Chopsticks are ubiquitous on the dining tables of East Asia. In Mandarin, they are called kuàizi (筷子) and, in Taiwanese, they are known as tī (箸). These utensils aren’t just essential to Taiwanese dining, they are steeped in stories and traditions! Below is a quick rundown of Taiwanese chopstick folklore!
What’s In a Name?
While the Mandarin name nowadays for chopsticks is kuàizi, that wasn’t always the case. An older name for the utensil is zhù. That older name is written using the same Chinese character (箸) as the modern Taiwanese name for chopsticks—as is the case for the Korean (jeokkarak) and Japanese (hashi) names when written in hanja and kanji, respectively.
So why the name change? Turns out, as with so many East Asian customs involving superstitions, it’s a pun.
The Mandarin word for “to stop” is zhù, just like the old name for chopsticks, although it is written differently as 住. This, however, is seen as inauspicious for folks in a hurry with things to do and places to be. So some began using the modern name.
Why the new name? It’s another wordplay.
The kuài part of kuàizi sounds like the Mandarin word for “quick” (快), which is much more agreeable to busy folks. Speakers of Taiwanese, however, have opted to stick with the traditional name for chopsticks.
Location, Location, Location
Do you hold your chopsticks close to the bottom? Or near the top? Turns out, how you hold your chopsticks have marital implications!
In the old days, it was believed that a person who holds his or her chopsticks near the bottom will be married to someone who lived or grew up nearby. Whereas one who held his or her chopsticks near the top would marry someone from far away lands.
This was extra significant (sometimes devastating) given the traditional paternalistic societies that dominated East Asia. In these Confucian environments, sons typically stayed close to home whereas daughters were usually married off. If a boy held his chopsticks close to the bottom, he’d expect to marry a childhood sweetheart from the neighbourhood. If a daughter held hers near the top, then she may have the misfortune of being married off to distant places, far from her own family and all that was familiar to her.
Deadly Table Manners
Let’s wrap up with a bit of very important chopstick etiquette. It’s one that virtually all Taiwanese children will have heard of (and possibly have gotten in trouble over).
Never. Stick. Your. Chopsticks. Straight. Into. A. Bowl. Of. Rice.
A pair of chopsticks sticking straight up vertically out of a bowl of rice resembles incense sticking out of burners full of ash. Because of this, funeral offerings of rice in bowls often feature a pair of chopsticks stuck into the centre of the bowl. This custom is widespread in many parts of East Asia, not just in Taiwan. It is often regarded in folklore as “how the dead eat.”
But it is just so intuitive for small children and first-time chopstick users. Sticking your chopsticks into the rice is easy and convenient. But few things irk East Asian parents and grandparents more. So next time you get the urge to do it—don’t. Mind your table manners. It can be deadly.