A Chinese person eating Western food with a pair of chopsticks is considered déclassé, even by other Chinese, but a Westerner who eats Chinese food with knife and fork is given more latitude. A Chinese person struggling with an array of cutlery in a Western restaurant is subject to sneers, while for a Westerner struggling with chopsticks in a Chinese eatery, a fork expeditiously appears. Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana landed itself in hot soup last month, after airing an advertisement showing a Chinese model eating pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks.

To me, there is nothing inherently wrong in showing a Chinese person having a Western meal with chopsticks; those who find it offensive may wish to question why they think the way they do. What raised most peoples’ hackles, however, was the supposedly condescending tone of the advertisement (though some may argue that it was intended to be humorously tongue-in-cheek) and the insults targeted at China and its people by Stefano Gabbana, on his Instagram account.

Dolce & Gabbana founders beg Chinese people’s forgiveness

In retaliation, Chinese consumers, led by patriotic celebrities, called for a boycott of the label. Even Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, eager to trim its sails,  removed Dolce & Gabbana products from its shelves. How long the snub will last is anybody’s guess. There was an attempted boycott of Louis Vuitton and other French brands in 2008 after Chinese sensibilities were offended during the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay. Apparently it didn’t catch on as well as the monogrammed gewgaws have done.

Chopsticks, the utensils at the centre of Dolce & Gabbana’s storm, have been around for almost as long as Chinese civilisation itself and are a significant cultural export, adopted by almost all of China’s neighbours, including Japan, Korea, the Ryukyu Islands and Vietnam.

The ancient Chinese word for chopsticks “zhu” (箸), is still used in Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka dialects. The Japanese also use the same character to represent “hashi”, their word for chopsticks.

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), shipping merchants and fishing folk in the Yangtze River valley began to replace the word “zhu”, which was a homonym for the word “stop”, with “kuài” (筷), which sounds exactly like “quick”. For those whose livelihoods were earned on boats, saying a word that sounded like “stop” was inauspicious, so one that sounded like its opposite was coined. “Kuài” or “kuàizi” then spread nationwide to become the standard word for chopsticks.

There are other examples of similar auspicious word changes in everyday Cantonese, such as: the word for “animal liver”, when used for food, “yeon” (which sounds like “moist”) replacing “gon” (which sounds like “dry”); the word for “tongue”, “lei” (“profit”) replacing “sit” (“loss”); and the word for “empty”, “gat” (“lucky”) replacing “hung” (“inauspicious”, “violent”).

In fact, we probably have the superstitions of Yangtze boatmen during the Ming dynasty to thank for the English word “chopsticks”. Since “kuài” was homonymous with “quick” and the Chinese Pidgin English word for “quick” was “chop chop”, early translators probably rendered “kuài” as “chop-sticks”, and the name stuck.