Chinese Articles of Everyday Use


When the Chinese began to use chopsticks as an eating instrument is anybody's guess. They were first mentioned in writing in Liji (The Book of Rite), a work compiled some 2,000 years ago, but certainly they had their initial form in the twigs which the primitive Chinese must have used to pickup a roast after they began to use fire. The twigs then evolved into the wooden, tapering sticks as we know them today.

Chopsticks may be made of any of several materials: bamboo, wood, gold, silver, ivory, pewter, and plastic. In cross-section, they may be either round or square. Some of them are engraved with colored pictures or calligraphy for decoration. Ordinary chopsticks used in Chinese homes are of wood or bamboo, those for banquets are often ivory, whereas gold ones belonged only to the royally and aristocracy.

The correct way to use chopsticks is to hold the pair in the hollow between the thumb and forefinger of your fork hand. The one closest to your body should rest on the first joint of the ring finger and stay relatively immobile. Hold the other one with the forefinger and middle finger, which manipulate it like princers to pick up the food. The strength applied by the fingers should vary with the things to be taken hold of. The skill to pick up, with speed and dexterity, small things like beans and peanuts and slippery things like slices of preserved eggs can only come from practice and coordinated action of the fingers.

Incidentally, using chopsticks has a great deal in common with wielding a brush to write Chinese characters. Those who write a good hand, some scholars have observed, are invariably those who handle the chopsticks correctly. One holds the writing brush basically in the same way as one would the moving chopsticks and, while writing, one must achieve a coordination in the movement of the shoulder, arm, wrist and fingers in order to write well.

Westerners are often impressed with the cleverness of the Chinese hand that makes embroideries and clay sculptures with such consummate skill. Could not this also be attributed, at least partly, to the constant use of chopsticks.

Earthen Pot

The earthen pot is commonly used in China both as a cooking utensil and a table vessel. Various soups made in such a pot with vegetables and meatballs and/or soya bean curd are inexpensive, tasty and therefore highly popular.

The Chinese earthen pot is made of a special white pottery clay which, with its stable chemical property, is impregnable to acid, alkaline or salt. It is superior in several ways to cooking vessels of iron or aluminium. Food cooked or stored away in the clay casserole will not easily deteriorate in the heat of summer.

Clay pots of a smaller size are also used by the Chinese to boil medicinal herbs, as they do not add any extraneous substance to the resultant decoction.

Most of the earthen pots come from two sources Foshan area in Guangzhou and Yixing area jin Jiangsu Province . The sandy clay in these places makes an ideal material for the pottery industry. Shiwan sanbao produced at Shiwan in Foshan city, Guangdong Province , are sold to Hong Kong , Macao and Southeast Asia . It is a cooker that can be used for triple purposesoto cook rice, to make gruel and to boil tea.

Being made of burnt clay, the earthen pot is easily breakable and must be handled with care. It must not be heated on the fire when it contains no liquid inside: otherwise, it will crack and become leaky. A new pot, before being used, should be soaked in cold water for three to four hours and then heated over a fire to bring the water to a boil two or three times; this will itemperi the clay and give it a higher degree of hardness

The clay pot is slow heat-conductor, and that is why it keeps the food warm fro a long time on the table in winter. When used in cooking, however, it should be heated first by a slow fire before intense heat is applied. When it is removed from the fire, it should be placed on a mat or wooden board, not direct on something damp and cold, for sudden contact with a cold surface may cause the hot pot to crack..

Stoves and Warmers

Stoves are the Chinese people traditional tools for heating in winter. According to the purposes they serve, they may be classified into heating stoves, fire pans, hand warmers and foot stoves. They are in most cases fueled by charcoal.

In the northern part of China , winter is rather severe, with the temperature generally below freezing point, and few of the old houses there are installed with central heating. So, since ancient times, coal burning stoves have been used to keep the rooms warm and a kettle of water boiling. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, tinplate pipes are fixed to channel the coal gas outdoors. Still, owing to faulty installation or bad ventilation, cases of gas poisoning are occasionally reported.

Winter in the middle parts of China is comparatively mild, but the mercury may also drop below zero at times. When this happens, a simple fire pan is used in schools, hospital and offices. Such a pa or brazier, using charcoal as the fuel, is made of brass or iron, sometimes pt under a protecting cage for safety.

The handwarmer and footwarmer made of brass, which first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), are still used by some people. Charcoal is burned slowly amidst ashes in the handwarmer which, protected b an outer frame, may be carried inside the loose sleeves of a traditional dress. Recently, Beijing has developed a mini-handwarmer made of aluminium. It is a small oval box lined with asbestos and burns a specially treated charcoal. The small size makes it much easier to carry about.

The footwarmer is larger than the handwarmer and is more often made of brass than iron. Its cover is perforated with many holes to allow the heat to come up to warm the feet which rest on it.

Also counted in the category of warmers are various types of hot water bottles. The rubber bottle is not indigenous to China where, traditionally, such bottles are made of brass, iron or porcelain. Filled with hot water, they may be used during the day or put under quilts for the night as welcome bedfellows for the elderly.

In the apartment houses newly built in the north, modern heating facilities are installed as a rule, a small number even using solar energy. The various stoves and warmers are being replaced gradually be electric or infrared radiation heaters.

Food Steamers

Food steamers are a kind of kitchen utensils most commonly used in China . Generally made of bamboo strips they vary in size from more than a meter in diameter, as those used in public canteens and restaurant kitchens, to only about 30 centimeters, as those used in private homes. Mini-steamers, measuring only about a dozen centimeters in diameter, are used by certain restaurants to make and serve dainty snacks in.

Food to be cooked by steaming (e.g mantou stuffed buns or jiaozi) is arranged on racks, which are piled up one on top of another, and steamed under cover over a boiling pot. The steam from the water heats and cooks the food. Mantou, as explained in a preceding article, is made this way and that is why Westerners call it is steamed bread.

Wheaten food cooked in bamboo steamers is free from excessive moisture, and it carries a faint fragrance of the bamboo. Rustless steel has been used to make steamers in the belief that they can be mass-produced and last infinitely longer than bamboo steamers. In practice, however, steam condensed by the metal surface gives the food a moist coat and makes it less appealing to the palate. Steel, furthermore, proves to be less heat-insulating and does not keep the food warm. In comparison, bamboo, steamers have many advantages over those made of other materials. No wonder most Chinese families still cling to the former.


Hand-held fans are still a necessity in summer in most parts of China . They fall in two major categories: the folding and unfolding. They may be made in several forms (round, square, oval, hexagonal, sunflower and so on ) and of different materials (paper, feathers, silk, palm leave, wheat straw, sandalwood and ivory). According to their materials fans may be pasted, woven, or carved; as for finish, they may be burnt with drawings of bear painting and writings.

Fans for everyday use in the house are usually made of bamboo or palm leaves. They are so popular-priced that, apart from cooling the holders, they may also be used to fan the kitchen fire. Outside of the house, people prefer folding ones. Womenfolk, however, take to the round silk fans. A folding fan, hand ¨Cpainted by a celebrated artist, becomes a valuable work of art and a status symbol of its owner. Fans of this description are never used but can only be found in a small number of antiquity shops and old families.

Sandalwood joined the family of fans only in modern times. The sandalwood fan is made entirely of the wood, beautifully shaped and with the ribs and leaves carved through with typical Chinese design. It makes an ornament rather than an article of practical use. Even in an air-conditioned room, such a fan held in hand will add some sophistication to the charm of a woman, to say nothing of the fragrance it gives out. It is received with growing appreciation from customers at home and abroad.

Fans are an indispensable part of the traditional stage. Male characters waving their fans in different ways are supposed to reveal different inner feelings in different situations. A young maid in a costume play, meeting her first love, will often use the fan to cover her face and also her bashfulness.

As certain tourist resort, fans are printed with visitors itineraries and pictures of sights, serving as a travel guide and thus having an additional role to play.

Needless to say, fans are used to dispel the summer hear, yet in ancient times they were employed rather or give shade from the sun and the wind and served as a symbol of status. As early as three thousand year ago, long-shafted fans made of bird feathers were held by attendants standing on either side of an emperor or prince. These may still be seen on the traditional stage, in the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace ; they were part of the imperial guard of honour. It is said that fans began to be used for cooling from the Han Dynasty (founded in 206 B,C.).

A special fan called Ten Thousand Characters of Tang Poems was made in 1982 at Wangxingji Fan Factory. On a normal covering of 30 centimeters (12 inches) high, 254 poems of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Chinese poetry flourished, were written with real gold powder. The poems total 11,199 characters, each only about a millimeter square, written with clear, distinctive strokes. It was done in a month by Zhu Nianci, a veteran craftsman when he was 63. It certainly is gem among Chinese folding fans.


China is believed to be the home of umbrellas, which are still universally used in the country. The earliest umbrellas are known to have existed at least two thousand years ago and were made of silk.

As present, umbrellas in China are made of various materials: oilpaper, cotton, silk, plastic film and nylon. As in other counties, they are used either against the rain or as parasols to give shade from the sun. Some are built on straight frames while others are collapsible.

The best oilpaper umbrellas are generally thought to be those from Fujiang and Hunan Province . Their bamboo frames are treated against mould and worms. The paper covers are hand-painted with flowers, birds, figures and landscapes and then coated with oil so that they are not only practical but pretty and lasting. They may be used either in rain or sunshine.

The pretties Chinese umbrellas, however, are those covered with silk, and the silk parasols of Hangzhou are veritable works of art which also serve a practical purpose. The silk, as thin as cicadas wing and printed with landscapes, is also fixed on a bamboo frame. A parasol of Hangzhou , usually 53 centimeters or 20 inches long, weighs only 250 grams or 8.8 ounces, is very handy and makes a welcomes souvenir for tourists. Local girls, to protect themselves against the sun, like to carry parasols with them, which have long become part of the female attire. Umbrellas or parasols, apart from their practical uses, have also become part of the paraphernalia of the stage artist. A notable example is the wirewalker who uses a parasol as a balancer to keep herself on the wire


The abacus was a great invention in ancient China and has been called by some Western writers the earliest calculating machine in the world.

The abacus has a long history behind it. It was already mentioned in a book of the Eastern Han Dynasty, namely Supplementary Notes on the Art of Figures written by Xu Yue about the year A.D.190. its popularization occurred at the latest during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when Zhang Zeduan painted his Riverside Scenes at Qingming Festival. In this famous long scroll, an abacus is clearly seen lying beside an account book and doctor prescriptions on the counter of an apothecary. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the abacus was introduced in to Japan .

Abacuses are easy to make, handy to carry around and quick to give the answers provided one knows how to move the heads. They have been in use, therefore, down to this day. They are made in different sizes, and the largest known abacus, measuring 26 centimeters high by 306 centimeters long with 117 rods (for as many digits), is over a hundred years old and is kept at Darentang, a well-known traditional pharmacy in Tianjin .

The beads on an abacus may be round or rhombus in shape. Traditionally, there are two beads above the horizontal bar and five below. Simplified modern versions have one bead above and four or five below. The methods of calculation remain unchanged.

At a time when the world has entered the age of electronic, the abacus still enjoys undiminished vitality in China . Tests have shown that, for operations of addition and substraction, the abacus is still faster than the electronic calculator. China developed in 1980 an electronic abacus which combines the speed of traditional addition and substraction methods with those of the modern calculator at multiplication and division. It is a happy example of the integration between the East and West, the native and the modern.


The steelyard is a Chinese invention. As early as 200 B.C., China began to make a scale of this type big enough to weigh several hundred pounds. The steelyard consisted of the following parts: an arm, a hook, lifting cords and a weigh. The arm or beam measured about 1.5 meters long, graduated with the weight units-jin and liang. The hook, hanging from one end of the arm, was used to lift up the object to be weighed. Hanging from the other part of the arm was the free-moving weight, attached on a looped string. On the arm was fixed one, two or three lifting cords, placed much closer to the hook than to the other end. Anything to be weighed should be picked up by the hook, while the weigher lifted up the whole steelyard, holding one of the cords. He then slided the weight left or right until he found a perfect balance of the beam. He then read the weigh from the graduation mark on which the weigh-string rested.

This kind of steelyards is still in widespread use at market gatherings in China . They may be made in varying sizes working by the same principle, with the large ones to weigh food grain in bulk, pigs or sheep or their carcasses, and medium-sized ones for smaller transactions. There is also a miniature steelyard only about one third of a meter (about 1 foot) long, graduated with liang and qian. Used to weigh medicinal herbs and silver or gold, it first appeared about 1,000 years ago.

The steelyard is more convenient than the platform scale. Not only can it be carried around easily, but there is also no need for a whole set of weights. Corresponding to the lifting cords are different sets of graduation marks on the arm for different measuring ranges.

It is perhaps worthwhile to mention that the equal-armed platform scale appeared in China earlier than the steelyard with a sliding weight. A scale of the former description with a complete set of weights was discovered lately from a tomb near Changsha , Hunan Province, which dates back to the period of the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). It is in size similar to those in use today and its component parts are found to be in good proportions.


China , home of bamboo, makes extensive use of the plant as a material for articles of daily use and interior decoration.

In many southern provinces like Hunan and Sichuan which abound in bamboo groves, the local people build houses, suspension bridges and fishing rafts with bamboo. In their spar time, rural women weave its strips into baskets of various sizes and different descriptions to be sold at fairs and markets.

No part of bamboo is wasted. The leaves make broad brimmed country hats and rain capes, or care used for the roofing of small boats. Southern households, needless to say, use bamboo chopsticks for eating, many of which are burnt with patterns and pictures.

Furniture made of the plant ma look very distinctive, elegant and even classic in taste. Beds, couches, chairs sofas, tables, desks, and baby carriages can all be made of bamboo.

Bamboo can also be the materials for a long list of other handicraft article screens, paintings, animal figures, fruit boxes, smoking sets, tea boxes, etc. which are either interior decorations or articles of practical use or serve both purposes at the same time. Their exquisite appearance, together with their moderate price and light weight, puts them in high favor with Chinese and foreign buyers. Some sculptors like to split sections of thick bamboo sticks lengthwise in two and engrave on the surfaces a couplet of Chinese poetry or a set of pictures for hanging on the walls of studies or studios. They make interior decorations of pastoral simplicity and refinement.

Bamboo is also an important raw materials: the branches can be processed into fibres for the manufacture of high-quality paper and artificial silk.

The tender shoots of bamboo are a delicacy often found at a Chinese banquet. The may be used fresh or canned, or dried for longer storage. Dried bamboo shoots should be soaked in water for a few days before use. A well-known Chinese drink called zhuyeqing (bamboo-leat-green) is made of bamboo leaves mixed with other materials.

Jiaoyi or ancient Folding Chair

It is not uncommon for someone to ask an official the oft-repeated question: which jiaoyi are you in? The question is meant to clarify the main exact position in the leadership of his institution. In the eyes of most people, jiaoyi is synonymous to power.

But what is a jiaoyi? The word refers to a folding chair in use in ancient China . Being collapsible, the jiaoyi came in handy for those going outdoors. The predecessor of jiaoyi was the folding stools of the northern Huns. Images of such stools can be seen in the frescos in the Thousand Buddha Grottoes in the Tuyu Gully of Turpan.

Jiaoyi fall roughly into three categories: Armchair with round back. This belongs to the highest grade of jiaoyi and was for the exclusive use of members of the imperial family. When folded, such chair could be carried on a journey, and this is why they were also known as traveling chair.. when the emperor went on a hunting excursion, his bodyguard would follow in tow with the folding chairs on their shoulders. Thus jiaoyi was also known as hunter chair.

Armchair with a straight back. This type of jiaoyi features arms that are longer than usual, and is mostly made from hardwood. A tiny number of them were made of Onmosia henryi, a precious hard wood. Such a jiaoyi was usually for the enjoyment of the learned and moneyed gentry in their studies or courtyards.

Chair with a straight back but no arms. This type of jiaoyi is relatively simpler in structure and usually made from run-of-the-mill materials. Many of the are still in use in the rural areas of north China .

High-grade jiaoyi could be found in museums at home and abroad; there are few of them in the hands of private users. By far there are only about 100 folding Onmosia henryi armchairs with a round back that date back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty.


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