The great chopstick controversy

When visiting Chinese entertainers -- two comedians, plus musicians -- gave a performance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Chinese students recently, they were invited afterward to dine at Joyce Chen's restaurant to meet Mrs. Chen's family and some of her Boston and Cambridge friends. After an introduction by Mrs. Chen's son, Stephen Chen, a buffet dinner of Chinese dishes was served. At my table were six Chinese men and four Americans -- we four wielding our chopsticks as dexterously as possible, while the Chinese all easily handled the Western knife and fork.

As we ate, someone mentioned the suggestion of Hu Yaobang, general secretary of China's Communist Party, who recently announced in the press that for reasons of hygiene the Chinese should change to knives and forks, along with individual plates.

Nobody ventured to guess how long a conversion of this kind might take, but the general opinion seemed to be that it would be a difficult switch because of the legends, myths, and general rules of etiquette connected with these eating utensils.

The origins of chopsticks are not known for certain, but they were in use in China as early as 400 BC. By AD 500 they had been exported to other Asian countries.

The Japanese soon picked them up, shortening them a few inches and tapering their square tops to points.

In Japan, they are called hashi, meaning bridge, as the chopsticks are the bridge between bowl and mouth.

It is possible the Chinese had the knife and fork before Europeans, but because of their supreme courtesy considered it impolite to expect a guest to cut or chop his food at table. It is more properly done in the kitchen so the guest may dine more easily, a matter of grace as well as courtesy. Then, with chopsticks, one simply picks up the pieces of food.

``Chopstick etiquette is a matter of common sense, and hygiene is really no problem,'' says Joyce Chen.

``When serving oneself from a common bowl or platter it is proper to use the opposite end than the one that goes to your mouth,'' she explains. ``And special chopsticks for serving can be used with the main dish or dishes.''

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