China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Mar
A banquet for all
When foreigners arrive in China for the first time, they often get the impression that food is very important to the Chinese. Chinese food is certainly among the most delicious in the world. My experience of travelling in China has been a series of delectable banquets and festive meals.
Whenever I have attended the opening of a church, I have been invited to a delightful dinner. When I have attended a funeral, I have discovered that the funeral rituals were never complete without a festive meal. Tears and wailing were temporarily set aside and the people quite happily sat down to enjoy a good meal. When I taught in China, the school found many excuses to invite the teachers to dinners.
A first invitation to a wedding banquet or any formal Chinese banquet, however, is different from these festive dinners. Banquets are a singular and unforgettable experience. The service, the array of dishes, the strict adherence to the rules of tradition and etiquette are nothing short of overwhelming and, needless to say, fascinating. Banquets play a special role in all cultures, but they seem to take on a great deal of importance in the life of the Chinese.
Origin of word banquet
The word banquet comes from the French. It originally meant a small bench for people to sit on while they ate. The word banquet in Cantonese, yin wuih, originally referred to a bamboo mat placed on the floor on which people sat to eat a festive meal.
All traditions and customs are expressions of a country’s history and culture. Since China’s culture is so rich and its recorded history so long, an overall look at Chinese banquets and those in the Scriptures, whose peoples also enjoy a long and rich history, might uncover some interesting points of convergence and divergence.
There are records of imperial banquets going back as far as the Zhou, Qin and Han Dynasties, over 1,100 years before Christ. There were banquets whenever the emperor met with other dynastic dignitaries. Historians agree that the grandest Chinese imperial banquet of all times was the one celebrating Qianlong’s 80th birthday in 1791.
Today, Chinese banquets are a one-evening affair, not so in imperial times when banquets went on for days with festivities and musical performances going on all day and all night. Tradition records that well over a hundred dishes were sometimes served. Some put the count at Qianlong’s birthday at 129 with at least 40 different kinds of wine.
All imperial banquets were lavish affairs, but even the emperor had to follow the rules when he hosted a banquet. During the Zhou Dynasty (770 BC – 221 BC), and during the period of the Warring States, the emperor had to serve six grains: rice, wild rice, wheat, millet, sorghum, and corn. He also had to provide his guests with six kinds of meat: chicken, beef, dog, horse, pig, sheep, and six different drinks: water and a variety of wines.
Banquets in the Qing and Ming courts
Banquets were always important in the imperial court. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), banquets took on two different forms. There were the Han banquet and the Manchu banquet. These were later combined and the combination of these two kinds of Chinese dishes and two methods of cooking became very famous during the rule of the Emperor Kangxi. Connoisseurs of Chinese gastronomic history tell us that there is almost no difference between the food served in the Ming and Qing courts (1368-1911), and what people enjoy at Chinese banquets today.
Chinese banquets today
Nevertheless, Chinese banquets are not quite the same today. Banquets are no longer hosted by the emperor for his dignitaries; they are hosted and enjoyed by anyone. There is no imperial court and most banquets take place in private rooms of restaurants or in large halls.
Chinese banquets are held to celebrate special occasions like Lunar New Year, other Chinese festivals, weddings and so on. The food is special; it is not the everyday fare. Most conspicuous to the foreigner is the fact that rice is not the most important item on the menu. It appears only at the end of the meal when the guests are already rather full.
I have been told that it is not polite for guests to eat the whole bowl of rice since this might indicate that the host did not serve enough of the special foods to satisfy hunger.
In an ordinary Chinese meal, all the dishes are on the table at the same time. Not so at the Chinese banquet where they are served one by one.
The first course is a selection of cold dishes, eight or ten. Then there is the soup and a meat dish followed by a variety of other dishes, lobster, pork, scallops and chicken. Traditionally, there is also a whole fish with the head pointing toward the guest of honour. Guests are seated strictly in order of rank importance.
Banquets in Scripture
While Chinese banquets invariably celebrate some happy or momentous occasion, where the guests engage mostly in small talk about the graciousness of the host, the scrumptious food and the beauty of the surroundings, banquets in the Scriptures often treat of delicate and controversial happenings and often end up in tragedy (Est. 5,6,7).
Scriptural banquets often make a political statement (Mt. 22:8-14), or serve as a venue to set up conspiracies (Jg. 9:22-57). Still others make a statement about social status (Gn. 43:31-34).
In the Old Testament
In the Book of Esther, for example, King Ahasuerus gives a lavish banquet for his courtiers. Then he gives another for all the people who live in the Susa citadel. Meanwhile, Queen Vashti is giving a banquet of her own for the women.
When the king sends his eunuchs to bring Vashti into his court to show off her beauty, Vashti flatly refuses to go with them. Not surprisingly, the king is not pleased. Vashti loses her title of queen, which is given to Esther instead. Then Esther herself prepares a banquet for the king where she sets a plan to save her own Hebrew people and trap the traitor, Haman, who ends up being hanged on the gallows he has set up for Mordecai, the Jew.
Social status must always be respected. This has been true throughout the ages, regardless of race, culture, or geography. The Scriptures give us an interesting example of this at the banquet Joseph gives for his brothers. “They were placed opposite him [Joseph] each according to his rank from the eldest to the youngest, and the men looked at each other in amazement. Joseph had portions carried to them from his own dish, the portion for Benjamin being five times the portion of the others.” (Gn. 43:33-34)
In the New Testament
The New Testament records many banquets and festive meals. Jesus seems almost to respond spontaneously to invitations to eat and meet with others. Table conversations at these dinners often show up differences of opinion. This is not likely to occur at a Chinese banquet. Furthermore, unlike the Chinese banquet with its small talk, Jesus uses these meals as opportunities to teach, to evangelise or to reconcile.
In Matthew 22, Jesus gives the example of a king who sets up a banquet for his son’s wedding. Everything is ready but many of those invited refuse to come.
Understandably the king is furious. He destroys those who would not come and burns their villages. He then invites others, but among those who come to the banquet, one is not wearing the required wedding garment (he is not worthy to be there). Those who come must fulfil the requirements. The offender is “bound hand and foot and thrown into the darkness outside.”
In Lk.7:36-50, Jesus even rebukes his host for failing to observe the rules of courtesy. “You see this woman? I came into your house and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them with her hair…”
The washing of the feet was apparently only common courtesy when you invited someone into your house for a special meal. He faults his host and the scribes and Pharisees for their lack of inclusiveness and makes this a moment for reconciliation for the woman. He uses banquets as vehicles to evangelise his disciples and others present at table. This would be inconceivable at the ordinary Chinese banquet.
In Lk 5:27-32, Levi gives a banquet for Jesus. Levi’s friends, like himself, are tax collectors and sinners. They too are invited to dinner to meet Jesus. The Pharisees and the scribes complain to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replies “I have not come to call the virtuous, but sinners to repentance.”
When Jesus walked the earth, he often attended banquets and dinners with his followers. The most famous of these, of course, is the Last Supper. Today, Jesus invites us to his table. In his day, some who were invited refused to come. Others came and complained. Still others came and found repentance, reconciliation, friendship and communion.
In this year of the Eucharist, Jesus is inviting us to a banquet where the food is nourishment for the soul. “O Sacrum Convivium,” one of the most ancient and beautiful Eucharistic prayers, describes this banquet: “O Sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”