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China’s true soft power

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

The US is open about most of its diplomatic state secrets. After 25 years, they are declassified and disclosed. That includes the historic 1972 visit to China by US President Richard Nixon to pay his respects to China’s Mao.  

Recently, while doing some online research, I came across a memorandum stamped “Top Secret / Sensitive.” It shows how it all began. The author of the 27-page document was Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. On July 14, 1971, immediately after returning from China, he wrote to his president. Unbeknownst to him, he set up Nixon’s planned trip to China to meet with Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing from July 9 to 11.

The background to this is known today, but what is less known, is how Kissinger managed to make the visit palatable to his president in advance: Kissinger praised China’s cuisine. His report reads as if he had also been on the road as a taster.

The document is probably the only secret dossier in the world in which food is mentioned throughout. On the day of arrival, he notes: “Dinner with 15 or so dishes.” The next day, he has Peking duck for lunch. “The four and a half hours of talks with Zhou Enlai,” Kissinger writes, and then reaches for the appropriate English expression, were “sandwiched around a one and a half hour roast duck lunch.” The duck eased tensions. Earlier, his consultations with the Prime Minister had become bogged down because the latter refused to stop slandering US foreign policy. Kissinger wanted to counter “brusque” and began rebutting China’s tirades point by point, “when Zhou stopped me after the first point, saying the duck would get cold. At lunch, the mood changed for the better.” And after yet another lunch, Kissinger notes after 48 hours, “All tension was gone.” 

Zhou Enlai personally wrapped the Peking duck for Nixon. The scene went down in Chinese vernacular as “Peking duck diplomacy.”

China’s Premier left nothing to chance in Beijing, which was still amidst its devastating Cultural Revolution in 1971. He single-handedly placed the crispy skin of the wood-roasted Peking duck, rolled into thin dough patties, with the aromatic sauce, cucumber, and spring onions, on Kissinger’s plate, ready to eat. And so, Zhou’s “Peking duck diplomacy” (烤鸭外交) was born.

The wording of his conclusion in the secret dossier reveals just how impressionable the US emissary was. It reads as if a restaurant critic had taken over: “These 48 hours in China, and my extensive discussions with Zhou, in particular, had all the flavor, texture, variety, and delicacy of a Chinese banquet.” He compares his political discussions to a feast: “Our ‘feast’ consisted of many courses, some sweet and some sour…It was a total experience…as after all good Chinese meals leave you very satisfied but not at all stuffed.” 

When President Nixon finally arrived, Beijing pulled out all the culinary stops, a 2019 report on the Communist People’s Daily’s online site first revealed. Zhou also rolled the Peking duck for Nixon, topping off a 22-course banquet (ten more than Kissinger’s). Among them were “nine appetizers, six dishes, and seven desserts.” Ingredients were flown in from all parts of China. Even Mao Zedong supported the frenzy of indulgence. During their visit, he sent one of his best chefs to serve three particularly exquisite dishes to the Nixon couple. 

Mao had already tested this strategy with Kissinger when he visited Beijing twice in advance in 1971 to prepare for the Nixon trip. Mao hired his personal chef Yu Cun (于存). I interviewed the chef in 1986, back then as a correspondent for the German newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau. He proudly reported how he prepared Mao’s favorite dishes for Kissinger, including a dish called “double-roasted spicy pork belly.” (回锅肉). Kissinger must have found its taste so irresistibly that, to Yu’s delight (and to the dismay of protocol), he immediately asked for seconds at lunch. Yu also cooked for other illustrious state guests on Mao’s behalf, including Japan’s Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who sealed diplomatic relations in 1972. Yu’s cooking was a success, “They all ate too much.”

“China’s food culture is our real soft power,” Master Chef Liu Guangwei (刘广伟) told me in Beijing. “If the stomach of the foreign guest is satisfied, it is good for Beijing’s image. That, in turn, also helps international relations.” 

I met the now 65-year-old in late 2018 at his “Research Institute of Far Eastern Culinary Specialties,” where he is searching for answers to the question he once asked his mother when he was a child. “How many cuisines are there in China? How many dishes?” Liu, who learned his craft in a provincial kitchen and later founded a cooking school and his institute, contradicts the traditional theory about eight major cooking schools (八大菜系). After 40 years of research in all parts of China, he published his discovery in 2018, which he calls “The 34-4 System of Chinese Dishes.” He counts 34 cooking schools in Greater China, which he classifies fourfold according to origin and distribution, preparation, ingredients, and cooking schools. China’s cuisine is “more diverse than any of us knew.”

Super-chef Liu Guangwei in his Beijing research institute for Chinese Food. He develops his 19-digit formulas on glass panels to tell apart the 30,000 dishes of Chinese cuisine he has registered so far. Liu has rewritten the history of Chinese cuisine.

Liu identified 30,000 dishes and recorded all their specific characteristics in a 19-digit formula, including, for example, whether the dishes belonged to the imperial, temple, or folk cuisine. “I gave each dish its digital ID,” he said. Liu also tracked down some 10,000 ingredients, 100 spices, 200 flavors, and 40 different ways to prepare them. His findings on China’s cuisine, which he calls shixue (食学), the doctrine of food, were also published in Taiwan, just in an expanded new edition.

It is high time, to make the promotion of Chinese cuisine a “national strategy” abroad as well with government support, the chef urges. Although he estimates that there are 300,000 Chinese restaurants around the world, they are in crisis (as is often the case with domestic cuisine). They are “fragmented, small, and weak.”

Even China’s republic founder, Sun Yat-sen, called China’s food “our real calling card” back in 1911. In his “Strategies for Nation Building” (建国方略) in 1918, he wrote: “In the evolution of modern civilization, China, which is otherwise backward and imperfect in everything, has yet not been surpassed by any nation in the production of a wide variety of dishes. In terms of their preparation, these surpass the dishes of European countries.”

The world-famous Beijing duck restaurant Quanjude has published a four-volume Chinese-bound comic book about its history since its founding in 1864, including a retelling and illustration of Henry Kissinger’s hosting of hand-rolled Peking duck by Zhou Enlai on July 10, 1971. That was the beginning of the Peking Duck diplomacy for which Zhou Enlai was celebrated.

Even Mao Zedong once agreed: “China’s two great contributions to the world are China’s medicine and China’s food.” (中国对世界的两大贡献,一个是中药,一个就是中国菜.)

His successors today seem reluctant to recognize the value of Chinese food as soft power in the service of the country. However, even Party newspapers now write, “In the new era, we must take China’s cuisine as a mediating medium (以食为媒) to enhance China’s cultural soft power and global influence.”

But in an 18-point offensive adopted in early 2017 by the two offices of the Central Committee and State Council to promote traditional culture globally, China’s cuisine appears only in item 14, and is part of a bulleted list: “We support the intention to go external with China’s medicine, cuisine, martial arts, classics, cultural relics, garden art, and traditional festivals.”  “支持中华医药、中华烹饪、中华武术、中华典籍、中国文物、中国园林、中国节日等中华传统文化代表性项目走出去”.

Beijing prefers to use the merits of its food culture to polemicize to the outside world. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted in August during the furor over US Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, “Baidu Maps show that there are 38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei. Palates don’t cheat. Taiwan has always been a part of China. The long-lost child will eventually return home.”

Her shot backfired. Beijing’s wolf warriors earned a ton of mockery and ridicule. One tweet wrote, “There are over 8,500 KFC restaurants in China. Palates don’t cheat. China has always been a part of Kentucky. The long-lost child will eventually return home.”

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