Few things bring more frustration to a Westerner than trying to use chopsticks – it’s like having to work for every bite, and it seems unlikely that Eastern folks are just born with the innate ability to pick up rice with two sticks. Well, just like Western children are taught to use a fork and knife, Eastern children are taught to use chopsticks. But why?
Before chopsticks became the standard utensil of Asia, rudimentary chopsticks were probably two sticks that could be used to keep your fingers safe while removing food from the fire. Sometime between 1046 and 256 BCE, when the Zhou Dynasty was in charge, huge swathes of land were being systematically cleared, making firewood and other fuel rare. This revolutionized cuisine; since it took too long and too much fuel to cook regular-sized portions, food was chopped into little pieces and cooked very quickly, in a manner we now refer to as stir-fried.
Stir-frying food made it possible to eat meals without using too much fuel, but it also posed a practical issue: you couldn’t eat it with your hands, because of the sauce that was typically served alongside the food. Chopsticks came in as a way to save the day: with a quick, “chopping” action, you could easily pick up the small morsels and dip them in the sauce. They were also very sanitary, since proper utilization of chopsticks allows you to eat the food without ever making contact with the actual chopstick, something not even forks can generally boast.
Chopsticks got even luckier during the time of their introduction; according to Confucius, a major influence in early Asian (and modern Asian) thought, having knives on the dinner table was unsuitable. Knives were used for chopping the food before cooking and then kept away from the actual dinner table, where chopsticks made the perfect alternative.
If you’re scratching your head wondering why anyone would choose to use chopsticks if wood was scarce, keep in mind that traditional chopsticks of the period were made not with wood but with bamboo, ivory, or other materials.