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.
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.