Social obligations and the meaning of meals

Yesterday we took a careful look at the budget of my office’s unpaid intern, and some of you questioned her spending habits. So today we’ll be looking at the importance of social obligations, and why spending more than 20% of your monthly budget on friends and family doesn’t strike this young woman as an optional expense.

Her 150rmb dinner for four seems like an extravagant expense considering that she usually spends less than 10rmb on meals for herself. However, hosting meals may be one of the most important ways of building guanxi.

This usually means ordering more food than any group of humans could possibly eat, with as many meat dishes as possible (since meat is more expensive). Where I currently work, a small banquet would be 10-12 dishes for 8 people. Even though there is always a tremendous amount of food left over, the number never seems to change. Each person takes a turn at some point in the meal commenting on how there is too much food, and that the president really shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.

The idea is that you should always offer the very best for your guests, even if you can barely afford it. This happens to be the same way my co-worker explained why it was that China exported food to Vietnam and North Korea as nearly 45 million Chinese died during the great famine. I think it may be one of the few traditional aspects of Chinese society that was barely effected by Mao’s rule.

Note: In the early 1900’s when China’s wealthy merchants were too embarrassed to visit the doctor in his clinic they would host a massive meal, and then ask quietly after dinner if the doctor could give them a quick check up.

This has simply become what is expected of a host. Like many customs, it has gone from being a pleasing gesture, to a required one. It seems that a grand banquet today gains a small amount of guanxi at a huge cost, but is held simply because it would be a complete loss of face not to. It is estimated that Chinese gov’t officials at all levels spend nearly 1,000,000,000rmb per year on banquets, enough to build 4 Olympic stadiums like the Bird’s Nest.

From a story on Caixin on official waste

It doesn’t seem to even matter if the food is good or not, as long as it is expensive.

I was reminded of this during a banquet hosted by the State Administration of Religious Affairs. After spending an hour or so listening to a presentation about how harmonious and free the religious peoples of China are, we were led to a nearby restaurant. This restaurant happened to be the former resident of a Qing prince.

The discussion of religion in China stopped as soon as the food arrived. There was sea cucumber, abalone, and other exotic dishes. As each one arrived the SARA liaison would proudly announce, “this dish is very expensive, more than $50 per person.” They assumed that this would help us to build a good friendship, but to the other foreigners it seemed like they were trying to buy our trust. I heard several whispers about what a terrible waste of money it was, considering that they had just made their way through rural China, visiting villages that consisted entirely of single room shacks.

If China ever hopes to stem corruption and waste, the tradition of banquets is going to be one the greatest cultural challenges to overcome. Changing these attitudes starts with freeing people like our current intern from the social obligations that force her to live beyond her means.

15 responses to “Social obligations and the meaning of meals”

  1. Mike says:

    This post is certainly informative for most Americans (Westerners) but does not really tell the whole story, ” social obligations that force her to live beyond her means.” Chinese/Asians in general save far more than Americans, this was not mentioned in your post and is a pretty big omission. I think we can argue there are many reasons for the high rate of savings by the Chinese but it also is culturally. On the other hand, Americans on average owe $15,799 in credit card debt as of this year… I think we as Americans live far beyond our means.

    • Tom says:

      When you read the previous post, it becomes clear that this individual is living off of money borrowed from her parents, and is not in a position to save. While Chinese people in general are known for saving, local gov’ts are not, they have amassed over 1 trillion dollars in debt and are currently the center of a fierce debate about the stability of China’s economy.
      Yes, Americans live beyond our means, and so does our gov’t. but this blog focuses on China.

      • Mike says:

        I agree with you that college students and recently graduated students are “not in a position to save” but neither are college students or recent graduates in the United States (many rely on a little help from the parents to get by for a few years). This is not unusual. I have read your blog for a short time now as it critiqued China, however, feel that while some of your posts are very insightful lack balance in your reporting (by not mentioning the high rate of savings by the Chinese people). I think a good argument can be made that all college students live beyond their means, however, “saving face” via holding expensive banquets is I agree a clearly more a Chinese phenomenon.

  2. King Tubby says:

    Good read on a vulgar practice,

  3. Lao Why? says:

    I would go much further in saying that the concept of face, while charming in many ways, is also quite sinister. As you point out, progress in corruption is difficult because the bribers perceive the officials expect such gifts, regardless of what anti-bribery laws say. It is self perpetuating. Face also impedes the free discussion of issues. I can’t tell you how many “the Emperor has no clothes” moments I have had where no one will question the laoban.

  4. mrchopstik says:

    It starts from the top. If a few top officials could lead by example here – and push that idea through – it might start to gain some traction. Perhaps Grandfather Wen could be a starting point and get other senior officials to follow his lead – though it may be too late for him, I fear.

    • Tom says:

      I think the most likely start will be from Amb. Gary Locke, many netizens have already noticed that he is living much more simply off of gov’t funds than his Chinese counterparts.

  5. […] 中国见红博客:社交义务与请客的意义——在中国,“关系”的重要性使得每个人都背着社交义务,而吃饭也不仅仅是吃饭那么简单 […]

  6. Yaxue C. says:

    This really is a terribly aspect of the Chinese mindset. Last time I was in Beijing, my best friend and her husband treated us with an elaborate meal that cost, like, 3,000 yuan, and, fancy dishes aside, the amount of food was just waaaaaaay too much for the company. Since she is my best friend and college roommate, I told her straightforwardly how unnecessary this was. “下次我们一起去吃炸酱面就好了”(“Next time, let’s go out to have noodles with fried bean paste sauce”), I said.

    “No,” her husband protested, “that won’t do! You are her best friend, you don’t visit often, how can we take you out to eat noodles with fried bean paste sauce?!”

    The idea of expressing hospitality through fine meals isn’t bad at all. When I lived in China in my 20s, I was very idle and I used to spend hours cooking fine meals and have my friends over. The problem is, these days it has often gone so far from the idea of enjoyment and proportion that it ceases to be a pleasure. Of course I am only talking about this particular case of mine; having wasterful banquets paid by tax money is a whole different matter.

  7. And let’s not forget that the cost almost never equals taste in China, the worst thing I’ve eaten here so far was a bowl of shark’s fin soup, forced upon me by my host (at a cost of over $100 USD) – it was like fishy ditch water. And it’s an awful thing to buy because of the dwindling shark population too.

  8. Lao Why? says:

    Weddings are another challenge. I know many friends that are not looking forward to October as that is a big month for weddings in China. It’s amazing the intricate accounting that they do for how much to give in hong bao! In the US, there is a somewhat similar dynamic of “rating gifts” to determine the depth of relationships but it’s a well developed science in China. It really is a burden monetarily. Tom’s student friend better hope that none of her friends get married for a while because that will really pinch the budget!

  9. My take on the whole banquet and gift-giving culture is that the central government might tolerate it because to some extent it encourages domestic consumption of products, often locally produced, or else from poorer inland areas, for example fungi from the mountains of Jilin, or Maotai baijiu from Guizhou.

    Obviously the danger is that by allowing such behaviour, it lead to other wasteful behaviour such as enormous ornate government buildings, or cities in the middle of nowhere, and government officials sporting luxury or “high-end” products like Audis or Rolex watches. Of course that kind of extravagant expenditure is of little use economically; its money flowing from the pockets of Chinese taxpayers out of the country. Serving up shark’s fin is another manifestation of this same banquet culture.

    With most banquets though, shark’s fin is not on the menu, and the most exotic you might get is abalone or dog meat. In addition to that, much of what is served up is the most highly prized and most expensive local specialities that area produces. Particularly in remote rural areas where the private sector economy is not well developed and the local economy gets funds from say agriculture, or else some industry in the form of state-owned mining or timber companies, if the county government isn’t buying a county’s local 500 yuan baijiu and 400 yuan medicinal fungi for banquet soups, who else will ?

    Then in due course, maybe some of those local speciality products will become well-known across the province, to be sold with a huge mark-up to bored businessmen at the provincial capital’s airport, to then perhaps become famous across China and the world… In theory.

  10. […] I get the feeling that most of them are trying to survive the meal rather than impress at them. Banquets are a social obligation, and we’ve learned from guidebooks that we shouldn’t stick our chopsticks upright in […]

  11. […] “three public expenditures” refers to public spending on government vehicles, banquets, and overseas travel. This part of spending is the most hotly debated, and one that netizens have […]

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