In a land where 1.3 billion people consider chopsticks, or "kuaizi," a virtual extension of the right hand, the affinity for ancient instruments is profound. That's why the latest research presented in the United States doesn't sit well. Conclusion: Long-term use of chopsticks can increase the risk of arthritis.
"Chopsticks make your hands stronger and build your muscles," says Niu Ming, a waitress at the Old Gedou Sichuan Specialties Restaurant, which serves peppery dishes characteristic of western China, known to the Americans as Szechwan.
"Arthritis? From chopsticks?" Niu scoffs. "Not likely."
Researchers presented this fall to the American College of Rheumatology investigated 2,607 60-year-olds living in Beijing, the Chinese capital. They interviewed subjects about the use of a chopstick and physically and diagnostically tested them for elevated joint tension.
"This study suggests that chopsticks may play a role in the development of hand osteoarthritis," said Dr. David Hunter, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and a senior investigator. Hunter, who did not respond to an e-mail requesting more feedback, added that the risk increase was tiny.
Science is one thing, though, and culture is another. It is understandable that a study questioning the age-old way of life - regardless of the sound of the testing methodology or the fact that five of the nine researchers have Chinese names - may hit a nerve.
"Ridiculous," says Dr. Cao Li, a bone doctor at Beijing Xuanwu Hospital, providing both traditional Chinese and Western medical treatment. "I have been here for many years, and I've never seen a single case of arthritis that could be linked to chopsticks."
Theories vary, but many say chopsticks date to primitive people who used twin twigs to pluck morsels of meat from the fire. Chinese food evolved into a bite-sized cuisine cooked with little fuel and easily grabbed by the slivers of wood -- which would be difficult with most American meals.
"Chinese food is different from Western food. You have big things like steaks that you have to cut and poke at. We have bits and pieces we need to snag. The tool fits the job," says Yang Jianping, a Sichuanese who has never used a fork. Then he really gets going.
"I've walked with my feet since I was born. Does that mean my feet will get arthritis? I've chewed with my mouth since I was born. Does that mean my mouth will have arthritis? I think my hand will be just fine."
The new research comes months after the chopstick took another hit in China. This year's outbreak of extreme acute respiratory syndrome prompted people to worry about exchanging food and dip their saliva-saturated chopsticks in traditional bowls. The solution: don't do that.
"Do not use chopsticks in communal food dishes. Use a serving spoon to dish food up onto your plate," the Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics advised in its anti-SARS guidelines.
Chinese, particularly young urban ones, are engaged in a continuous process of reviewing traditions, modifying them and creating new ones. Coffee is luring many drinkers from longtime stalwart tea, and more Chinese are trading rice and dumplings for KFC and Pizza Hut. Could this herald the dawn of a nation of diners who eat with forks and knives -- and, given the imminent arrival of Taco Bell, sporks? Unlikely, says Ma Huidi, a professor at the Institute of Chinese Culture in Beijing.
"Chinese people have been using chopsticks for more than 3,000 years," Ma says. "Younger generations tend to try new ways of life and taste new cultures. But chopsticks are an important part of Chinese food culture and will never disappear from people's lives."
Niu, the Chengdu waitress, isn't too concerned either. She says Americans might have problems with their hands after using chopsticks because "they hold them too far down." But Chinese, she's sure, needn't worry.
"My friends, none of them are using a fork or a spoon. In 200 years, we Chinese will still be using chopsticks no matter what the rest of the world is doing," Niu says. "And," she insists, "we'll have stronger hands than anyone."