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Shanghai collector tries to list chopsticks as a cultural heritage

Chopsticks, or Kuaizi, have been around in China for 3,000 years, and have deeply influenced Chinese life in terms of etiquette, cuisine and even philosophy. Now chopsticks could become listed as an intangible cultural heritage in Shanghai this year, thanks to the efforts of a local enthusiast.

Meet Lan Xiang and his pride and joy: a collection of over 2000 pairs of chopsticks, from the largest to the smallest kind.

Now in his eighties, Lan has been collecting chopsticks for over thirty years and in 1998 he set up this museum, the first in the country.

It’s his way to share his passion with others and to preserve and promote the culture of chopsticks.

“Chopsticks have a history of over 3000 years in China,” Lan said. “As something that we use on a daily basis, the chopsticks are not that well preserved in China. I’ve visited Japan several times and it struck me how highly they regard the culture of chopsticks. It’s not just the organizations that study it, they’ve also made every August 4th the Chopsticks Festival. So I’m applying to list the chopsticks as an intangible cultural heritage in Shanghai.”

Lan’s collections boasts a wide range of materials. The most common ones fashioned out of bamboo or wood; more pricey ones carved from jade or even ivory, a controversial choice but nonetheless producing exquisite utensils.

Lan says the chopsticks are increasingly appreciated beyond their practical use, but also as artistic representations of history and culture.

“My biggest passion in life is to collect different chopsticks and to study the history behind them. This one is extremely rare, it was specially made for the Tibetan Lamas during the Qing Dynasty. As you can see it comprises of a pair of chopsticks and a knife. The Tibetan people like to carry a knife not just for self-defence but also to cut meat with. So it’s an interesting reflection of the culture of that period,” Lan said.

There are estimates that chopsticks are used by at least 1.8 billion people worldwide.

Small and seemingly simple, they are more than just dining instruments but serve as a means to pass on Chinese civilization.

“In a way we can classify the cultures around the world by what kind of tools they use for eating. Mostly cultures in East Asia use chopsticks, and western cultures mainly use knives and forks and some cultures simply use their hands, like the Indians. Some scholars even refer to the East Asia Sphere as the chopsticks cultural sphere. To look at their influences from a new perspective may provide an innovative angle for understanding ourselves,” Lan said.

For Lan, his effort to protect the chopsticks are just like the utensil itself. It may be small, but it’s ready to make a big difference.