Chinese Banquets

A Chinese Banquet

Banquets are held to celebrate the New Year, the Moon Festival, weddings, and other special occasions. Each event is associated with particular treats — filled moon cakes for the Moon Festival or New Year’s pudding, for example — but there are also many common characteristics and ceremonies involved. A banquet acquires much of its festive character through 2 elements: the release from some everyday eating customs (usually those that impose restraint) and the exaggeration of others. At a banquet, for example, rice doesn’t need to be treated as the center of the meal, but the respectful interaction between guest and host must be performed with extra gusto.

Getting In
The meal begins with the entry of the revelers into the banqueting room. An elaborate ceremony of deference may take place at the door, where the most honored guest is supposed to enter first. Two or more guests may hold up this entry for some time, each insisting that the other is more worthy of this honor. The ensuing debate can, among good friends, lead to a bit of pushing, as the struggle escalates. Once through the door, the process may begin again, this time over the issue of precedence at the table. Usually, the guest of honor sits directly across from the host, who takes the least honorable seat near the serving door.

Serving the Meal
Regular Chinese meals are served all at once, but a banquet is about bounteousness, a host’s generosity and prosperity, and the joy of celebration, so the food is brought in many successive courses. In a further display of exaggerated courtesy, the host apologizes in advance for the meager and ill-prepared meal about to be served. Hot towels are distributed at the beginning and end of the meal.

What is Served, or Beyond the Grain
In a dramatic reversal of everyday habit, banquets consist solely of special dishes. The meat and vegetables that serve as side dishes at regular meals become the focus, and fan, or grain, which is normally so important that every last grain must be consumed, is relegated to the very end of the meal and guests need only to pick at the fan, indicating their supreme satisfaction. To eat one’s rice at a banquet might hint that the host failed to provide enough food.

What is Drunk
Alcohol is very rarely served at everyday meals, but it plays an important role at banquets. (In fact, a banquet is called a chiu-hsi, or "wine-spread") In the West, the type of alcohol must match the meal according to set customs, and often the guests’ special preferences must be accommodated. This is not the case in China, where the host often decides on one sort of alcoholic beverage, either a wine or liquor, which will be served throughout. Wine glasses are traditionally filled at the start of each course. The banquet will probably be marked by guests challenging each other to drinking games throughout the evening.

Commencement of the Meal
The meal begins with a toast by the host, after which there is a long moment while the guests engage in the ceremony of beginning — the degree of politeness exhibited by a guest at this stage increases with every moment he waits to start eating. Throughout the meal, the host displays great solicitousness for the guests. Guests may refuse offers of food or drink two times or more without being taken at their word – or, of course, without really meaning their polite refusals.

The Courses
The first course is an even-numbered selection of cold dishes, eight or ten are traditionally served. After the cold course comes a showy soup such as shark’s fin soup or bird’s nest soup. The guests help themselves to the dishes at a banquet, but the soup is served by the host, and much drinking and toasting accompanies it. Following the soup comes a decorative meat dish. More courses follow — lobster, pork, scallops, chicken. Between the courses, a variety of sweets are brought out. Peking duck with scallion brushes, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes is often served in the middle of the festivities. Traditionally, the final course is a whole fish, which is placed on the table with its head is pointed toward the guest of honor. Throughout the meal, the guests pay elaborate compliments to the food. Enjoyment of the food offered is much more important than sparkling dinner table conversation. At a banquet, the food itself is the medium communicating the host’s good wishes and the joy of the celebration.

Reading List:

  • Everything You Want to Know about Chinese Cooking by Pearl Kong Chen, Tien Chi Chen, and Rose Tseng. Woodbury, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1995.
  • How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: Random House, 1972.
  • Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives edited by Kwang-chih Chang. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
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