I was so used to seeing Master Li quietly practicing his beautiful Taiji form in the park next to us as we practiced our Mantis. But today he was spilling Qingdao beer all over the food at a banquet as he was toasting people across the table and rambling in incoherent Yantai dialect. My head was already spinning and I felt sick; after all it was only 1pm and we’d been drinking for two hours already.
This is a typical scene at a Kung Fu banquet in northern China. Anybody who has read Outlaws of the Marsh will know, that martial heroes in China are supposed to hold their drink, in order to prove their masculinity to their peers. In Shandong especially, this is a tiring and repetitive affair. It usually goes like this: your teacher gets a phone call, Master X, Master Y and Master Z will have a meeting about bla bla, and they will invite some government officials as well as members of the Chinese Martial Arts Association, and your teacher has been invited and told to bring the Laowai along for face. So there you are in a room full of cigarette smoke waiting to be told your appropriate seat. Where you sit is very important in these affairs; the host usually sits facing the door, with the guest of honour to his right. The host will have some kind of assistant who will sit close to the door, so they can talk to the waitress, pay the bill etc. Then other important people sit to the sides, so now you have people sat at the four compass points. Then the other people sort of fill in the gaps where they are told to sit.
Cold dishes arrive first. These are generally my favourite: often some kind of cold meat, Chinese style salad with strong vinegar and lots of raw garlic, and usually jellyfish. At this point things are still civilised, and people may take food for each other and chat quietly and politely. Once the luke-warm Tsingtao beer arrives, glasses are filled to the brim and the toasting starts. Typically the host must make three toasts, after which the entire glass of disgustingly room temperature weak beer is downed, and people fill up each others glasses, raising them slightly as beer is poured for them. This is where things start to spiral downwards as more beer is consumed and the hellish Baijiu comes out. If you don’t know what Baijiu is let me explain. It is hell in a bottle. It’s basically distilled grain alcohol which starts around 50% and goes up from there. It tastes like paint stripper. This is when all the etiquette goes out the window and the babbling while leaning on your shoulder begins. The point when the most important government officials in the city are suddenly your best friends and won’t leave you alone. It’s also a good time to witness brawls, as lineage rivalries surface, somebody can say the wrong thing, and before you know it student of Master X is aiming a flying elbow at the head of student of Master Y. This will all be forgotten the next day, as hospital bills are usually negotiated quite fairly and there’s no hard feelings.
These dinners are kind of fun in hindsight. I’ve been to more than enough, and don’t make a plan of attending any more if I can help it. But at the same it’s all part of the experience of China, you will experience them if you are here long enough. Not only in Kung Fu circles, but at weddings, business meetings and any other social event. As the modern world creeps in though, for better or for worse, they are in decline, and where I live in Shanghai now I don’t really encounter them. Western style dining is taking over, and going for a coffee or quiet beer is becoming more and more trendy.