A lot of us use knife and fork when we eat, but there is another set of utensil being used by billions of people around the world. The Chinese have been using chopsticks since at least 1200 B.C., and by A.D. 500 these utensils had swept the Asian continent from Vietnam to Japan.
The fabled ruins of Yin, in China’s Henan province, provided the first known chopsticks—bronze sets found in tombs at the site. Capable of reaching deep into boiling pots of water or oil, these early chopsticks were used mainly for cooking. It was not until A.D. 400 that people began eating with the utensils. This happened when there was a population boom across China, sapping resources and forcing cooks to develop cost-saving habits. They began chopping food into smaller pieces that required less cooking fuel—and happened to be perfect for the tweezers-like grip of chopsticks.
As food became bite-sized, knives became obsolete. Their decline—and chopsticks’ rise—also came courtesy of Confucius. As a vegetarian, he believed that using sharp utensils at the dinner table would remind eaters of the slaughterhouse. He thought that the knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, killing the happy, contended mood that should reign during meals. Thanks in part to his lessons, chopstick use quickly became widespread throughout Asia.