A Chinese banquet can be many things, but it is never a gastronomic occasion.
It is more like a sport, one in which the primary goal is to drink a toast with each individual sitting around the table, in a rigid successive order, starting with the most prominent and proceeding clockwise. If that sounds straightforward, it isn’t: Bear in mind that everyone at the table is playing the same game simultaneously, which means just as you’ve homed in on your target and are ready to make your move, he could be raising a toast to another guest, who could very well be looking to drink with someone else.
Other rules: Make sure to turn the shot of baijiu bottoms up with every encounter; say flattering words in your toast, but nothing too flowery; appear cordial and personable; smile, but avoid inappropriate body contact. Finally, while you’re busy circling the table, don’t forget to eat.
At a Chinese banquet, the eating is the least important part. The problem, though, is that Chinese food is irresistibly delicious, especially if you’re someone who’s lived outside China for the last four years. And so this summer, when I returned to my home city of Chengdu for a visit, and a friend called to ask me to meet up at a local restaurant, I said yes without any hesitation.
On the day of, I arrived late. The restaurant had been revamped since the last time I’d visited, six years ago. A slim hostess in a red qipao welcomed me while I stood dazzled by the colossal crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. I told her my friend’s name and was escorted to a private dining room at the end of the hall.
The hostess held open the door. I walked in. The dining room was the size of half a swimming pool. A large round table was in the middle. Its centerpiece was a miniature Chinese garden, from which a thick vapor of dry ice ascended. I didn’t need to check the faces of the guests who had already been seated to know that I had been tricked. This was not a casual dinner — what we call a fan in Sichuan, which means rice, indicating a gathering mainly for the purpose of food consumption. This was a xi — a banquet.
Around 2,000 years ago, our ancestors coined a phrase: “min yi shi wei tian” — food is the top priority of the people. But that was a different China. Today, we have merged food with what, for many Chinese people, has become the most vital aspect of their lives: business. All business meetings end up in private dining rooms, employing pork and chicken as icebreakers and closing deals over dumplings and rice.
But every experienced banqueteer knows that the dishes are just props. What really matters are the diners, whose roles are underscored by their positions around the table. The most prominent guest gets the “upper seat,” the one squarely facing the entrance, so his authority is appreciated as soon as a guest arrives. Opposite the upper seat, in the chair closest to the doorway, is the so-called manager, the one who sends out invitations, orders dishes, arranges the seating, urges people to drink more and then shoves the drunks into taxis afterward.
On this particular occasion, the guests all turned to stare when I entered. My friend, who was sitting closest to the entrance, stood up and walked toward me with an encouraging smile. “You’re finally here,” he announced. “Our precious guest from afar!”
He led me to the table, where a broad-faced middle-aged man — the president of a publishing house — occupied the upper seat. The man nodded lightly at me, while the rest of his body remained motionless below the neck. We shook hands.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.”
“Thank you,” I said. As soon as the words came out, I realized I’d done something wrong: I should have delivered an answer that was more deferential, one that showed more recognition of his position. I frowned at myself.
My friend interrupted before the awkwardness deepened. He invited me to take a seat in the vacant chair next to the president. To get out of the spotlight, I sank down quickly into the red velvet, before realizing I had made another mistake. I was sitting on that seat, the seat I had been pinned in to too many times when I had lived in Chengdu as a 20-something, a nervous newcomer to literary circles.
This seat was for “the girl” — the young woman installed to entertain the important middle-aged man. Those in this seat can expect to receive: an absurd amount of secondhand smoke; a number of judgmental looks from men and women around the table; inexhaustible baijiu refills and, occasionally, a squeeze on the shoulder or a hand on the back.
I cringed, turning back to my friend. He grinned at me.
Two years ago, an article called “Women at Banquets,” published in GQ China, went viral on the Chinese internet. “Without women, even a banquet full of meat would turn out vegetarian,” it declared, before going on to lay out different types of women — “a coquettish virgin or a chaste whore” and the ways they could shape an event’s ambience. It compared them with dishes, ranging from braised pork belly to tiramisù.
The article was polarizing. Some were disgusted by its unvarnished objectification of women; others simply considered it an especially vivid reflection of reality. For the latter camp, it was not the article itself that was appalling — rather, it was the very nature of Chinese banquets.
In 2008, when I was 23, I went to a PEN meeting in Beijing, organized by a top literary journal and attended by a number of nationally acclaimed critics and editors. At the postmeeting dinner party, where I sat at a corner table with all the young attendees, I was horrified by the scene at the main table, where a 30-something woman writer, seated next to the editor of the journal, could barely hold herself up under the bombardment of toasts coming from all the important men at the table. Yet she pushed on, shot after shot, knocking back baijiu as the critics and editors cheered like a mob.
“Do you think she needs some help?” I asked a young man sitting beside me, a lecturer at a university in Beijing.
“She doesn’t need help from you,” he said in a knowing tone. “That woman knows very well what she’s doing.”
As a young woman who lived far from the capital city, I allowed myself to be dissuaded. I only started to wonder, years later: Why had what appeared to be a crucifixion to me seemed like an act of enthronement in the eyes of men?
“We actually met once,” the president said to me soon after I sat down. “It was many years ago, at the Writers’ Association’s New Year’s banquet. I was very impressed with you there: You certainly can drink!” he laughed.
“Did I?” I smiled, remembering it was probably the time when I drank 15 shots of baijiu in one go and went straight to the bathroom to throw up. I was 24. Desperately wanting to be seen as an equal by men, I decided to drink like one. It didn’t work out in the end.
“Too bad you don’t live in China anymore,” he said. “I heard living abroad is lonely. So when Wang” — he nodded at my friend — “told me you were back, I thought we should arrange a dinner party.”
“It’s really thoughtful of you,” I said, turning toward the entrance, where waitresses were bringing in an array of dishes.
“There are some fans of yours in our office. They are all thrilled to meet you,” I heard him continue, as I eyed a beautiful plate of braised aubergine with garlic.
“Little Chen,” the president said. “Come have a toast with Ms. Yan.”
I turned toward him and saw that next to the president, there was now a young woman holding up a shot of baijiu with both her hands. “It’s such a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Yan,” she said. The look on her face reminded me of myself not so long ago — the way I once cringed and struggled at banquets, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and humiliated but also obligated to please. I also realized in amusement that I’d misread the situation. I’d been seated near the head of the table because I was, in fact, the guest of honor at this banquet. I was not the girl anymore. This young woman was “the girl.”
I looked at her. She smiled at me, gamely raising her shot glass.
Then I acted inappropriately for the third time since I’d entered the room. “I don’t want to drink today,” I said. “Why don’t we all have tea instead?”
The ultimate purpose of a banquet is to get its diners drunk. Only in this way can we connect and become friends, squeeze each other’s shoulders and make dirty jokes. When it goes wrong, it can be ugly: Fights can break out; women might be abused for sport. But when it goes right, mistakes are forgiven; the diners perspire, devour, quaff and sing together, and then, only then, will business be done.
At the party, it soon became obvious that the purpose of this banquet was to get me to sign my next novel with this publishing house. And very quickly, it was clear that the deal would not be sealed: Not only had I refused to drink, but I also disclosed apologetically that I had already signed with a different press.
Once this became apparent, the president sat in boredom, picking at vegetables in his bowl, sipping buckwheat tea. Around half an hour later, he ordered and ate some noodles and took his leave.
After he left, the atmosphere around the table changed. My friend came to sit beside me for a good catch-up. Little Chen told me about when she’d first read my book as a college student and a coming-of-age novel she’d been working on. We finished every dish on the table, including the fruit platter.
“This is great,” another woman at the table sighed. “It’s probably the only dinner party after which I won’t go home hungry.”