Why do Koreans use metal chopsticks?

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Unlike other Asian cultures whose chopsticks are primarily made of wood, Korean chopsticks are made of metal. Why?

A recent exhibition of chopsticks at the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney offered an opportunity to explore the reasons for this preference. At the opening, the following reasons were given to Garland in explanation:

  • Koreans don’t like to waste materials so we prefer metal which is easier to reuse
  • The rice that Koreans use is quite small so we need more precise implements to eat
  • Koreans are very conscious of germs so prefer metal because it can be cleaned properly

But there was one deeper explanation about the cultural identity metal that is offered by the metalsmith Dr Chris Sun Bahng:

Koreans have a long history of excelling in metalworks. Silla is the name of the ancient Korean kingdom which was introduced to the world by Ibn Khurdadhbih (820-912CE, a Persian geographer) through his geography book Roads and Kingdoms: “Silla is a country abounding in gold… the inhabitants make the chains for their dogs and the collars for their monkeys of this metal. They manufacture tunics woven with gold.”

Excavation work of Silla tombs yields a great number of gold artefacts including crowns, earrings and pendants. These are highly elaborate and indicating the Silla people’s advanced metalwork craftsmanship. This possibly pushed boundaries of their metal techniques to produce unique chopsticks over 1,000 years. Kim (this means “gold”) was the name of a family that rose to prominence and became the rulers of Silla for 700 years. About 20 percent of South Korea’s population of 50 million (2017 est.) has the family name Kim.

Images are courtesy of Cheongju Cultural Industry Promotion Foundation.

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