As mentioned in a previous post on forks, the early Europeans were confused with the new vogue of cutting food at the table into small, bite-size pieces. They found the custom, recently introduced by merchants trading with China, tedious and pointlessly fastidious. Unknown to thirteenth-century Europeans was the Oriental philosophy dictating that food be diced—not at the table, but in the kitchen before it was served.
For centuries, the Chinese had taught that it was uncouth and barbaric to serve a large carcass that in any way resembled the original animal. In addition, it was considered impolite to expect a dinner guest to struggle through a dissection that could have been done beforehand, in the kitchen, out of sight. An old Chinese proverb sums up the philosophy: “We sit at table to eat, not to cut up carcasses.”
That belief dictated food size, which in turn suggested a kind of eating utensil. Chopsticks —of wood, bone, and ivory—were perfectly suited to conveying the pre-cut morsels to the mouth, and the Chinese word for the implements, kwai-tsze, means “quick ones.” Our term “chopsticks” is an English phonetic version of kwai-tsze.
In the Orient, the father of etiquette was the fifth-century philosopher Confucius—who, despite popular misconceptions, neither founded a religion nor formulated a philosophical system. Instead, motivated by the social disorder of his time, he posited principles of correct conduct, emphasising solid family relationships as the basis of social stability. The Oriental foundation for all good manners is taken to be Confucius’s maxim “What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others.”