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31: A Dinner-Party

It is a lamentable fact that although China has now been open for a considerable number of years both to trade and travellers, she is still a sealed book to the majority of intelligent Europeans as regards her manners and customs, and the mode of life of her people. Were it not so, such misleading statements as those lately published by a young gentleman in the service of H.I.M. the Emperor of China, and professing to give an account of a Chinese dinner, could never have been served up by half-a-dozen London newspapers as a piece of valuable information on the habits of Chinamen. There is so much that is really quaint, interesting, and worthy of record in the social etiquette observed by the natives of China, that no one with eyes to see and ears to hear need ever draw upon his imagination in the slightest degree. We do not imply that this has been done in the present instance. The writer has only erred through ignorance. He has doubtless been to a Chinese dinner where he "sat inside a glass door, and cigars were handed round after the repast," as many other brave men have been before him,--at Mr Yang's, the celebrated Peking pawn-broker. But had he been to more than that one, or taken the trouble to learn something about the subject on which he was writing, he would have found out that glass doors and cigars are not natural and necessary adjuncts to a Chinese dinner. They are in fact only to be found at the houses of natives who have mixed with foreigners and are in the habit of inviting them to their houses. The topic is an interesting one, and deserves a somewhat elaborate treatment, both for its own sake as a study of native customs, and also to aid in dispelling a host of absurd ideas which have gathered round these everyday events of Chinese life. For it is an almost universal belief that Chinamen dine daily upon rats, puppy-dogs, and birds'-nest soup; whereas the truth is that, save among very poor people, the first is wholly unknown, and the two last are comparatively expensive dishes. Dog hams are rather favourite articles of food in the south of China, but the nests from which the celebrated soup is made are far too expensive to be generally consumed.

A dinner-party in China is a most methodical affair as regards precedence among guests, the number of courses, and their general order and arrangement. We shall endeavour to give a detailed and accurate account of such a banquet as might be offered to half-a-dozen friends by a native in easy circumstances. In the first place, no ladies would be present, but men only would occupy seats at the square, four-legged "eight fairy" table. Before each there will be found a pair of chopsticks, a wine-cup, a small saucer for soy, a two-pronged fork, a spoon, a tiny plate divided into two separate compartments for melon seeds and almonds, and a pile of small pieces of paper for cleaning these various articles as required. Arranged upon the table in four equidistant rows are sixteen small dishes or saucers which contain four kinds of fresh fruits, four kinds of dried fruits, four kinds of candied fruits, and four miscellaneous, such as preserved eggs, slices of ham, a sort of sardine, pickled cabbage, &c. These four are in the middle, the other twelve being arranged alternately round them. Wine is produced the first thing, and poured into small porcelain cups by the giver of the feast himself. It is polite to make a bow and place one hand at the side of the cup while this operation is being performed. The host then gives the signal to drink and the cups are emptied instantaneously, being often turned bottom upwards as a proof there are no heel-taps. Many Chinamen, however, cannot stand even a small quantity of wine; and it is no uncommon thing when the feast is given at an eating-house, to hire one of the theatrical singing-boys to perform vicariously such heavy drinking as may be required by custom or exacted by forfeit. The sixteen small dishes above-mentioned remain on the table during the whole dinner and may be eaten of promiscuously between courses. Now we come to the dinner, which may consist of eight large and eight small courses, six large and six small, eight large and four small, or six large and four small, according to the means or fancy of the host, each bowl of food constituting a course being placed in the middle of the table and dipped into by the guests with chopsticks or spoon as circumstances may require. The first is the commonest, and we append a bill of fare of an ordinary Chinese dinner on that scale, each course coming in its proper place.

I. Sharks' fins with crab sauce.

1. Pigeons' eggs stewed with mushrooms.

2. Sliced sea-slugs in chicken broth with ham.

II. Wild duck and Shantung cabbage.

3. Fried fish.

4. Lumps of pork fat fried in rice flour.

III. Stewed lily roots.

5. Chicken mashed to pulp, with ham.

6. Stewed bamboo shoots.

IV. Stewed shell-fish.

7. Fried slices of pheasant.

8. Mushroom broth.

Remove--Two dishes of fried pudding, one sweet and the other salt, with two dishes of steamed puddings, also one sweet and one salt. [These four are put on the table together and with them is served a cup of almond gruel.]
V. Sweetened duck.
VI. Strips of boned chicken fried in oil.
VII. Boiled fish (of any kind) with soy.
VIII. Lumps of parboiled mutton fried in pork-fat.

These last four large courses are put on the table one by one and are not taken away. Subsequently a fifth, a bowl of soup, is added, and small basins of rice are served round, over which some of the soup is poured. The meal is then at an end. A _rince-bouche_ is handed to each guest and a towel dipped in boiling water but well wrung out. With the last he mops his face all over, and the effect is much the same as half a noggin of Exshare diluted with a bottle of Schweppe. Pipes and tea are now handed round, though this is not the first appearance of tobacco on the scene. Many Chinamen take a whiff or two at their hubble-bubbles between almost every course, as they watch the performance of some broad farce which on grand occasions is always provided for their entertainment. Opium is served when dinner is over for such as are addicted to this luxury; and after a few minutes, spent perhaps in arranging the preliminaries of some future banquet, the party, which has probably lasted from three to four hours, is no longer of the present but in the past.