The Manchu and Han banquet was introduced during Emperor Kangxi’s reign at the government house and official residence of the upper strata. The Manchu and Han banquet derived from changes in the eating and drinking customs of the Manchus before and after the Manchu rulers moved to Beijing. Before they moved, the banquet had been called the “steamed bun banquet.” It was cooked simply and there was little variety in the food served. Most dishes were made of wheat flour and served in large quantities, as was typical of the dietetic customs of the nomadic people.
By the middle Qing Dynasty, the eating habits of the Manchus had been greatly influenced by the eating customs and cooking skills of other nationalities, especially the Han Chinese. For example, in the 53rd year of Kangxi’s reign (1714), he gave a “1,000 Elders’ Banquet” at the palace to celebrate his 60th birthday and the peaceful times under his rule. Actually, he gave the banquet on March 25th and 27th to honor all the elders in the country who were 65 years or older. The Manchu and Han banquet was attended by more than 2,800 people. The emperor dined with his guests and, in a joyful mood, wrote the four big characters, “Man Han Quan Xi” (meaning the Manchu and Han banquet), thus establishing the rare banquet’s place in Chinese dietetic culture.
The banquet featured many of the world’s edible delicacies from land and sea, famous mushrooms and fungi, and choice vegetables and fruits. Quality was the key selection criteria, and only the best were chosen. For example, the bear’s paw had to be the front paw of the black bear in autumn because then it had short sides and much gelatinous protein. Because the black bear has plenty of food to eat, its paws are strong and fat. The paw is delicious when cooked and contains many nutrients. Another example is the preparation of roast pigs. The pigs must weigh 12 to 13 catties and have been fattened with porridge for three to four days before being slaughtered so they would be more tasty. Moreover, Peking duck, roast chicken, and harba (pork leg) were requisite banquet dishes.
The Manchu and Han banquet became popular during the late years of the Qing Dynasty. Many restaurants throughout the country served the banquet to attract customers, but the variety, quantity, and quality of the dishes differed by region to accommodate the preferences of the local people. For example, in Guangzhou, a representative city of southern China, the dragon – tiger – phoenix mixture was often served. The dragon was snake, the tiger was cat, and the phoenix was chicken. The dish was prepared from 250 grams of three varieties of snake meat, 150 grams of cat or civet meat, 100 grams of shredded chicken, and 50 grams of fish maw. The minor ingredients were shredded mushrooms, shredded fungi, lard, sesame oil, dried tangerine peels, refined salt, Shaoxing rice wine, liquor, starch, crisp fritter, white chrysanthemum flowers, and lemon squash.
In the ancient capital city of Xi’an, the dumpling banquet was well – known to locals and foreign tourists. The small dumplings, made in various shapes, were stuffed with such fillings as meat, shrimp, dried scallop, dried shrimp, sesame paste, and mushrooms. Each had a fancy name. For example, the dumpling of black and white fungi was called “white silver and black jade”; the dumpling with a cherry on top was called “lone fragrant flower in bloom.”
In north China, the Manchu and Han banquet included a hot pot or instant – boiled mutton, while in northeast China it included stewed beef or mutton or roast sheep. In Sichuan, the banquet included shredded pork stir – fried with chili and fish sauce, and stir-fried diced chicken with peanuts. In Shanxi, Pingyao beef was served at the banquet.
In short, the Manchu and Han banquet varied by region because of different cooking skills, the discovery of new delicacies, and people’s regional preferences. However, the style and flavor remained the same, and the luxurious Manchu and Han banquet followed a set etiquette, procedure, and pattern. There were strict rules for the location, number of tables, ranks and positions of those invited, seating, and variety and quantity of the dishes, fruits, and alcoholic drinks. All officials had to wear their official robes and string of 108 beads typically made of coral or amber. Music was played, and a gun salute was fired as the guests took their seats.
After the guests were seated, they used copper basins and clean towels to wash their faces before drinking tea and eating the exquisite dishes. As they ate and drank, they also played chess, recited poetry, painted, or chatted. After the tables were set, the four fruits (oranges, mandarin oranges, shaddock, and apples) as well as pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried litchis, and sugared lotus seeds were served. The four fruits were also used for decoration.
Dinnerware was placed at each seat. After the guests were seated, waiters peeled fruit for them and served cold dishes to begin the wine drinking. This was followed by four hot courses. After three rounds of drinks, shark’s fin was served followed by the second course – a hot dish of meats, then the third and fourth courses. The guests ate and drank as much as they could. The fifth course was cooked rice, porridge, and soup. After the dinner, waiters served a small silver tray of toothpicks, areca (betel nut), and round cardamom kernels. To end the banquet, the guests were given a basin of clean water for washing.
The Manchu and Han banquet became very popular during Xianfeng’s reign. After Emperor Xianfeng died, Empress Dowager Cixi ordered that the name, Manchu and Han banquet, not be used outside the palace. Later, Emperor Guangxu issued an order that princes, dukes, and generals could serve the Manchu and Han banquet, which cause it to rebound in Tianjin and other cities.
Following the 1911 Revolution, the Manchu and Han banquet became fashionable in more cities, but the content, etiquette, customs, and formalities gradually were simplified, and the number of dishes reduced from more than 200 to about 100. Archived menus show different banquets served 110 dishes, 108 dishes, and 64 dishes. There no longer was any clear distinction between Manchu and Han dishes, so the banquet became known as “the great Han banquet” in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
After the Republic of China was founded in 1911, the Manchu and Han banquets were stopped because of wars among the warlords and the poverty of the people. The flourishing tourist trade of recent years has caused a new revival of the banquets.