‘Extravant eating and drinking has never been part of Chinese culture’ (!)

File picture of Chinese banquet

File picture of Chinese banquet

Over the last year, high-end restaurants in China have been struck as if by lightning by President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and ban on dining out at government expense. ‘People in China are used to such political campaigns,’ one friend of mine told me, ‘But normally they drop off after a while. No one expected the ban on expense-account feasting to last this long.’

Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup.

One expat friend of mine in Beijing said he’d been having a perfectly innocent dinner with some high-ranking officials to celebrate a charitable venture, and they had to stay inside the restaurant for half an hour after the meal while some lackeys scoured the streets for curious bystanders – only when they were satisfied that the coast was clear were the VIPs willing to make a dash from the expensive restaurant to their official cars. He also said one company he knew had opened its own club – in effect, a bar and restaurant with a chef and kitchen staff, in an upper floor of a normal-looking office building, so they could wine and dine officials without anyone noticing. Another friend who works in a smart hotel says there is a special lift from the carpark to the private dining rooms, so that VIP guests do not have to pass through the lobby on their way to dinner.

In such a climate, it’s not surprising that fancy restaurants are feeling the pinch. But even so, a chef friend of mine was incredulous to hear that the Chinese Commerce Minister had denied that extravagant dining had ever been part of Chinese culture! Extravagant dining was practically invented in China. This is a country, after all, in which ancient sages could explain their philosophy in terms of the impossibility of having both fish and bear’s paw. And look at this invocation, written two and a half thousand years ago, which aimed to lure back the souls of the dead through its mouthwatering descriptions of exotic delicacies:

Stewed turtle and roast kid, served up with yam sauce;

Geese cooked in sour sauce, casseroled duck, fried flesh of the great crane;

Braised chicken, seethed tortoise, high-seasoned, but not to spoil the taste;

Fried honey-cakes of rice flour and malt-sugar sweetmeats…

(Qu Yuan, in The Songs of the South – Penguin Classics)

Anyway, the Commerce Minister was clearly wiping such seditious ideas from his mind when he answered questions from reporters earlier this month. The following is my translation of a report from the Legal Evening News, sent to me by the incredulous chef (Chinese version below):

2014-03-07 Legal Evening News

At nine o’clock this morning, Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng answered questions from Chinese and foreign reporters about ‘Commercial Development and Opening Up to the Outside World’. At the end of the news conference, Minister Gao Hucheng turned around just before leaving, and answered this newspaper’s question about the fall in high-end food and drink consumption. He said that the fall in high-end food and drink consumption was a good thing, and said that high-end food and drink consumption had never been part of Chinese culture!

You can see from the exclamation mark at the end of the report that the journalist found Mr Gao’s comment as staggering and ridiculous as my friend. And this blatant official denial of history makes one understand why some people say the current anti-corruption campaign has some  disturbing resonances with the Cultural Revolution.

[2014两会快讯:商务部长回应本报高端餐饮消费

发布:2014-03-07 10:28:31作者:法制晚报

#2014两会快讯#【商务部长回应本报高端餐饮消费】上午9点,商务部部长高虎城就”商务发展与对外开放”的相关问题回答中外记者的提问。发布会近尾声,高虎城临走前转身留步,回应本报记者关于高端餐饮消费下降问题.他表示,高端餐饮消费下降是件好事,高端餐饮消费在中国从来不是一种文化!(记者王南陈斯 白冰)]

4 Responses to “‘Extravant eating and drinking has never been part of Chinese culture’ (!)”

  1. Ben

    Whoever has seen beyond the nice surface knows that in East Asia, “extravagant dining” means of course “including prostitutes”, it has nothing to do with the meal itself.
    It’s just one of the many euphemisms used to keep things “running smoothly”.
    I do understand that China wants to cut down on this.

  2. Helle

    “Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup.”

    Good, I find, for too long have officials and politicians been ripping off the Chinese public, about time more money is spent where it should be and not on cars, dinners, watches and whatnot.

  3. Eric

    Traveling to Chengdu last August we were taken to a Hot Pot restaurant that was clearly upscale, and the place was less than half full. Our guide explained, just as Fuchsia reports, that the most visible crackdown on corruption has been on the dining habits of government officials who would normally fill a restaurant like that. Our guide felt that the crackdown on lavish government financed meals was good, but he also felt the overnight implementation of the crackdown was hurting many good restaurants.

  4. Michelle

    LOL. I live in Thailand, and every Chinese-Thai I know loves extravagant dining. I even used to work for a Thai-Chinese company and couldn’t believe what they served us for company dinners (shark fin soup etc). So, yes, I’d say there’s a bit of fabrication going on here :)

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