Some time around my thirtieth birthday, my parents sat me down and gave me some of the treasured family heirlooms. Within the cache were two pairs of silver chopsticks, they were made with a round barrel, carved on the far ends, and attached with a silver chain at one end. Along with these two pair of chopsticks came a family story.
My grandmother was a very superstitious woman who believed in the advice of fortune tellers. So when her children were born she was curious to know their fates, and sought the advice of a numerologist. She provided her children’s birth dates and was told that her second eldest son was a “tiger” and eventually he would “devour” his parents. The fortune teller’s recommendation was to give the child away. So my grandparents sent away their second son, to his grandparents and let his grandparents raise him.
Shortly afterwards, their second daughter was born. My grandmother went to the same fortune teller and asked about her fate and was told a similar devastating story about the second daughter. In the end, it was recommended the second daughter also be given away. My grandparents happened to have friends who were childless. They gave their daughter to their friends to be raised. As a token of their appreciation, their friends presented my grandparents with a gift of two pairs of silver chopsticks (the same pair given to me by my parents). They vowed if for some reason they lost touch with each other they would pass on these stories to their families.
The friends would tell their new daughter of her true family, and let her know that if one day someone came by with the silver chopsticks and the story of the fortune teller, she would know they were her family. My grandparents passed on the same story to their family, letting my dad know he had a sister somewhere, and the silver chopsticks were the key to letting her know of their bond.
After telling me this story, my father also told me the legend of silver chopsticks. Silver chopsticks have a special place in Chinese culture, because it’s believed that former emperors used them exclusively to determine if there was poison in the food they were about to eat. Supposedly the silver would tarnish as soon as it touched any poison hidden in food. It’s considered a great honor to receive a pair of silver chopsticks as a gift because of this legend. A recent article on the history of chopsticks reminded me of my family story, and provides some additional detail to the silver chopsticks mythology. It also provided an interesting story about Confucius, who was a vegetarian. Confucius thought having knives at the dinner table was too vulgar, and some believe this led to a wider use of chopsticks in China.
Next time you pick up a pair of chopsticks, reflect a moment on the history, symbolism and meaning behind two pieces of wood.