Chopsticks Taboo: Don’t Stab Your Rice!

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Chopsticks: Taboos?

Chopsticks: Taboos?

Today, let’s get into a little bit more of the culture in China. I have only seen this more with Cantonese people and I am not sure if Northern Chinese people follow the same practice. I am pretty sure you have heard about a lot of this regarding Japanese culture; it’s more or less very similar as a good portion of their culture has been derived from ours (but keep in mind – not all, similar yet different). The thing you have to keep in mind the most when using chopsticks (筷子) that really irks me when I see it is how many people love to put their chopsticks directly into their rice (or any other food their eating for the matter) having them stand directly up. Personally, I have been raised to not do this. Sometimes, it’s to the point that when I saw a fork stabbed on a Philly cheese steak, it was a severe eyesore. If there is only one extra thing that you can remember about chopsticks, remember this for the record:

What NOT to do with your chopsticks

What NOT to do with your chopsticks

First, let’s clear some of the confusion with some background story. Chinese people are known to care about family in many ways, one of which is “Ancestor Worship.” A main feature of what you would see regarding this is the incense pot (香爐 Hirng1 Lou4) that incense is burned and placed into. The image of chopsticks being stuck into rice resembles the image of incense sticks being stuck into the incense pot. In short, you can say that this is bad because it resembles something that you relate to the dead. In Chinese culture, there is the world of the dead and the world of the living and they are not to be mixed together. This would altogether include references to or things that could be mistaken as dead for the living.

The other reason that this should be avoided is also because of ancestor worship. It is said that spirits are unable to eat because they are no longer living beings. During holidays such as Qingming (清明節 Ching1 Ming4 Jit3) or any others where you were perform ancestor worship, often times food will be given as an offering to the ancestors, and afterward the family members can eat this too. I have had friends ask me “Isn’t that stupid? They don’t even eat the food” and in essence they do not because like I have stated earlier, they are no longer living. They are only capable of enjoying the food that is there, and they medium that facilitates this ability is the incense. Incense is essentially “food” to spirits, which is also why all the things that are sold alongside incense (joss paper, candles, etc) should not be played around like toys or for even humor.

Incense "Pot"

Incense "Pot"

However, if one has to make an offering to an ancestor in a time where he is unable to light incense, he would use the chopsticks (or any utensil) in the rice bowl to represent the incense in the incense pot; but also note that one only does this if he or she truly needs to make an offering at the time. It is also said that spirits are unable to use utensils in the same we can. In short, the reason why you should never stab chopsticks in your rice is because you are still a living person and you should definitely not be making a offering to yourself. I would not say this is bad luck, but more misunderstanding and performing a taboo.

By the way, just as a sidenote, as I am Cantonese too, when I say “Northern Chinese,” 95% of the time, what I actually mean is “not Cantonese.” Why? It’s a Cantonese thing. =]

12 thoughts on “Chopsticks Taboo: Don’t Stab Your Rice!

  1. Ah this topic. It always comes full swing with this one mainly because I tend to do this a lot and some my friends nitpick on it. I have one friend in particular that picks on it all the time. Are you going to be next to do so Mak?

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  2. I was raised up the same way and never do it. Also, I'm curious if you were taught to not cross arms with someone else when grabbing food from the plate.

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  3. @llkoko What does crossing arms with someone else when grabbing food from a plate symbolize? I never heard of that one before. ..

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    MakMak Reply:

    I don’t know if it symbolizes anything… I just know it’s rude. At least that’s what I learned.

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    llkoko Reply:

    Yeah, I don’t know if it symbolizes anything but I also learned that it is rude.

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  4. I was also told that it is even considered bad manners to balance your chopsticks horizontally on top of your plate and/or bowl (see picture in link: http://www.istockphoto.com/file_thumbview_approve/8662229/2/istockphoto_8662229-blue-rice-bowl-with-chopsticks-xl.jpg ). It is best to place the chopsticks on the table next to the bowl and/or plate. Did anyone else hear or know of something similar?

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    MakMak Reply:

    I think that’s also being rude and not rude. Does anyone know about this?

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  5. When eating in Chinese restaurants, I always obey this custom/rule/taboo. However, I wonder how influential these customs are on modern day Chinese. I ask the question because of my experience with another such custom one that requires when eating a whole fish, you should not turn it over when the flesh off one side has been eaten. To do so means that a fishing vessel will capsize at sea.

    I was eating with Chinese friends some time ago in Hong Kong. Some were native Hong Kongers, others were from Nanning in Gwang Sai. We finished one side of a whole fish and I began carefully picking flesh without turning the fish over. One of my friends saw this and immediately turned the fish over with his chopsticks. I tactfully asked if this didn’t bring bad luck. Those at the table chuckled and said ” mouh mahn taih’, just do it. I felt rather let down, that I as an Australian was the only one sticking to this Chinese custom.

    Neil

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    MakMak Reply:

    Haha, well you were in Hong Kong right? Were they around 20-25? If so they’re probably different than other Cantonese people since Hong Kong was brought up a bit more different.

    As for how influential they still are, I don’t know, but with the onset of Mainland China’s actions in addition to the modernization of society, it might seem bleak.

    Now as for the fish part… haha what you’re supposed to do is something like, grab the tail and use something (I prefer the huge spoon) and “de-bone” the fish. I’ve actually gotten quite skilled with that since my friends were kinda scared haha.

    Overall, thanks for appreciating our culture :)

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  6. I was taught the same in Vietnam. Also you can’t play with your chopsticks like using it as drumstick. It will call out the spirits lol

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    MakMak Reply:

    Yeah! I think I was taught that too. However, taken in a modern perspective, you can also say that playing with any eating utensils like that can be rude. Imagine at a Western restaurant doing that with a knife and fork. It’s rude too right? :)

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