the afterlife by their ancestors to consume the food offerings. Chopsticks are important because if the spirits in the afterlife do not have a way to eat, they are believed to become hungry and dissatisfied with the family, which leads to bad luck for the living family members. Therefore, chopsticks are significant utensils in ancestor worship because it is one of the things needed to prevent bad luck from being exacted by a family's departed ancestors. This serves as an oneiric function, because it reflects how people either accept or reflect on death and what happens to people as a whole after dying. It also shows how people think about deeper aspects of humanity and the state of being, in other words, what is the difference between life and death.
Using chopsticks can be a very personal and thoughtful experience. On first glance, chopsticks look very easy to hold and manipulate, especially when someone has been using them for an extended period of time. Watching someone use a pair of chopsticks makes eating and moving objects around seem very graceful and almost artistic in nature. Chopsticks can be used for just about any size of food, whether it is cut into small pieces or left as larger chunks. On the other hand, using chopsticks for the first time can be very awkward and challenging. This may even lead to frustration and aggressiveness (ironically contradicting the peaceful ideal that chopsticks were associated with), but as the user improves at using the tool, he or she gradually becomes more graceful and careful. This shows how using chopsticks can be a matter of differing perspectives (gaze); what one person believes to be difficult can be completely effortless to another.
Chopsticks are very interesting object that is useful for purposes that usually aren't obvious, and they serve as practical manifestations of nonphysical ideas. This tool can be used to manipulate all kinds of food, and can represent Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. On the other hand, chopsticks can symbolize significant taboos in several countries and religion. This utensil can also convey a gesture of peacefulness and a change in cultural ideals. In short, chopsticks are a simple object with several complex uses and meanings behind its usage.