Monday, 12 December 2011
China, banquets and revolutions
Not our own pic - photos wouldn't load up. This is a very small banquet compared to the extravaganzas we attended.
From the second day on we realised we were in the serious business of eating. Eating is a semi-formal occasion. The guest of honour is seated at the round table, opposite the door, the rest arrange themselves around him (it is generally him). The host pays for everything and orders all the dishes. There is a hot towel to start with, and tea which is kept topped up. Then you can choose between red wine, white wine (baiju, not really wine, more liquid fire, suitable to down in one gulp as a toast) and yellow wine (huangjiu, best served warm) which became our drink of choice. Every five or ten minutes there is a toast which involves clinking of glasses right across the table and a fair amount of courteous merriment. The food goes round and round on its carousel as the waiters bring ever new dishes, quietly shifting the old ones into the centre. The host keeps an eye on the revolving table, nudging it around now and then so guests don't have to look greedy. There are several courses of soup, a veritable undergrowth of noodles, and watermelon slices at the end (that's how you know you've got to the end.). There is no distinction between courses otherwise. You can eat sweet between spicy or delicate, you can go back to whatever dish you want providing there is some of it left. Then you can dive in with your chopsticks.
The revolutions of the table can lead to thoughts of revolution. There is official China and unofficial China, the relationship between them generally nuanced. At one of the last banquets, however, an elegant young woman declared that China would change drastically within ten years, at most twenty. It had to. The pressure was too great. This life, this banquet was not real life, she stressed, (didn't we know it!) and the poor village we had seen was nowhere near as poor as those in the west. She was smart, very elegant, had a high business position, her mind gleamed, her English was very good. The meal was provided by the restaurant owner who was sitting with us. It was all unofficial. The lights outside were dazzling and western, like a Chinese Vegas. In the airport later the China Daily was Pravda 1975. Big country: big contradictions.