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:
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.
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. =]