Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Chinese Banquets

Chinese Banquets

Xinzhoukan I was recently featured in China New Weekly's issue on Chinese banquets. China New Weekly is China's largest private newsmag and is equivalent to Time or Newsweek, though it spends a bit more time delving into cultural currents than either of the former.
They wanted to interview me and get a foreigner's perspective on that phenomenon which is Chinese banquet culture. The uninitiated may have never heard of this, but banquets are a huge thing. The wheels of commerce and social interaction are greased with hotpot sauce and cheap rice liquor. I attend on average 4 banquets a week and I have some friends who have to eat two or three dinners a night sometimes.
Why do they do this? I'm not going to pretend that I know why food is so damn important in this country, but I can try and lay out some of the functions these banquets perform.
First and foremost is as a media and platform for social interaction. In China's teeming megacities, though the streets are literally boiling with people, they generally don't randomly engage strangers on the sidewalk or even at the bar. People hang out in close groups and generally cavort in private. The best way to extend your network is to invite some friends to dinner and have them bring some of their friends and so on.
Second is for informality. Banquets are a key tool for business negotiations and political lobbying. People become candid at the dinner table, especially after a few toasts of rice wine. Something about eating off of the same plate also brings about a feeling of camaraderie, and this is an opportunity for potential clients or government officials to candidly tell you the real reason why negotiations are at a standstill or what you have to do to gain official approval for your project. Also, if you can win these people over with your personality, they'll be much more likely to go that extra mile for you.
There are actually so many different types and uses for banquets out here that it's hard to give a comprehensive view, but there are a few things worth mentioning. Restaurants can be really cheap here, so people eat out a lot more than they do in the states. Also, people order food collectively. The typical chinese meal is served as a bunch of common plates on a rotating tray. The more people present, the more dishes, so the dinner naturally gets better as the table gets more crowded.
When compared to other Asian countries, Chinese banquet customs are rather simple. Having said that, there are a few things that one should keep in mind:
- Drinking: never drink alone. Any time you drink, you should toast somebody. The first toast is with everyone together and is lead by the host, usually with a short speech. When this happens, down the whole glass. When clinking glasses, show respect for an elder or higher-up by holding your glass lower than his. Finally, as the dinner winds down, make sure you keep at least a sip of beer in your glass for that final toast.
- Eating: generally, don't start eating until after the first toast, and then only when everyone else starts. The mayhem usually begins when the host asks an honored guest to grab the first bite. Also, it is a common courtesy to leave the last piece of each dish on the plate. No one wants to be the asshole who finishes off all the dumplings. Try to eat at least a bite of each dish, no matter how bad it may be.
- Service: if a waiter or friend pours your glass while you're in conversation, show thanks by tapping your right index and middle finger on the table twice. This is the equivalent of a Kowtow but doesn't break the flow of conversation.

I'll try to add Chinese vocabulary to future rants if the friendster server can support it.
饭局: Fanju, n. Banquet
饭托儿: Fantuo'er, n. One who organizes lots of banquets
干杯: Gan Bei, v. drink, usually the entire glass in one gulp
随意: Sui'yi, adv. as you please, used after ganbei to denote that you don't have to finish your glass
做东: Zuodong, v. to host a banquet
请客: Qingke, v. to invite (and pay for) people at dinner or elsewhere
应 酬: Yingchou, n. social appointments and dinner parties, usually used in reference to government officials and bigshots getting schmoozed

Tibet Caravan

Image_00042 I recently returned to Yunnan to check in on the caravan I helped create. My timing couldn't have been better. I left Beijing just before it's worst sandstorm in a decade, and there was good old Kunming, bathed in its golden sun and just perfect at about 85 degrees.
That was not the case when I flew up to the northwest corner of the province, Zhongdian, or as the tourism authority would have it, Shangri-La. Right up on the Tibetan plateau at just over 10,000 feet, it was cloudy and mighty cold. I travelled there with an associate to catch up with our caravan, which had just left in the general direction of the Tibetan border a few days before.
First, I guess a short introduction of the caravan is in order. Late last year, a caravan of 99 horses set out from our tea factory in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna, a Thai region of southern Yunnan. They loaded up their horsepacks with our tea, which would then travel across the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan Trail (aka Southern Silk Road) through Yunnan and Tibet to its destination at Gyatse and the Thasilunpo Monastery (home of the Panchen Lama).
I will make no attempt to mask our marketing intentions here, but please don't let that keep you from seeing it as we do: an earnest attempt to revive the ancient highway that brought the many cultures of southwest China together and introduced tea to the world several millenia ago. Our horsemen (and women) hail from several of the many tribes that are found in this part of the world, and they document the cultures and throw rocking parties everywhere they go. The value it creates for those involved far surpasses any marketing or tea markups involved. Through auctions of collector's teas we have already managed to raise more than 100,000 USD for the construction of schoolhouses in the impoverished mountains of the region.
Our caravan reached Shangri-La shortly after Christmas last year, and after joining in the Gedong festivities at the Songzanlim Monastery (see caravan photos), we had to take a break. Winter conditions made the mountains unpassable.
Image_00032 We took a second go at the passage to Tibet on April 10. The caravan set out again, this time with an imbedded reporter from Phoenix TV, among others, and worked their way to Baima Mountain, a majestic chain of glacier capped mountains that hinders all entry into Tibet Proper.
We caught up with them just as they were attempting the pass. Remember what I said about winter conditions? We had spent many late hours trying to calculate our passage across the Hengduan Mountain Range. This is easier said than done for as soon as the snows begin to recede, the monsoons are close behind, eager to shower our horsemen with torrential rains and mudslides. Obviously we figured wrong; the caravan was breaking camp at the base of the mountain as we caught up in our Jeep. Though cold and muddy, their campsite was in an idyllic setting of moss-covered old growth pine forest interspersed with several varieties of wild rhodedendron in full bloom. But just a few dozen feet up the slope was fresh snow cover, and we could feel a blizzard brewing.
The original plan was to hike to the base of the first of two mountain passes, and camp there the first night. One look at the sky told us that this would be almost certain death. Giant thunderheads were rolling past us at warp speed, and we were getting slapped in the face by snowflakes the size of a baby's fist. We heard over our CB's that the cops were already closing the road. After lots of yelling, the lead horseman, Zhao Baochang, chose to take both passes and get everyone down the other side. Anything else would have led to weeks in delays, leaving us stuck in the Tibetan badlands during the coming monsoon. To beat the mountain, our caravan would have to trudge some 40 miles through deep wet snow (in canvas shoes no less), almost double our usual daily limit.
After hours of nail-biting (and pushing stranded buses out of the snowbanks), we made it across the first pass. Everyone was running around and shouting, but the only sounds heard were the howling winds and the violent flapping of prayer flags.
Somehow we managed to make it down the mountain, despite the fact that every landmark was masked by the clouds and the sun was long gone.
Two days later, Zhao turned his dirty, ragged horse team into a first-class parade. Everyone brokeImage_00039 out their best ethnic finery to march into the welcoming arms of Deqin county's entire government and best dancing troupes. If you've never been to a party hosted by the government of a poor, remote ethnic county in the Chinese hinterland, you've never really been to a party.
Top officials from almost every branch of the county government gathered us into the largest restaurant in town where we commenced stuffing our faces with yak meat and downing copious amounts of barley liquor (80 proof) by the glass. Local cultural workers began to dance around the restaurant trading songs and whiskey with the horsemen. By about 8:00 everyone was rip-roaring drunk and we decided to hit the town square, where everyone in town was dancing. Somehow we eneded up with a huge entourage working our way across the few saloons in town. I don't quite remember how I got home that night, but I was assured by witnesses that I had a great time.
Image_00034 Deqin County Seat is a ramshackle pile of houses gathered in a tiny pocket surrounded by half a dozen giant mountains. It is reminiscent of an appalachian coal-mining town. Having said that, it is a great place to meet Tibetan culture face to face. The roads and accomodations are bad enough to discourage most of the tour groups from invading, and most of the local Tibetan men still sport their swords everywhere they go. Walking down the main street, one often has to dodge the occasional Yak who decides to browse the garbage cans.
Lacking a Tibetan travel permit, in dour need of a shower and mindful of the growing pile of work on my desk back in Beijing, I headed back to Shangri-La for a hot bath and tickets to Kunming. Our caravan made it safely to Yanjing (salt well) on the Tibet-Yunnan border a few days later, and should have passed Markang by now. I hope to catch up with them again somewhere on the approach to Lhasa, which they should be reaching in mid-June. I'll keep you posted.

Yunnan Revealed

For those of you who missed it, Yunnan Revealed is a tour of the US that we did last year.
I'll start with Yunnan so you can better understand what we were revealing. Yunnan is China's southwesternmost province, and it borders Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. With an altitude ranging from 50 meters to 6,000 meters, it is China's most biologically and culturally diverse province and in my opinion one of the coolest places on earth. It is home to more than half of continental Asia's plant and animal species and twenty six ethnic groups that posess their own distinct languages, histories and cultures.
Yunnan Revealed was a joint effort between Connecticut College, Flynn Theatre, Dartmouth University, China Yunnan International Cultural Exchange Center and Yuansheng Indigenous Music and Dance Studio. It brought fifteen traditional artists from the Yi, Wa, Naxi and Dai ethnic groups to seven cities in the US to sing, dance and teach people about their cultures. More than half of the artists are non-professionals who make their living in agricultural activities in their home villages, and all of them are deeply dedicated to protecting their traditional cultures from the onslaught of globalization.

I was blessed by the opportunity to accompany these amazing people as their translator and tour manager. It was extremely exhausting but very rewarding.
Below is a brief description of the ethnic groups represented:

Yi: there are roughly six million Yi living in Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou with scattered communities in Laos and Vietnam. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, and they are descended from the ancient Qiang, an ancient group from Western China/Tibet who are also the ancestors of the Tibetans and Naxi. Spread across a very large region, there are believed to be over one hundred sub groups of the Yi with many dialect groups and distinct customs. They generally practice a form of animism that entails the worship of dragons and fire, and are often lead by a sorceror known as the Bimaw. The Yi of the Liangshan region which straddles Yunnan and Sichuan are notorious as warriors and for the complex slavery system that the royalty maintained until they were incorporated in modern China in the mid 1950's

Naxi: the naxi are also descended from the ancient Qiang and speak a language that is related to Yi. There are roughly half a million of them, mostly concentrated in Lijiang prefecture in northwest Yunnan, though they can also be found in western sichuan and the Kam region of Tibet. They practice a shamanistic religion known as Dongba. Dongba means "person of knowledge", and the dongba priests are carriers of the history, religion, medicine and indigenous knowledge, which they carry and pass on through a pictographic script which is the only pictographic script in use today. According to Dongba texts, man and the spirits of nature are siblings, and they lived peacefully until the spirits of nature were angered by man's destructive ways. The Dongba must placate these spirits and others which can control them to prevent natural disasters such as earthquakes and killer storms. The naxi are most famous for their ancient city of Lijiang, which in 1997 was the world's largest wholly traditionally constructed city. It was put on the map by a massive earthquake that year. It is now a UNESCO world heritage sight, and is visited by upwards of ten million tourists each year. The Mosuo, considered by China (but not by themselves) to be a subgroup of the Naxi are famous for their matrilineal society which has no marriage custom.

Dai: the Dai are basically Thais who live in Yunnan. Their language is very similar to the Northern Thai dialect. They live in southern and southwestern Yunnan, and are culturally identical to Thais in neighboring Laos and Burma, also called the Shan. In the two main areas where they live in Yunnan, Xishuangbanna and Dehong, they use two alphabetic writing systems that are derived from sanskrit. These they use to inscribe buddhist sutras on palm leaves. They mostly practice Hinayana Buddhism, though there are Muslim and Animist Dais to be found in some parts of Yunnan as well.

Wa: the Wa speak a language from the Mon-Khmer branch of Austro-Indonesian. There are half a million of them in Yunnan, and another 300,000 across the border in neighboring Burma. They are notorious for their (now abandoned) practice of ritual headhunting. Lacking a writing system, the Wa traditionally used music and the sending of symbolic objects as a means of communication. Our Wa performer, Yan Bing, can play and make 47 different musical instruments. The Wa, though overwhelmingly impoverished, fare relatively well in China. Their brothers in Burma are in the middle of the golden triangle where they are plagued by aids, opium and warfare. The United Wa Army has thousands of troops and frequently battles the central Burmese government.

Beijing Rant

Though I have trouble sometimes warming up to this enormous concrete monstrosity, Beijing does have its good sides. There are a whole lot of really interesting, engaging, bright young people to play with, and there are always plenty of good eats and fun things to do. But living in a place like this, no matter how fun and interesting, extracts a heavy toll on mind and body. The ridiculous traffic (there are six beltways out here), the masses of people (well over ten million of them) are bad enough, but what really gets to me is the weather.

Maybe I'm a bit spoiled from living in Yunnan for so long. With its clean air and year-round, springlike weather, I have a right to complain anywhere I go. But Beijing is especially horrible in this respect. In the spring, the east wind begins to blow. This is basically the jet stream coming out of the vast western expanse. It's a lovely idea and has made for wonderful Chinese poems through the centuries. But now there's a problem: the west is now a giant, fast-growing desert, and this romantic east wind picks up millions of tons of fine sand on its way here, dumping it all over this already filthy city. Walking down the street, you can feel the grit in your teeth, and a gentle breeze is enough sometimes to temporarily blind you and drive you to tears.
The dust is so fine that once it's blown in, it just kind of stays and floats around, slowly creeping through the tiniest cracks, into every gadget, and deep into the pores of your skin. I'm no longer surprised these days to wake up and see a thick layer of the stuff that has been so unceremoniously dropped off over night. It is like a diabolical snow. "Look mommy, It's dusting!" Blast.
Then you have another phenomenon that really does look like snow. In an effort to greenify the city and try to create a filter against the dust, Beijing authorities a decade ago undertook a massive "campaign" to plant trees. Problem is, biodiversity wasn't a buzzword back then, and authorities almost exclusively planted clones of the cottonwood tree. I read somewhere that they make up for nearly two thirds of all plant life in Beijing. These trees release seeds that are surrounded by what looks like tufts of cotton which evolved to maximise their time floating in the air so they could find a farther place to take root. When they go into bloom, it really does look like snow. "Look mommy, it's cottoning!" Being from sterile clones, these tufts have no seed and can float around much longer and farther, though they prefer to stay in Beijing and deposit themselves in my eyes as I walk to my bus. They keep floating around getting slightly greyer as they accumulate the dust, until they are finally too heavy to fly anymore and just clump on the ground in a filthy mess. This is the modern megacity's answer to yellow snow.
But one morning I was really surprised by what I saw. I looked outside and I could see clearly across the street. In fact, from an office tower I was able to see clearly all the way to the summer palace and the western hills behind it. Everything glowed with a soft gold color. I really couldn't believe my eyes. The air here is so bad at times that you can look directly at the sun without burning your retina. What happened was that we got a good rain that washed all of the dust and coal particles right out of the sky. The city had been miraculously transformed. It made me miss Yunnan so much, where the sky looks like this every day. Of course it only took us a few days to foul everything up again. I swear in 2008, the olympians are going to be huffing down cigarrettes just to get a taste of clean air.
Now we get to my favorite weather phenomenon: mudding. It doesn't just rain or snow here, it also muds. Seriously. I just explained how the rain washed all of the dust out of the sky. The aftereffect is spectacular, but you do not, under any circumstances, want to be caught in a spring rain here, especially during the first few hours. As the rain falls through the sky, it picks up all of the dust that's been floating around, and by the time it reaches street level, there are literally drops of mud coming down at you. That, my friends, is pure torture.


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