Friday, November 29, 2013

The Chinese and the Fork

During a Chinese banquet in Shenzhen, my American guest asked for a fork knowing he would not get too far with a pair of chopsticks. It was his first visit to China and I was responsible for introducing the many delights of the Chinese culture to him during his visit to the country.

“I am glad they invented these for us westerners” referring to the fork when it was handed to him.

Almost immediately these words reminded me of the tale of a wise old man from Lanzhou I once met many years ago. With sun-baked face and wrinkled hands, this seasoned senior citizen informed me that the Chinese used the ‘Cha’ – fork as a dining tool before the ‘Kuaizi’ – chopsticks. Hearing this was indeed counter intuitive to my understanding of the history of chopsticks. I had thought that the Chinese only ever used the chopsticks as a dining tool.

This wise old man told me that the ‘Kuaizi’ only became a dining tool during the Shang Dynasty, almost 4000 years ago. Before that the Chinese had “Cha’ – the fork, usually made out of animal bones and used by the elite class.

During an archaeological excavation in the Gansu Province, North West China, a Xia Dynasty’s three-prong fork was unearthed from the site. Similar finds were recorded in succeeding excavations from the follow up Dynasties – Shang, Zhou and the Warring States all dating back about 1500 BC. In the Shang Dynasty tomb a coarsely crafted three-prong fork made out of animal bone was found amongst other pots and containers.

In the West the first recording of the use of a fork as an eating tool only appeared almost 2,000 years later in Constantinople, during the Byzantine Empire (400 AD).

So does this mean that the Chines also invented the Fork?

If they did, it begs the question why the Chinese replaced the fork/knife with the chopsticks as an eating tool on the dining table?

Legend has it that due to the enormous population growth in ancient China, the demand for resources necessitated meals to be prepared quickly without wasting precious fuel. To facilitate quicker cooking meat/vegetables were pre-sliced into smaller pieces, making the knife and fork less relevant as a dining tool on the table. In its place a more efficient tool was used - the “Kuai’ (Quick) ‘zi’ (bamboo tool).

Confucius also played a part in the popularisation of chopsticks as an eating utensil. According to his non-aggressive philosophy, sharp tools like knives/forks represented violence and warfare and that they did not belong to the dining table. He believed joy and contentment should come with every meal and in a resource limited country abundance of food and consumption of it underpinned happiness.

So my dear American friend, in your next visit to China, try using the chopstick, it’s much faster and more efficient and above all it brings uncanny joy and contentment to your every meal.

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