From above, the bamboo sticks look like beige sea urchins, their spines poking out in all directions. From the side, the twisted bundles look like sheaves of wheat, even taller than the people who are wrangling them. In October, the photographer Li Fusun visited a hub of chopstick production in Ji’an, a city of 4.8 million that sits within Jiangxi Province in southeast China. The sea of sticks is so vast that it dwarfs the workers who wade through it.
Ji’an’s bamboo operations are extensive, but also relatively recent, says Q. Edward Wang, author of the book Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History and a historian at Rowan University in New Jersey. The area is now home to a large chopstick factory, Wang says, “but I don’t think it has a long history.”
Broadly speaking, the roots of bamboo-chopstick production in China go deep. “Chopsticks were called ‘zhu’ in pre-20th-century China, written as ?????, and pronounced the same as ‘zhu’ for bamboo, though with a different intonation,” says Wang. “All these characters for chopsticks have the bamboo radical, indicating the popularity of bamboo chopsticks since ancient times.” Wang points out that mentions of bamboo chopsticks date back to the Guanzi, the 7th century BC political treatise and philosophical tome attributed to the ancient thinker and statesman Guan Zhong.
Across the country, reusable and disposable chopsticks are a big business. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Daniel K. Gardner, a historian at Smith College who studies environmental issues in modern China, reported that some 100,000 laborers manufacture the implements at 300 factories.
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