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Banquets: Feasts For Every Occasion

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Holidays and Celebrations

Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 5 and 10


Never failing to find a reason for a good meal, the Chinese have, since ancient days, made many of them special and some even ultra-special. Those in the ultra-special category are known as both banquets and feasts, one name just a substitution for the other. Overall, they believe that the day one attends such an event is a day of happiness.

Early history tells us little about royal feasts beyond protocols that include that a Duke should have three evening feasts, a Baron but one evening feast, and details of that nature. What it does advise is that the evening feasts are to be thoroughly enjoyed and that those attending may take off their shoes and drink as much as they can. The earliest detailed information of an imperial feast is in the Ming Hui Dian or Ming Dynasty Records. It says that in the thirteenth year of the Yung Lo reign (1403 - 1424 CE), provisions included items such as five basins of wine, five plates of fruit, roast chickens, steamed bread, and horse-meat rice.

Though entertaining guests has a long history, written records are sparse as to what dishes were eaten or even the protocols for them. It is believed that these gatherings followed customs set down in the Stone Age when people of a tribe offered sacrifices to gods or ancestors. Some of these offerings came before sitting on the ground and dining together. They were probably the beginning of what was later called yan xi meals.

In the Shang Dynasty (16th - 11th centuries BCE), Yi Yin was credited with harmonizing foods. When this harmony was first used at a banquet or feast is not known. By Ming Dynasty times (1368 - 1644 CE), and probably before them, sweet, bitter, pungent, and salty foods had to be included to meet the needs of the five organs (heart, liver, spleen, lungs, kidneys). The same may have been true for inclusion of foods of the five colors (red, green, white, yellow, black).

Call them banquet or feast, those in attendance at these wine occasions, no doubt enjoyed the special yan xi meals, so named because they ate on mats called yan that were put on the ground. Smaller mats or xi were placed on the yan for people to sit on. During the Qin and Han Dynasties (221 - 206 BCE and 202 BCE - 220 CE, respectively), small tables were placed on these mats and each guest sat on an individual xi, dishes and beverages placed on yet other xi. In Tang and Song Dynasty times (618 - 907 CE and 960 - 1279 CE, respectively), tables became taller and people needed to sit on low stools to reach the food. As time went on, table legs were made longer, the tables higher, and stools gave way to chairs.

Confucius said it was a great joy to entertain friends from afar, so as people traveled more, more and more banquets or feasts were made for their pleasure. Sometimes special meals were made for special occasions, and sometime the acquisition of a special food was the reason for the banquet. Over time, they became codified and it was during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 - 1644 and 1644 - 1911 CE, respectively) that banquets were for eight who sat two facing two in four directions. You may have noticed that this custom still prevails in Chinese restaurants where chairs are paired off and squared around every round table.

In the Qing Dynasty two kinds of Imperial feasts developed. One the Manchu or Man banquet, the other the Chinese or Han banquet. The Da Qing Hui Dian Shi Lu or Qing Dynasty Records and Events gives details of both Man and Han Banquets, and different ones for different levels of banquet. For example, a first class Man banquet had three plates of fried cakes, twenty-four plates of cakes and pastries, thirty-four varieties of meat, eighteen plates of dried and fresh fruits, etc. Second and third class banquets had fewer of each category of food. First class banquets were served by the emperor or empress, second class ones by the prince or the first concubine. It was but a fourth class banquet that was made for foreign dignitaries.

The first mention of a combination Man and Han banquet is recorded in the Yangzhou Hua Fang Lu, a record of early Qing life in the Yangzhou area. Banquets grew more lavish and more varied during the reign of Emperor Kangxi and his grandson Emperor Qianlong, and dishes such as Bear’s Paw with Carp’s Tongue, Double Boiled Crane,Tongues of Rice Birds, Frog’s Belly, Shark’s Fin Soup, Yellow Fungus with Pigeon Eggs, even Mock Leopeard Placenta with Camel’s Hump are mentioned. Thus Man-Han banquets were lavish feasts, indeed, some lasting several days. Information about many of the protocols at those given by these emperors appeared in Flavor and Fortune in an article by Renquin Yi in Volume 7(2) on pages 13, 14, and 24.

Starting in Ming and Qing times, eight or more dishes, most meat or fish, became the rule as did that if the occasion was a birthday, the character for longevity was put on the wall, the double happiness ideograph placed there if a wedding, etc. As time passed, differences developed not only for the occasion, but different regions also developed special protocols suited to their regional needs. For example, in the Sichuan region, using earlier heritage from Ba and Shu kingdoms, the special use of Chinese prickly ash, known as fagara or Sichuan pepper, became commonplace as did the custom of using fish flavoring in dishes without a single sea creature. Well-to-do Chinese, especially at feasts and official functions, ate meat to excess, less affluent folk looked forward to it but only had lots of it at these times.

Cantonese banquets were called jiu xi or wine spreads, and this name is now used for all feasts throughout China and by Chinese throughout the world. Not only did the name become popular throughout China, but so did the notion of serving one course at a time. Buwei Yang Chao called this method ‘vertical’ in her classic volume: How to Cook and Eat in Chinese published in 1945. She correctly advised that rice may be eaten at the end, if at all, but that wine is consumed all the time. She did not mention, that northern Chinese would substitute a noodle dish at the end of a feast for one made with rice, nor did she advise that protocol has it that you partake lightly if at all as you chow down. Eat too much or too quickly and you advise the host that the meal was not adequate and that you are still hungry. From the host’s perspective, one needs to serve the finest and the most one can afford so as not to lose face with guests gorging on a last dish to fill any cracks yet remaining.

At a banquet, other protocols include waiting for the host to lift his or her wine cup and then offer a toast and for the guest to respond with another of thanks. After the host lifts chopsticks, all may follow suit and the meal begins. It usually starts with small plates, often four or eight that are sometimes set around a larger central one. This savory set of appetizers often goes by the name of Stars Around the Moon. They are there to whet the appetite and though delicious they may be, not there for the guest to overindulge in. Several hot appetizers sometimes follow, particularly at lavish feasts, and then one by one, dishes arrive, many presentation platters to delight the eye and indulge the taste buds. There are typically eight main dishes, at least one of these presentation dishes will be poultry, frequently Peking Duck. Birds are considered festival foods, and if the host can afford, a shark’s fin dish or soup as serving this food says: happiness for all.

Experienced diners know to go slow and as a child I was taken to many banquets by a particular aunt and uncle and always told to 'AAA.' I never knew what it meant. One day when I heard that my uncle had bought a car and gone to AAA, I cried crocodile tears insulted at not being asked to join him. After I fled to my room, everyone laughing at me, that very uncle came in and invited me to another banquet. Then and there, he told me where he went, and he advised about the two AAA’s. His Chinese friends had taught him to ten jen hen or 'await, avoid, attack.' I learned the banquet meaning of that 'AAA' that very day.

I also learned when that special day arrived about other banquet protocols including that the number of dishes is not ten as I had thought but eight or more, not counting the appetizers and the last sweet item served, soup, pudding, or pastry. There can be many soups at a festival meal and there is a particular order, thicker to thinner, or those with more in them to those that are close to or only a complex broth. Also learned that interspersed can be one or more baked or sweet items and at a fancier banquet, the meal would end with a sweet soup and/or a special pudding or gorgeous looking eight-ingredient rice dish. Even learned that the more unusual the name of the dish, the more expensive their contents, the fancier the banquet meal.

I learned on that occasion that the feast we were attending was but one of many banquets in a huge room full of different important family events. Knowing that my hero that year was Marco Polo, my uncle advised that this was typical and he, Marco Polo, had written about a great hall where a hundred different groups were holding wedding feasts. Also learned many banquet table manners, including that should I want to be the most respected person at the table, I needed to control my less than gentile manner and be the last to take food from any platter saying ‘after you’ when others had yet to taste a particular dish. Practicing that, after everyone at the table added to my mannerly education, the host placed some of the best morsels on my plate, my uncle said, because he was hearing me 'after you-ing’ everyone there.

Later I was told that other than the host, men shouldn’t do that, but ladies were welcome to delight other ladies in that manner. They would probably be treated likewise, in return. And I learned that eating really should begin in order of seniority or age or both; and that one should never betray a preference by taking large amounts of a particular food item from a dish. Doing so puts a burden on the host as the next time that guest is invited, the host needs to serve those dishes of that guest’s preference.

There is a flip side to being offered many delightful dainties. If you do not plan to eat them, refuse very firmly because what is on your plate is intended for consumption; it is polite to consume it all. Another thing learned is, not to gulp what was just offered, because many more similar things will make their way to your plate and you really will need to be gluttonous as finish them you must. A good ploy if the item is not a favorite is to eat the item slowly feigning mediocre delight.

Not everyone uses the eight course rule, Taoists have an eleven course tradition and a meal order that includes pickled or dishes in vinegar first, vegetables and neutral foods next, spicy foods thereafter, and then tonic soups. After these, stir-fried foods, then a white fish, more vegetable or neutral dishes, a mushroom soup, then a rice or noodle dish, next fruits and finally different teas to calm body and spirit and finalize the meal.

Because the Chinese believe in celebrating with feasts, there are many times for such an event. Thirty days after a baby’s birth, marriage, and death are such times as are when planting is done, harvesting, too. So are all holidays that honor ancestors such as Clear Brightness Festival when sweeping the graves is done along with spring planting. There are feeding the ghosts, New Year, and other holidays including Dragon Boat Festival, Lantern Festival, Winter Solstice Festival, and the like mfor celebrations. Very special birthdays are days to celebrate with a banquet; those of importance are sixty, seventy, eighty, and so on and in some areas this is only for males while women celebrate the sixty-first, seventy-first, etc. The Chinese do not celebrate other birthdays because they do not want to risk garnering attention from evil spirits.

At weddings, goose is often served symbolizing marital harmony and intended fidelity. A whole pig was traditionally served at a bride’s banquet along with fruits and nuts. This custom may have origins in Canton where the word for peanuts sounds like birth, the words for dates and chestnuts sound similar to early arrival of a son. A New Year banquet is called Reunion Feast, as all family members return. Wishing them all prosperity, a whole fish is served as are kumquats and oranges wishing them wealth, pomegranates for many children, and peaches for long life. And at Dragon Boat Festival, moon cakes are served remembering the poet who drowned himself; it is the reason these cakes are thrown into the water to feed him during the festival that honors his memory.

At feasts, drinking games are often played. These can include giving a number of words and the need to put them into a rhyme, finger guessing games, beating the drum games, and more. Losers need to gam bei or 'bottoms up' all in one gulp.

Though, what was once the customary three hundred sixty-five dish banquets are a thing of the past, big meals with fewer courses continue. There are fewer libations, very few sweet courses, fewer types of wines, and rare is the banquet these days with music, dancing, gambling, erotic pastimes, and other forms of entertainment. Also rare these days is the custom of filling each wine glass before the next course is served.

Nowadays, what is in and should be visible are long hours of preparation, exotic or expensive dishes, or both, and red tablecloths. Still popular somewhere in the room are statues of the three Gods; they are of Grace, Wealth, and Longevity. Those of the eight immortals and five auspicious animals are no longer there. Neither are gilt-edged dinnerware, ivory chopsticks, embroidered table coverings, greetings with cymbals and gong, and a wait staff dressed in traditional robes. Also a thing of the past at most banquets these days are the four traditional fresh fruits–loquats, pears, bananas, and lychees. And also missing are candied carrot slices, winter melon and lotus seeds, kumquats, tangerines, sweet and sour plums, cakes, rolls, and dates.

What is still common is serving a whole fish as the last main course, its head pointing to the honored guest, and few boiled or steamed dishes because these are commonplace in meals served at home. Feasts today are still 'yang' affairs, loaded with many rich seasoned foods, all too many meat and seafood dishes, and lots of expensive and unusual foods.

Here in remembrance of one extravagant Man-Han banquet, referred to in a book by Li Dou in 1764 loosely translated as Notes Made in Gaily-pained Treasure Boats in Yangzhou are a few of the three hundred and twenty courses at one such meal. There were one hundred twenty-four pastries among those dishes, they and all foods served on highly garnished platters. Guests had individual pink-colored porcelain service, many pieces for each of them. This meal was called 'Feast of Land Delicacies and Game.' The menu in its entirety is too long, so just Part One follows:

Chat over Tea. Here, Biluochun Tea is served accompanied with classic Chinese music.
Pastries of Welcome follow and are Peach-shaped and Canary-shaped Cakes and Phoenix Tail Steamed Dumplings.
Lacquer Container of Snacks and Desserts are really sweets with Four Kinds of Nuts (Sugar-coated Peanuts, Crystal Jelly Drops, Fried Cashew Nuts, Fried Lobster Chips), Four Candied Fruits (longan, jujube, hami apricots, water chestnuts). After this, incense is burned while the guests are properly seated. Next comes:
Seven beginnings with Two Dragons playing with Ball, Salt-boiled Pork Tenderloin, Hot and Numbing Quail, Strange-flavored Chicken Sticks, Hot Cabbage Rolls, Bamboo Shoots and Shrimp Roe, and Hot and Sour Cucumbers. After these come:
Four Pastries with Pea Flour Cakes, Bean Rolls, Steamed Glutinous Rice Dumplings, and Cakes in three Colors. The Next course is:
Four Pickles including Radishes, Lacai, Peanuts in Two Colors, and Sweet Eight-treasure. The last item is in the shape of four Chinese characters that mean a long, long life. This is followed by a soup course called:
Pot-stew Deer Whip and that is followed by:
Three Course Court Cuisine of Stewed Bear’s Paw, Stir-fried Camel Hump, and Crackling-fried Pheasant with Coriander. Then comes:
Two Pastries of Miniature Corn Bread and Candied fritters, followed by: Three Court Cuisine of: Deer Tendon, Goldfish-shaped Duck Webs, and a land delicacy called Brake Fern. And this is followed by:
Panda-shaped Cakes and Plum Blossom in Bud. Next came:
Three Courses from Court Cuisine of Bean Curd with Shrimp, Partridge with Ciwujia (a land delicacy), and Stir-dried Mushrooms and Wild Celery. Next comes:
Two Courses of Pastry that included Rabbit-shaped Cakes and Chickpea-shaped Cakes. After them comes:
Two Courses of Barbecue with Roast Pearl Chicken and Broiled Roe Deer Meat. Then there is a:
Course of Porridge called Rare and Precious Black Rice Porridge. Next is a:
Plate of Seasonal Fruits and a:
Farewell Tea which is Wulong Tea. After this:
Gifts Presented by the Manager: which are imitation ancient wine pitchers.

This part was one of many at this particular feast; clearly a banquet to remember. There were also Feasts of Marine delicacies (in two parts), and others with names such as Festival Feast, Luxurious Feast, Feast in Honor of the Royal Family’s Mongolian Relatives, Feast of Honor of the Court ministers, Longevity feast, Feast in Honor of One thousand Elders, and White Nine Feast, The latter feast fascinates as it begins with Tea with Milk and almost every dish is obviously white. This particular one originated in the reign of Emperor Kangxi and it pays tribute to him with a white camel and eight white horses. They were to show loyalty and devotion to the Qing Empire. This feast became an annual event. For the emperor it was part five of a six part event. On one occasion, Emperor Dauguang composed a poem to commemorate the event:

What a beautiful jade-colored camel,
And silver flowers the eight horses resemble.
May I ask where they are from?
Tribute the Western Qiang paid to the Capital.


Today, fancy banquets are served for fancy prices at fancy restaurants. For a time these were held on floating restaurants, sea foods alive in bamboo-sided tanks at their sides. One table service at one of these in Hong Kong called Jumbo, graces the cover of the hard copy of this issue. The squaring of the twelve chairs, the dozen soup bowls at the ready in their silver holders, and individual silver serving spoons on chopstick rests are shown, there for selecting specific items to serve others or self, not intended for use with soup; the ceramic soup spoons are there for that.

One's own chopsticks come hidden in paper holders, a new sanitary idea meant to assure no hands touching them, sit on the same silver chopstick rest holding the individual silver serving spoon. Personal chopsticks never to go into a serving bowl or platter. For that there is a serving set; they indicate the location where the host will be seated. The circular center item allows guests to help themselves with ease after formalities and the meal begins.

For the record, were you around and invited to a Man-Han banquet, you would enjoy not only exotic dishes but much protocol and drinking, have need to taste all of them, and you would be eating with gold-colored utensils, sitting on black-wood chairs at black wood tables that were covered with hand-embroidered red silk tablecloths decorated with dragon and phoenix; and you would be observing many well-known proverbs.

Three of them are:
In dress and food, do not break the rules.
Do not rattle your chopsticks or you and your descendants will always be poor.
Intoxication is not the wine's fault, it is the man's.

                                                                                                                                                       
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