Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chopsticks, Chinese Characters and Civilizations

There are many great ancient civilizations centred in Asia and the two notable ones are the Chinese and Indian civilisations.

It is interesting to note that these two civilizations have a great influence on their neighbours' culture. For instance, Chinese characters are or were used by the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese while Sanskrit scripts were adopted by countries neighbouring India such as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Chopsticks were first used in China but have spreaded to countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia and even Tibet.

Thailand is unique in that it adopted the Indian Sanskrit scripts but uses the Chinese chopsticks - a crossroad of two cultures.

I am going to touch on the Chinese characters and chopsticks below:

Chinese characters:

Chinese characters, also known as a Han character (simplified Chinese: 汉字; traditional Chinese: 漢字; pinyin: Hànzì), is a ideogram used in writing Chinese (hanzi), Japanese (kanji), less frequently Korean (hanja), and formerly Vietnamese (hán tự).

The number of Chinese characters contained in the Kangxi dictionary is approximately 47,035, although a large number of these are rarely used variants accumulated throughout history. Studies carried out in China have shown that full literacy in the Chinese language requires a knowledge of only between three and four thousand characters.

Chinese characters are also considered to be the world's longest continuously used writing system.The Chinese script spread to Korea together with Buddhism from the 7th century (Hanja). The Japanese Kanji were adopted for recording the Japanese language from the 8st century AD. Adaptation for Vietnamese (Chữ Nôm) emerged in the 13th century. It is usually said that about 3,000 characters are needed for basic literacy in Chinese (for example, to read a Chinese newspaper), and a well-educated person will know well in excess of 4,000 to 5,000 characters.

Just as Roman letters have a characteristic shape (lower-case letters occupying a roundish area, with ascenders or descenders on some letters), Chinese characters occupy a more or less square area. Characters made up of multiple parts squash these parts together in order to maintain a uniform size and shape—this is the case especially with characters written in the Songti style. Because of this, beginners often practise on squared graph paper, and the Chinese sometimes use the term "Square-Block Characters" (simplified Chinese: 方块字; traditional Chinese: 方塊字; pinyin: fāngkuàizì).

The actual shape of many Chinese characters varies in different cultures. Mainland China adopted simplified characters in 1956, but Traditional Chinese Characters are still used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Singapore has also adopted simplified Chinese characters. Postwar Japan has used its own less drastically simplfied characters since 1946, while South Korea has limited its use of Chinese characters, and Vietnam and North Korea have completely abolished their use in favour of romanizes Vietnamese and hangul, respectively.

In Japanese there are 1,945 Joyo kanji (常用漢字 lit. "frequently used kanji") designated by the Japanese Ministry of Education; these are taught during primary and secondary school. The list is a recommendation, not a restriction, and many characters missing from it are still in common use.
The one area where character usage is officially restricted is in names, which may contain only government-approved characters. Since the Jōyō kanji list excludes many characters which have been used in personal and place names for generations, an additional list, referred to as the Jinmeiyo kanji (人名用漢字 lit. "kanji for use in personal names"), is published. It currently contains 983 characters, bringing the total number of government-endorsed characters to 2928. (See also the Names section of the kanji article.)
Today, a well-educated Japanese person may know upwards of 3,500 kanji. The kanji kentei (日本漢字能力検定試験 Nihon Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Shiken or Test of Japanese Kanji Aptitude) tests a speaker's ability to read and write kanji. The highest level of the kanji kentei tests on 6,000 kanji, though in practice few people attain (or need to attain) this level.
Written Japanese also includes a pair of syllabic scripts known as kana, which are used in combination with kanji. Not all words in modern Japanese can be expressed with kanji alone, requiring the use of kana in written communication.


In times past, until the 15th century, in Korea, Literary Chinese was the only form of written communication, prior to the creation of hangul, the Korean alphabet. Much of the vocabulary, especially in the realms of science and sociology, comes directly from Chinese. However, due the lack of tones in Korean, as the words were imported from Chinese, many dissimilar characters took on identical sounds, and subsequently identical spelling in hangul. Chinese characters are sometimes used to this day for either clarification in a practical manner, or to give a distinguished appearance, as knowledge of Chinese characters is considered a high class attribute and an indispensable part of a classical education.

In Korea, 한자 hanja have become a politically contentious issue, with some Koreans urging a "purification" of the national language and culture by totally abandoning their use. These individuals encourage the exclusive use of the native hangul alphabet throughout Korean society and the end to character education in public schools.
In South Korea, educational policy on characters has swung back and forth, often swayed by education ministers' personal opinions. At times, middle and high school students have been formally exposed to 1,800 to 2,000 basic characters, albeit with the principal focus on recognition, with the aim of achieving newspaper-literacy. Since there is little need to use hanja in everyday life, young adult Koreans are often unable to read more than a few hundred characters.


Although now nearly extinct in Vietnam, varying scripts of Chinese characters (han tu) were once in widespread use to write the language, although hán tự became limited to ceremonial uses beginning in the 19th century. Similarly to Japan and Korea, Chinese (especially Literary Chinese) was used by the ruling classes, and the characters were eventually adopted to write Vietnamese. To express native Vietnamese words which had different pronunciations from the Chinese, Vietnamese developed the Chu Nom script which used various methods to distinguish native Vietnamese words from Chinese. Vietnamese is currently exclusively written in the Vietnamese alphabet, a derivative of the Latin alphabet.

When western missionaries starting arriving in Vietnam during the 17th century, they developed a new script for Vietnamese based on the Latin alphabet - Quốc Ngữ (national language), which they used to write prayer books and other religious material in Vietnamese. Though Quốc Ngữ was developed by a number of different missionaries and by Vietnamese scholars, the person usually credited with its invention is Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary.

In the mid 18th century, some schools in Vietnam began to teach Quốc Ngữ, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that the use of Quoc Ngữ became widespread. Today Quốc Ngữ is the only script used for writing Vietnamese and Chữ-nôm is known only to a handful of scholars.


The Chinese were the first to use the chopsticks but today chopsticks are used by the Japanese, Koreans, Mongolian, Vietnamese, Thai and so forth. because of their use of chopsticks, such countries are sometimes called "the chopstick civilisation".

There are also a variety of chopsticks ranging from those made of stainless steel to ivory chopsticks used by the Emperor of China to the disposable bamboo chopsticks used throughout Asia Pacific nowadays.

The Japanese have even modified the chopsticks they adopted from the Chinese with a tapering end. The Minister Mentor of Singapore once remarked in Japan that Japanese are so good in copying and modifying other cultures as exemplified by the chopsticks.

The following are the universal etiquette on using chopsticks taken from wikipedia:

Chopsticks are not used to make noise, to draw attention, or to gesticulate. Playing with chopsticks is considered bad mannered and vulgar (just as playing with cutlery in a Western environment would be deemed crass).
Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates.
Chopsticks are not used to toy with one's food or with dishes in common.
Chopsticks are not used to pierce food, save in rare instances. Exceptions include tearing larger items apart such as vegetables and kimchi. In informal use, small, difficult-to-pick-up items such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be stabbed, but this use is frowned upon by traditionalists.
Chopsticks should not be left standing vertically in a bowl of rice or other food. Any stick-like object pointed upward resembles the incense sticks that some Asians use as offerings to deceased family members; certain funerary rites designate offerings of food to the dead using standing chopsticks.

Chinese etiquette
In Chinese culture, it is normal to hold the rice bowl up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth. If rice is served on a plate, as is more common in the West, it is acceptable and more practical to eat it with a spoon or fork.
It is acceptable to transfer food to closely related people (e.g. grandparents, parents, spouse, children, or significant others) if they are having difficulty picking up the food. Also it is a sign of respect to pass food to the elderly first before the dinner starts.
It is impolite to spear food with a chopstick and/or play with the chopsticks.
It is rude to use the chopstick to dig for food in the common dish.
Chopsticks should not be left sticking on the rice because it symbolizes "feeding" the dead and death in general.

Japanese etiquette

Food should not be transferred from one's own chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks. Japanese people will always offer their plate to transfer it directly, or pass a person's plate along if the distance is great. Transferring directly is how bones are passed as part of japanese funeral rites.
The pointed ends of the chopsticks should be placed on a chopstick rest when the chopsticks are not being used.
Reversing chopsticks to use the opposite clean end is commonly used to move food from a communal plate, although it is not considered to be proper manners Rather, the group should ask for extra chopsticks to transfer food from a communal plate.
Chopsticks should not be crossed on a table or vertically stuck in the rice, as this symbolizes death.
It is rude to rub wooden chopsticks together after breaking them apart, as this communicates to the host that the user thinks the chopsticks are cheap.

Korean etiquette

Koreans consider it rude to pick up the rice bowl from the table to eat from it.
Unlike other chopstick cultures, Koreans use a spoon for their rice and soup, and chopsticks for most other things at the table. (Traditionally, Korean spoons have a relatively flat, circular head with a straight handle, unlike Chinese or Japanese soup spoons.)
Unlike the rice eaten in many parts of China, cooked Korean rice can be easily picked up with chopsticks, although eating rice with a spoon is more acceptable.
When laying chopsticks down on the table next to a spoon, one must never put the chopsticks to the left of the spoon. Chopsticks are only laid to the left for deceased family members.
The blunt handle ends of chopsticks are not used to transfer food from common dishes.
When no communal chopsticks are available, it is perfectly acceptable to pick up banchan and eat it without putting it down on one's bowl first.
Also, there is an old saying suggesting that the closer one's hand is to the tips of the chopsticks, the longer they stay unmarried.

Vietnamese etiquette

As with Chinese etiquette, the rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice is pushed into the mouth using the chopsticks.
Unlike with Chinese dishes, it is also practical to use chopsticks to pick up rice in plates, such as fried rice, because Vietnamese rice is typically sticky.
It is proper to always use two chopsticks at once, even when using them for stirring.
One should not pick up food from the table and place it directly in the mouth. Food must be placed in your own bowl first.
Chopsticks should not be placed in the mouth while choosing food.
Chopsticks should never be placed in a "V" shape when done eating; it is interpreted as a bad omen.

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