Ever since I started collecting antique Chinese Ceramics and other art objects long time ago (see my earlier postings from February to July 2008), I have always been especially fascinated by the old Chinese porcelain soup spoons which are an indispensable dining item for daily meals in every Chinese household, rich or poor. This commonplace kitchen article has been largely ignored by most Chinese ceramic collectors everywhere because they are deemed unworthy of collecting by ceramic experts and connoisseurs, and therefore not many antique shops would stock them because of low demand. Also, not many of these spoons had survived the daily usage and the vicissitudes of time. Despite their lowly status, their beauty is far from skin deep and they have a charm all their own. Apart from the plain ones, most of them were skillfully decorated in single or polychrome colours, with a range of motifs as their tiny size would accommodate. I would regularly scour the flea marts and lesser antique shops, both in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere, whenever I had the time and opportunity to do so. These could be bought cheaply when I was lucky enough to find them. Over the years, I had managed to accumulate some 600 spoons of different shapes and sizes, some are of quite fine quality made for the rich and discerning but the majority are of the common types which were found in many homes in China and those of overseas Chinese communities in bygone days. My oldest spoons date back to the 17th century, mainly those found in Chinese shipwrecks, but the bulk of them are of 19th and early 20th centuries provenance.
An acute problem confronting keen collectors of Chinese antique spoons is the dearth of written publications on this subject to enable one to enhance one’s knowledge on it. Even the internationally popular oriental art magazines, such as the Hong Kong based Arts of Asia, had, to my best recollection, published only one substantial article on it showcasing the collection of an American couple who had lived in Asia and who had built up quite an impressive collection of Chinese spoons, mainly those made in the course of the past 150 years. As far as I know, no books in either Chinese or English has been written exclusively on Chinese antique spoons, with the collectors in mind. However, I know that there would certainly be Chinese written texts on household utensils like chopsticks and spoons, which would probably include their origins and subsequent evolutions as essential dining things. As my interest in Chinese spoons became a passion, I had been toying with the idea of writing a well-researched monograph on it but had virtually no firm idea how to go about obtaining the much needed written sources that would enable me to do a decent job.
I finally enlisted the help of a good family friend, Yuan Jian 袁旔 , who is not only learned in Chinese but also actively involved with the arts and regularly visits Chinese archaeological sites and those in Southeast Asia. I discussed my plan with her and she spontaneously agreed to extend her help in this project. After one of her trips to China in pursuit of her intellectual interests, she brought to my house a bundle of Chinese books and art catalogues, some with illustrations and photographs on a variety of common Chinese kitchen utensils, including spoons, and their evolutions from ancient times to their contemporary forms and usages. It was just what I had been looking for, but these would take me months, if not longer, to read and digest them, even with my eager interest in spoons and other related kitchen things having been further ignited!
Yuan Jian also offered me very useful and practical advice regarding my intention to write a book on antique Chinese spoons. She said that, while in China, she had mentioned my plan to several well-known ceramic scholars and researchers and their unanimous view was that, given the very limited written resources available on spoons which would interest their collectors, it would be a much better idea to write a definitive and well-researched book on the common Chinese kitchen utensils, such as chopsticks, spoons, bowls, plates and cups, from their ancient origins to its contemporary forms, as there are more written information available and these utensils are well documented in ancient texts, paintings and further supported by latest archaeological finds. These experts further confirmed that, to date, no such book has been written and therefore worthwhile pursuing. Such a work will be a significant contribution to the field of art and more widely read than my original idea. She strongly urged me to ‘think big’ and she believed that I had the capacity and interest to undertake this more demanding task . Yuan Jian further generously extended me any form of help I might require, including securing for me the written sources needed, and assisting me in translating the difficult Chinese technical terms and more complex passages into English, which is a language I am more competent in and the proposed book will be in this medium. I was much flattered by her confidence in me.
After having quickly gone through the written materials from Yuan Jian and mulling and debating the enormous task ahead of me, coupled with my wife’s counsel on it and her experiences in writing academic books and papers, I told her, albeit with deep regret, that I would have to decline her tempting invitation because this project would tie both of us down for several years, and it would also entail my having to fore-go my frequent leisure travels which have become one of my chief delights in life after my retirement from active gainful employment. On top of these, I honestly believe that this very scholarly undertaking is beyond my capability to do it well, and it is best left to an appropriate expert in the field of art scholarship to bring it to fruition. Yuan Jian was somewhat disappointed with my decision, but accepted my reasons for doing so. Ever so gracious and sincere a friend, she then presented these valuable books and catalogues to me as a gift in order to encourage me to keep up my interest in Chinese spoons and other essential kitchen things.
I subsequently managed to read and digest most of these materials with relish. As my knowledge on the common Chinese kitchen utensils has been augmented, I became more convinced that I should pen a couple of articles in my blog on this rarely discussed subject and dedicate them to my good friend, Yuan Jian, for having opened my mind to these less glamorous but nevertheless important household necessities, without which the glorious Chinese cuisine, which is an enduring hallmark of he nation’s 5000-year old civilisation, might not have achieved its present preeminence in the world.
I was most pleasantly surprised to find out that archaeological evidence indisputably establishes China as the first country to use fork to eat their food, long before it became an integral part of the Western dining implements. As a matter of fact, they had been using it more than 4000 years ago and later abandoned it in favour of chopsticks which they found to be more convenient, practical, versatile and economical a tool for food. The Chinese origin of the fork would certainly astonish the overwhelming majority of Chinese themselves. If you make this claim to Westerners, they will not only pity your ignorance but will think you are out of your mind. So, with this opening gambit, my first article to kick off this Chinese dining implements topic is entitled From fork to chopstick, which is posted immediately below. I hope you will enjoy reading it and be convinced that the ancient Chinese had invented it.
At the dawn of human civilisation, mankind’s ancestors must have instinctively used their fingers as the most practical way to put food into their mouths whenever their biological clocks alerted them that their stomachs needed it as nourishment in order to survive. As the different racial communities developed along the way, some found it necessary to explore alternative methods of eating. This resulted in their inventing dining tools best suited to their own food culture and particular needs. That was how chopsticks and fork and knife came into being. Today, we humans have three major tools for dining. We use our fingers, chopstick or fork and knife. Fingers users are mainly countries in the Middle East, West and Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, those preferring fork and knife are concentrated in Europe, America and parts of Asia Pacific, while the chopstick adherents are rooted in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Eating with Fingers
To eat with one’s fingers is undoubtedly the most natural, convenient and economical way and it frees one from having to incur continuing expenses on cutlery and to replenish them from time to time. Its users must be the envy of their chopstick and fork and knife counterparts who are permanently settled with the unwelcome chore of having to wash up their greasy cutlery after each meal! Another advantage is that the sensitiveness of the fingers will better ensure that its users are less likely to have tiny fish or meat bones stuck in their throats, which is a common hazard facing those employing other dining implements. The doctors can testify to that. Also, if one is unfortunate to be lost in a jungle or get marooned in an uninhabited island, the finger users will hardly need to adept to a new eating habit like those using other dining tools. On the other hand, exercising personal hygiene is vitally important to these diners in order to prevent the food being contaminated by unclean fingers. For those of Muslim faith, etiquette dictates that they must eat with their right hand fingers as the left hand ones are considered unclean when it comes to partaking food. I had tried eating with my fingers from time to time and found it quite fun and easy to adept once the initial reservations were overcome.
Despite the aid of chopsticks and fork and knife, certain types of food are much easier to dissect and consume with the help of one’s fingers. All of us, without exceptions, have to do it this way when eating food like crab, chicken wing and fish with numerous tiny bones, or when eating Western food like burger, hot dog, sandwich, fried chicken, bread and some Asian snacks such as samosa, curry puff and meat bun. In that sense, all of us are still occasional finger users when it suits us best!
Eating with Chopsticks
Everyone knows that chopsticks were invented by the Chinese and they are as essential a dining tool to them as forks and knives are to the Westerners. But it is not commonly known, not even to most Chinese themselves and much less to others, that their ancient forebears were already using forks for their meals more than 4000 years before the same made its first appearance at the Western dining table as an eating utensil of the elites in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Chinese first experimented with them in or even before the Xia Dynasty (4205-1760 BCE) and later switched over to chopsticks. The early period forks were all made from animal bones for the benefit of meat eaters who were either of royal linage or came from the ruling nobility.
Did the Chinese invent the fork? They must have as there are no evidence that others had been using it before them. The proof is there for all to see. In the course of carrying out excavation works in Gansu Province in North West China, the archaeologists accidentally dug up the first known Xia three-prong fork from the site. This unusual discovery was followed by another find of a two-prong fork in the same region’s Qinghai Province. A series of other finds followed during the succeeding dynasties of Shang, Zhou and the Warring States . For instance, a Shang tomb yielded a coarsely crafted three-prong fork . The most spectacular hauls came from a Warring States tomb site in Loyang, where 51 pieces of perfectly preserved fine animal bone forks, all with two prongs, were recovered. It is probable that the use of forks reached its peak during that period because very few new artifacts came to light during the very prosperous and advanced Han Dynasty.
It would seem that, although by the late Shang and early Zhou dynasties chopsticks had already come into existence, its usage was not yet widespread. However, by the Han Dynasty, it had become the most popular dining tool, having almost completely replaced the more exclusive animal bone forks. It was found to be a more convenient and flexible utensil than forks and definitely safer to use. Like the fork, the earliest chopsticks were also made from animal bones as well as from wood, and gradually other materials like bronze, ivory and bamboo were added to its range. While those of royal blood and the aristocrats could afford the more refined chopsticks made from expensive materials mentioned above, the common people would be content with the primitive ones made from twigs. Some specimens found in the Zhou and Han tombs contained the various chopstick types mentioned earlier except the wood ones. The use of bamboo chopsticks came into its own during the Han Dynasty as they became more affordable to an increasing number of common people. The most finely crafted of them all immediately became part and parcel of the funerary ware that would be buried with the rich and powerful for their use in the hereafter. Quite a few of these have been unearthed and can now be viewed at some major Chinese museums. A rare Han tomb wall painting of a banquet scene clearly depicts an elaborate array of food at a dining table with a pair of bamboo chopsticks placed in front of the host and each of his guests. By the later dynasties of Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, every household in China, both rich and even the poorest, would eat with chopsticks of varying qualities, mostly made of bamboo or wood but the finest were fashioned in precious materials like gold, silver, jade or ivory for the ruling classes as status symbols. These have become rare works of art and would fetch high prices at important international auctions when they come into the market. The contemporary chopsticks are generally made of wood or plastic.
Over time chopsticks have earned its rightful place as ‘the soul’ of the Chinese dining implements and perfectly complimenting the growth of the Chinese culinary art. Some culinary experts believe that the Chinese cuisine would not have attained its current international renown if the Chinese had not invented chopsticks to go with their food and cooking style. In its more than 3000 years’ history, it has eliminated the preceding forks and has not been superseded by any other newer type of dining tool. The increasing popularity of chopsticks has now spread to non Chinese worldwide, as more and more of them would opt to eat with chopsticks when dining in Chinese restaurants rather than asking for the more familiar fork and knife, which was a common practice in the ’80s and earlier.
What are the main advantages of eating with chopsticks and what it can do that other forms of dining tools will do less efficiently or simply unable to do? It is generally accepted that because chopsticks are light, flexible and extremely versatile to suit different varieties of Chinese food, it can easily perform the multitude of tasks at the dining table that other dining tools on their own steam may find it difficult to match. For instance, they can deftly pick up or spilt any kind of food, be it rice, noodle, vegetable, meat or fish from a dish, rice bowl or wok (larger than the Western frying pan) and even from a steaming hot pot of assorted ingredients, sometimes with the meat or vegetable stuck together and need to be separated. Do try to do the latter act with your fork, knife, spoon or scooper and you will appreciate how less adequate these are compared with the manifold capability of chopsticks! Also, in Western dining, many different types of knife and fork have to be used for different types of food items, whereas, in a Chinese meal, no matter how elaborate, the same pair of chopsticks can tackle any kind of food with ease. This is because Chinese food is usually sliced or diced into bite-size portions for ease of eating in order to suit the use of the seemingly magical chopsticks.
Despite the many virtues of chopsticks, it requires a fair bit of skill and finger dexterity to master the correct usage of it in order to bring out its full potential as a dining implement and to conform to the established dining etiquette. This requires proper coordination and manipulation of one’s finger movements so that the two independent sticks can, at your command, perform the various functions quickly and efficiently in order to ensure the full enjoyment of the meal. The best way to attain these skills is to train your children from young to handle this simple but sophisticated tool correctly. This will stay with them for life. One can, of course, learn the needed skill in adult life if one is seriously determined to be proficient in it, as many non Chinese have succeeded in doing so and are proud of their accomplishment. Unfortunately, nowadays many younger ethnic Chinese, both in Greater China and in overseas countries have, either through parental neglect or lack of self-discipline, failed to master the art of chopstick handling. This can be socially embarrassing for them when dining with their Chinese friends or business contacts.
One growing concern about eating with chopsticks is the traditional Chinese practice of communal sharing of food, not only within the family but also with friends and guests. To the Chinese, it is an act of courtesy and hospitality for the host to pick up the choice morsels for his guests from his own chopsticks before partaking the food himself. While communal food sharing can promote family cohesion and sense of fellowship with others, it can also, unwittingly, transmit germs to them. Hence, to allay the fear of those not comfortable with this tradition, a separate common pair of chopsticks is often used by the host so that he can still be hospitable without alarming any uneasy guests. Be that as it may, the communal sharing of food with one’s family, close relatives and friends largely continues as before unaffected by any potential health concern . This compromise strikes me as a win-win formula for all lovers of Chinese cuisine and generally welcome by them.
Eating with Knife and Fork
The fork was already in existence during the biblical and ancient Greek times. It was employed as a kitchen utensil to hold down a chunky meat firmly in order to facilitate cutting it by knife. It came to the Byzantine Empire capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul) from the East in the 10th century. It gained acceptance from the monarch and the nobility there as a new dining implement . It was introduced to Italy in the following century by a Byzantine princess who at her wedding banquet in Venice refused to partake of food with her fingers like anyone else present. Her attendant then proceeded to cut up the meat into smaller pieces for her to eat them with her fork. She created a stir and became the talk of the town. However, by the 15th century, it had become a more popular dining tool in Italy. From Italy this novel fork made its way to Spain in the 16th century and later to other continental countries before making its seaward journey to England in the 17th century. It later made its Atlantic crossing to America. The early European users of fork were the royalty, the nobility and the rich merchants. The common people would still eat with their fingers. During the 17th century, guests invited to a sumptuous dinner in Europe would be asked to bring along their own cutlery because fork and spoon was a very expensive dining implement made for only the privileged few. The original forks were either two or three-prong and mostly made of metal but became four-prong from the 19th century onwards. Today, they are made of stainless steel.
The advent of this new dining tool in Europe was viewed with dismay and even suspicion in some quarters. Many clergy of the Roman Catholic Church believed that God had created the fingers so that human beings could eat their food using them. It would be wrong to resort to the artificial fork as a substitute for them. It was also not well received by the English ruling classes who perceived it as an Italian affectation and a feminine habit. It was,of course, well beyond the reach of the common folks there who were happily sticking to their own fingers as their dining tool, aided by spoons when needed. The fork gained popularity in the following century for those who could afford it.
Table knife was added on as an additional dining utensil only in the 17th century. King Louis IV of France, who built the magnificent Palace of Versailles near Paris, was credited as being the first person in Europe to provide the complete cutlery set of fork, spoon and knife when he invited a large number of privileged guests to a banquet at his newly built residential palace. He became the envy of all his fellow European monarchs because of his enormous wealth as these utensils were extremely costly. It was then the common practice for other monarchs to require their invited guests to bring along their own fork and spoon in an elegant box called the cadena. This practice was duly copied by their high Court officials and the aristocrats. During the 19th century, using fork, knife and spoon for food had become more widespread as the industrial revolution and expanding world economy had greatly increased the wealth of the European nations, with resultant rise in the standard of living for their own nationals.
Unlike the simple but more versatile chopsticks which can be used throughout an elaborate Chinese meal, a variety of forks, knives and spoons need to be employed in a multi-course Western meal. This is because their respective portion sizes and methods of cooking and eating are markedly different and so are their dining etiquette. To Asians not familiar with Western dining practices, an invitation to an elaborate Western meal can turn out to be an intimidating experience, with its array of different cutlery sets and wine glasses neatly set before each guest. I know of cases of diffident invitees, including the host’s own compatriots, turning down such invitations for fear of disgracing themselves socially.
Who says East is east and West is west, and the twain shall never meet. At least when it comes to appreciation of each other’s food and dining culture the twain have already met in perfect harmony. Due to the impact of Western civilisation, many in Asia had, long ago, changed to using fork and spoon in their daily life in place of eating with chopsticks or with their fingers. Even fine dining Chinese restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei will automatically provide a fork and knife when serving Chinese style steaks, king prawns and lobsters in individual portions as in Western restaurants, which would have been unheard of a decade or two ago. Drinking of Western table wines at meals in both Asian and Western restaurants is fast becoming a way of life of the upper income groups in Asia. At the same time, elegant fusion restaurants, serving hybrid food by combining elements of both cuisines, have sprung up in profusion in the above Asian cities to meet the increasing demand of a cosmopolitan clientele with high spending power. At the other end of the pendulum, many Western eateries in Tokyo and Osaka, including those owned and run by Westerners, would gladly allow their local customers to use chopsticks rather than fork and knife whenever it suits them to do so. Again, this would have been unthinkable in the not too distant past. Similarly, in Singapore and Malaysia, some reputable continental restaurants have started to serve the Chinese new year delicacy consisting of the traditional sliced raw fish with assorted salads complimented by Chinese condiments to boot. On top of these, more and more international five-star hotels in Singapore and other leading Asian cities now offer East-West buffet dining in a multi-food station setting. In such a setting, patrons can switch from chopsticks to fork and knife and vice versa, depending on their choice of the delicious array of international food items that appeal to their tastes.
As Asia continues to rise in prosperity, its cuisines, especially those of China, Japan, India, Korea and Thailand, are now the rage in the West. More and more Westerners have learned to handle chopsticks correctly and make more efforts to understand the Asian dining culture. Also, drinking Chinese and Japanese teas and sipping Chinese wines and Japanese sakes have become a common sight among Westerners. Asian appetisers like kimchi, sushi, char siew, wanton, tong yum soup and kebab have become familiar names to them too. As in Asia, fusion restaurants, where chopsticks sit comfortably alongside fork and knife, have mushroomed up in large cities of the West and they continue to draw the more sophisticated diners in.
Despite a fast changing world brought about by globalisation, I believe that the Chinese people will always uphold the continuing use of chopsticks as the best dining tool for the Chinese cuisine, in the same way that Muslims will never cease to eat with their right hand fingers and Westerners are most unlikely to abandon fork and knife in favour of an alternative implement for food. Long live all these tested dining tools and do have a good meal!
Lam Pin Foo
Some of the material referred to in this article are from:
6 Various articles published in Chinese art catalogues and other sources.
1-5 above are written by Wang Ren Xiang 王仁湘 or edited by him.