Friday, March 23, 2007

READER'S CORNER: corax on à la table de l'empereur de chine by william chan tat chuen

william chan tat chuen. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE. [piquier poche no. 283.] arles: éditions philippe picquier 2007. 237 pp. ISBN: 978-2-87730-921-9. paperbound 8 euros.

it is worth remembering, when it comes to reading about the teas of asia, is that some of the most interesting and useful books are not even going to have the word 'tea' in their title. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE is a case in point. this charming little pocket-sized book, published in french, opens by drawing a very apposite comparison between two imperial courts that existed simultaneously, though without any interaction: the versailles of louis xiv and the forbidden city of the qing dynasty. both marked the 'glory days' [in a very specific politico-cultural sense] of their respective nations; and each developed a system of social interaction [especially involving phenomena such as cooking and eating] that served both to provide a 'pecking order' for the noblesse, and to keep these under more or less constant surveillance by the monarch.

the author, william chan tat chuen [hereafter 'C'], concentrates particularly on the court of hongli, the emperor known as 'qianlong' [1711-1799], arguably the most important of the qing emperors. the length of his 60-year reign [beginning at age 25] was rivalled in this dynasty only by that of his doting grandfather kangxi. we have extraordinarily extensive records for the cultural history of qianlong's day, and these are a good source of information on what was eaten -- and drunk -- in this period; how it was prepared and served; who had the right to consume what [and how, and in what quantity, and when]; and so forth. we get a clear sense of the striking contrast between public dining, an exercise in excruciating formality at every possible juncture, and daily meals, which [for the sake of simplicity] were typically taken in individual privacy by each member of the imperial family.

C does an excellent job of sussing out the major topics and providing a basic collection of information that might serve as a springboard for further study. here you will discover how the tastes of the qing, who were of manchu rather than han ethnicity, were affected when they gained ascendancy over a nation that included ethnic han; how han chinese, in turn, came to appreciate certain manchu foods and methods of food-preparation; what an imperial banquet was like [apparently as huge an operation then as it is in china today]; what kinds of wine were used in this or that ceremonial procedure; what kinds of cooking utensils and serving vessels were employed in the forbidden city during this era; and even some specific recipes. there is a glossary of specialized ingredients at the end, describing such items as mu er mushrooms [known as 'wood ear' in english, 'champignons noirs' in french]. there are three pages of bibliography, principally in french and chinese, and an index to the recipes.

in keeping with the generalist nature of the book, there are no footnotes or endnotes. the text is sprinkled with black-and-white illustrations, including a fascinating photograph of cixi, the redoubtable dowager empress and coeval of queen victoria, and a detailed map of the forbidden city itself, carefully labeled in all its parts and sections. there are photos of a number of beautiful porcelain bowls, but one cannot be sure from these images that they were of a size for drinking tea. [the cover of this paperback edition shows, in beautiful colors, a painting by the popular contemporary painter jiang guo fang, titled 'the grand feast'; this one image portrays, with almost trompe-l'oeil realism, at least three types of drinking vessels, made of what look to be porcelain, glass, and solid gold.]

the book includes a section on 'les boissons sous les qing' ['beverages under qing emperors'], and, while the relevant paragraphs focus principally on different types of 'wine' [酒 jiu3, generically 'alcoholic beverage'] and their appropriate employ, this is in fact a topic that lovers of china tea should always pay attention to, if only to note the similarities and differences between the types of drinking vessels used for various beverages in chinese culture. a separate section focuses on 'la vaisselle de table' ['tableware,'] and here one reads some fascinating details: for example, that the imperial kitchens had some 3,000 items of tableware in gold or silver -- some of the gold ones weighing up to 140 kilos [308.6 pounds]. in addition to these, there were bowls of jade, and other dishes and implements in ivory, porcelain, agate, quartz, cloisonné, rare woods, and even [from 1696 on] glass. the best artisans from all the provinces were assembled in the forbidden city to do this work for the 'son of heaven' and his court. naturally the quantities permitted to each member of the imperial family were carefully dictated, reflecting their respective ranks at court; only on the emperor's allotment was there no limit. the colors used to decorate the various porcelains were keyed to the rank of their intended users. C tells us that the use of chopsticks was, curiously, rare in qianlong's day, and that in addition to chopsticks of gold and jade, he used knife, fork and spoon. some of these implements can be seen in the photo on page 136.

there are plenty more engaging details here, including discussions of the various rare delicacies served at court: monkey lips, camel humps, bear paws, leopard foetus, rhinoceros tail, and -- a particular favorite -- candied swallows' nests [the recipe for this, factum non fabula!, is to be found on pp 218-219]. but the CHA DAO reader is most likely to want to know what specifically is said in these pages about tea. there is an important section [pp 52-55] that discusses the yuchachanfang or 'service de bouche' ['culinary service'] of the emperor, composed [at the beginning of the qing period] of three departments: one was the shanfang, the imperial kitchen department, and the other two were the qingchafang and chafang, the offices devoted to the imperial tea service and snacks [french 'collations']. these offices alone had personnel of 78, 60, and 28 respectively -- which gives some idea of the scale on which the forbidden city operated from day to day.

the book is peppered with anecdotes taken from personal memoirs of the period, including those of dan shi, an imperial eunuch, and yuan mei, 'the chinese brillat-savarin.' one such snippet is from the memoirs of jin yi, whose memoirs of a lady of the court in the forbidden city recall the breakfast predilections of the empress cixi [pp 56-57]:

after the empress had smoked two pipes, the old eunuch zhang fu would offer her her milk tea. the empress favored human breast milk as much as cow's milk. you know that, for breakfast, the old manchu customs had been preserved, and so we would drink either human or cow's milk, to which some tea had been added. this milk tea was never prepared in the imperial kitchen, but rather in the little tea oven [[le petit four à thé]] inside the palace of the beauties. in this manner we avoided having to go a long distance, and the milk tea of the old eunuch zhang fu was very reliable! [[... details of the foods offered the empress deleted here ...]] after breakfast, the empress once again refreshed her palate, drank a half-glass of tea and smoked another pipe.

this is my translation of the french text, itself a version of the original chinese. it is evidently cited from the french edition by dong qiang, published in the same series as C's book [memoirs d'une dame de cour dans la cité interdite, picquier poche no. 54]. one would like to know more about what this le petit four à thé was like, exactly, and how one used it to prepare tea. my guess is that, as this was before the advent of electricity in china, the four was a wood or charcoal stove [灶 zao4, '[(kitchen) stove'] used to heat the water and milk in a pot on the top. these could be simply or elaborately made; examples from the han dynasty are formed roughly in the shape of a rectangular box, rounded at one end. these were made of clay -- presumably fairly high-fired -- and glazed on the outside. there was a doorway in the side through which to put the embers. the pot itself would have stood on one of the 'eyes' on the top surface [essentially chimneys for the rising heat of the stove]. [if you own a zojirushi or a braun, be thankful for the convenience.] the thermodynamics of such a system and its implements suggests that, unless a rather large zao were used, the quantities of fluid able to be brought to at least 'shrimp-eyes' heat would be relatively small -- which in turn suggests that the quantities of beverage that one could prepare at one time would be relatively limited. [innovations during the qing may have found a way to circumvent this problem.]

one would also like to know what the non-manchu chinese response was to this custom of taking milk [even human breast milk] in one's tea; how widespread was the custom outside the imperial court; and what other modes of tea preparation were as common as this in the daily life of the forbidden city. and, of course: what sort of leaf was used in this milk tea?

pages 142-147 are dedicated to a discussion of the 'tea ceremony' in the days of qing [though its roots go back to earlier dynasties, han to song in particular]. despite its name, the phenomenon C has in mind is rather a type -- or four types -- of ceremony characterized above all by the lubu or 'procession,' the grandest of which could entail as many 660 people. the lubu reached its most thrilling moment when the emperor himself, borne on a large palanquin, was carried out of the 'interior court' of the forbidden city and into the 'hall of protective harmony,' where in incomparable magnificence he was seated on his dragon throne. there, 'the emperor invited the princes, the mandarins of the first three civil and first two military ranks, and the foreign envoys, to come 'sit' (actually to kneel on cushions) in the throne room, where he offered them tea. before taking their places and drinking, they would kowtow three more times .... the tea offered to these dignitaries was omitted after 1797. and it was not even manchu milk tea!' [pp. 146-147]

the ambitious cook who wants to re-create [with or without solid gold chopsticks] the splendors of the imperial table can consult pages 155-224, which offer a broad variety of recipes. many of these are surprisingly uncomplicated and highly practicable. some have fanciful names ['the hundred birds return to the nest, pp 194-195']; others will be of current culinary significance [the 'original' gongbao chicken recipe?, along with a classic story of how it came into being, pp 191-192]. a selection of vegetarian recipes is included, reminding us of the 'fervent buddhism' [p. 91] of qianlong, who insisted that vegetarian meals be prepared [by buddhist monks] and served on the first day of the new year and on buddhist holidays.

the recipe for the thé au lait mentioned above can be found on page 156. for those who need to brush up a bit on their french, here is my translation of that recipe:

MILK TEA [naicha]

1/2 litre of water
1/2 litre of milk
50 grams tea leaves
20 grams of salt or 50 grams of sugar [according to preference]
50 grams of butter

boil the water and milk along with the salt [or sugar].
infuse the tea leaves in the hot liquid for 5 minutes.
pour the beverage into a teapot, filtering out the leaves.
add the butter to the liquid in the teapot. serve.

* * *

as i have often remarked, it is a tiresome habit of book reviewers to lie in wait for the unsuspecting author, and then [as it were] pounce when that author does not produce just the book the that reviewer [thinks he] would have written. i feel strongly that a book ought rather to be evaluated on its own terms: that is to say, how successfully does it accomplich what it purports to achieve?

one could easily fault this book for a lack of attention to pre-qing imperial china. but that was not C's brief to begin with; and the scope and nature of this sort of book would hardly allow it. indeed what surprises me most about it, given its limitations as to size and scholarly minutiae, is how much detail C manages to include along the way. there are other books [some of which we may encounter later on CHA DAO] that deal in much more detail with the diachronic spectrum and/or synchronic scope of the food and drink of china. A LA TABLE DE L'EMPEREUR DE CHINE might profitably be read as a sort of appetizer for those main courses.

the text is relatively free of misprints, the principal exception being in the romanization of chinese words. it may be that both the wade-giles and pinyin systems were developed specifically with an eye toward romanizing into english, and that other languages are not always the best fit with either option. but the convention apparently adopted for this book is pinyin, though it is not always deployed successfully.


~ Phyll said...

Knowing that a custom that is practised by the masses is often brought down from the practise of the elite or the governing class, reading your excellent post (yet another) made me wonder how the preferences of the Manchu Empress Cixi never became popular with the lower classes at the time and thereafter (I may be mistaken in this).

Also, it made me wonder how many lactating ladies of the court were at the disposal of the Empress' breakfast routine. Half a liter of human milk is quite a large amount for any one female person to produce in one sitting -- considering there was no refrigeration system and supposing the Empress would only be served with fresh dairy.

Thank you for the review!

corax said...

thanks phyll as always for your kind words and thoughtful comments. you make some very good points here.
[1] by 'never became popular with the lower classes,' do you mean milk tea in general? or human milk in tea? chan's little book does not go into the detail one might like, but i wonder whether the milk-tea vogue was largely [or even entirely] a manchu preference, with han chinese continuing to hold out for teas without milk. in any case, my guess is that more ordinary folk who took milk tea made it with cow's milk.
[2] half a liter is a generous pint, yes -- that is a lot of human milk. two or three lactating women who are nursing vigorously might express this much milk at a sitting. of course nothing was denied the imperial family, no matter how extravagant or exotic, so cixi is completely off-scale. rather like the emperor's fondness for swallows' nests: chan tells us [p 219] that 'these birds build their nests in colonies, at a vertiginous height on the walls of caves that are difficult to reach .... men risked their lives to gather them.' and then, with eloquent simplicity: 'they have no particular taste.' in other words, the eating of swallows' nests was simply a manifestation of imperial power and wealth: food as theater. it may be that the use of human breast milk [rather than cow's] in the empress's tea was something analogous.
[3] why do we not associate milk tea with tea-drinking in china and taiwan today? it may be because they learned that this was something the waiguoren did with their hong cha in the west -- reason enough to eschew the custom -- and of course milk does not lend itself to blending with lu cha. but it might also have to do with the increasing popularity [during the qing particularly] of gongfu brewing for wulong cha -- a style of tea-drinking in which milk [of whatever sort] manifestly has no place.

~ Phyll said...

[1] Sorry for my ambiguity. Yes, I meant milk tea in general, and not human milk tea.

[2] It's true about swallow's nest (saliva). It tastes plain if eaten without sugar or syrup. My visit to a swallow colony cave in China reminded me of how skillful a climber had to be in those days to be able to harvest the nests. Nowadays, it is indeed a status symbol of the person throwing a Chinese banquet if it is served. The same goes for shark's fin...tastes nothing if not for the broth. Funny that shark's meat is not considered a luxury Chinese "delicacy" if its fin is.

[3] Perhaps you are right. Also, perhaps dairy products were a luxury in itself.

Thank you for your insight.

corax said...

note to CHA DAO readers: mr steven owyoung has now contributed a remarkable essay on the qianlong emperor, his predilection for milk tea, and his favorite tea equipage for this beverage. packed with fascinating details and illustrated with four color photos.