Here's hoping chopsticks are given the chop


I have a confession to make. What I find most difficult about this job is not the harsh weather, the strange culture, or grasping the geography, politics and economics of one-third of the world's land mass. My problem is chopsticks.

Don't get me wrong, I am trying. As a guest I am determined that, while in this country, I do as the Chinese do. (Within reason, of course.)

But despite hours and hours of painstaking effort, I still can't get the hang of those harmless wooden eating utensils.

To millions of Chinese, they are just two thin splints, snapped apart for use before a meal, and discarded afterwards. My children were experts within a week. To me, they are simply a nightmare.

I am OK with family or friends when I actually manage to get some of the food into my mouth. But in Chinese company, my fingers turn to jelly and I just fall apart.

Take last week, for example. I was in the coastal Province of Fujian in south-east China (two hours' flying time south of Beijing) and guest at a dinner hosted by a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, the deputy mayor of the city of Changle.

With course after course of food being served and the deputy mayor and seven of his male officials looking on, the chopsticks let me down once again. Red-faced with embarrassment, and with my new-found communist friends sniggering at my feeble efforts, the deputy mayor (God bless him) whispered to a waitress who produced a familiar stainless steel knife and fork in seconds.

Chopsticks are in the news in Asia, not because of your correspondent's failure to master their use, but because they are the latest threat to the environment.

China now produces 60 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, cutting down 25 million trees in the process: 45 billion pairs are for domestic use, while 15 billion are exported to Japan and other Asian countries.

According to environmentalists, if this rate of chopstick production continues, China will consume its remaining forests within 10 years.

Chopsticks have been China's primary eating tool since the Shang Dynasty, which began around 1500BC. Traditionally they were carved from bamboo, cedar or pine. Emperors preferred silver ones, believing they would turn black in the presence of poison.

It was not until the mid-1980s that disposable chopsticks, mass-produced from birch or poplar, appeared in China. This was long after Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong had begun using them. China promoted their use to fight the spread of contagious diseases.

The chopstick gained in popularity as market reforms fuelled China's economic boom. Millions of peasants flooded the cities to find work and higher incomes, and busier lifestyles resulted in more people eating out.

Most restaurants you go into in Beijing and other Chinese cities offer only disposable chopsticks to diners.

But the high volume of use results from the numbers of people who eat takeaway meals.

Every day in China, between 11.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. an important ritual takes place. It is called lunch. On construction sites, in offices, in shops and on factory floors, work stops as takeout Chinese meals in plastic boxes are delivered to millions of people, each with a pair of disposable chopsticks.

Last year there was one small step towards change when the Beijing Forestry University canteen switched from wooden disposable chopsticks to ones made from bamboo, which grows fast and can be planted in many parts of China.

A group called Friends of Nature has been established to lobby for a ban on disposable chopsticks.

In Shanghai there is already a partial ban, and the finance ministry in the city is considering a disposable chopstick tax.

South Korea is an example quoted by environmentalist to China. It banned the use of disposable chopsticks after the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, switching to stainless steel ones. Many are made with designs and carved handles and have become part of that country's culture.

Japan has been criticised by Chinese environmentalists. While it invented disposable chopsticks, it does not use its own trees to produce them in order to protect its forestry. Most of the 25 billion pairs it uses annually are imported.

The Minister for Education and Science, Dr Woods, in China on an official visit, did Ireland proud at a lunch hosted by the Beijing Education Commission last Friday. Officials were taken aback at how proficient he and his officials were in the use of chopsticks. The Minister admitted afterwards the key to his success was years of practice with Saturday-night Chinese takeaways in Dublin.

As for me, I secretly hope that chopsticks are given the chop, for environmental reasons, of course. And then I can eat in peace with the good old knife and fork.