Dumpling Diplomacy: The U.S. Treasury Secretary’s Beijing Lunch Enchants China

Jacob Lew's humble lunch has become an Internet sensation in China, where ordinary people are growing disgusted by the ostentatious ways of Communist Party officials.

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Andy Wong / AP

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, center, watches as embassy staff members order the foods during their lunch at a Chinese dumpling restaurant in Beijing, March 19, 2013.

My older son adores the pea-shoot-and-mountain-yam dumplings. His little brother prefers the jiaozi stuffed with minced pork and fennel fronds. My husband cannot resist the bacon-and-spicy-pickled-radish variety. Bao Yuan Dumpling House, a modest eatery near the U.S. embassy in Beijing, has long been a favorite among foodie expats for its mind-boggling variety of dumplings available at very affordable prices.

On March 19, humble Bao Yuan — with its dusty red lanterns, cracked linoleum and heaping bowls of raw garlic cloves should you wish to spice up the meal — played host to a rather august personage: U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who was in town for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that ranged from China’s trade surplus to cybersecurity concerns. The bill for the table of three — which feasted on a tofu salad and my older son’s favorite pea-shoot-and-mountain-yam dumplings, washed down with jasmine tea — amounted to just $17. I’d wager the new Treasury Secretary was pleased by both the quality of the jiaozi and the price tag — although next time I’d urge him to try the mushroom-medley dumplings too.

(MORE: China’s New President Xi Jinping Met With Mysterious Lone Vote of Dissent)

Lew’s lunch soon became an Internet sensation in China, where Weibo, a domestic Twitter-like service, has turned into a clearinghouse for disgust at the ostentatious ways of Communist Party officials. Lavish banquets, showy cars and luxury watches complete the stereotype of the life of a modern-day Chinese cadre, and a procession of Weibo exposés has downed some of the more corrupt (or careless) officials. By contrast, there was the Treasury Secretary of the world’s richest country digging into food more fit for a peasant — albeit a peasant with a discerning taste in dumplings. “Such frugality, no special procurements, no Maotai,” wrote one Weibo commenter, referring to the famously pricey Chinese alcohol. “Our civil servants could never endure this.”

Xi, who earlier this month inherited the country’s presidency at the annual National People’s Congress (NPC), has made combating corruption and official abuse of power one of his early campaigns. In a country where income inequality is widening and anger at the extravagant ways of officialdom is bubbling over, Xi’s public stand makes sound political sense. Late last year, when Xi toured southern China on his first trip as the new Communist Party chief, the state media took pains to show him lugging his own plate at a company cafeteria. Soon, the state propaganda effort advised that Chinese officials eschew expensive delicacies like shark’s fin, abalone and Maotai for a simpler “four dishes and one soup, with no alcohol.” Be still the grumbling stomach.

On Sunday, newly sworn-in Premier Li Keqiang continued the theme, pronouncing that the “government should be the guardian of fairness” and promising that in the near future government coffers would not be used to build new halls or guesthouses; the number of people on the government’s payroll will decrease; and the number of overseas trips taken by government cadres and the purchase of official vehicles will also diminish.

(MORE: China’s Own Leadership Conclave: Time to Raise the Rubber Stamps)

The austerity talk notwithstanding, it’s worth noting that while the 12-day NPC was under way in Beijing this month, flooding the capital with hundreds of rubber-stamp legislators and Communist Party advisers, the number of online campaigns against official excess dropped dramatically. The decline was presumably a function of industrious censors, who preferred not to have such topics go viral at such a sensitive time.

The unassuming habits of American officials have enchanted the online Chinese community before. When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Beijing in 2011, he was taken for lunch to a local haunt famous for its pork liver and intestine soup. (He chose a bowl of noodles, among other treats, instead of the restaurant’s trademark offal soup.) The same year, when U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke was at the Seattle airport on his way to his Beijing posting, he stopped at a Starbucks. A photo of Locke, with a backpack slung over his shoulders and ordering his own coffee, quickly circulated online. In China, top officials would rarely choose a self-serve option; many are shadowed by personal assistants who are dubbed “bag carriers.” Locke was held up on Weibo as a model civil servant.

Back at Bao Yuan Dumpling House, the staff was still amazed by Lew’s patronage. Given its proximity to several embassies, Bao Yuan gets a fair number of diplomats, says staff member Zhong Guanglong, who noted that Lew arrived at precisely 12:16 p.m. “We have many foreign customers, including the American ambassador,” he recalled, “but I have never seen a minister come here, so I was really surprised.” And do Chinese cadres ever frequent Bao Yuan? “As far as I remember, I have not seen any Chinese officials ever come here,” says Zhong. Too bad. They’re missing out on some fine dumplings.

— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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11 comments
FredJansohn
FredJansohn

If you want to eat somewhere really different during your stay in Beijing I would suggest you check out an eatery called Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant. Tucked away in one of Beijing's famed hutongs in the Qianmen area, it serves up not only a classic Peking Duck, but follows that with a second course. This consists in the chef deep frying every left over bone and piece of meat to an absolute crisp, seasoning this repast with herbs and spices and delivering the yummy lot to your table. Now I love Peking Duck. But this was something altogether unique. It’s a very quirky restaurant, with neon lighting in the shape of arrows the along the length of the hutong guiding you there, and images of ducks drawn in crayon on the hutong walls pointing the way. You only get a real sense of how small this place when you enter and you see a rough-and-ready interior one end of which is lined with hanging ducks ready to be cooked! The Li Qun is the real deal, but it’s slowly developing a following, so be quick before it goes commercial and jacks up its prices!

gysgt213
gysgt213

If you are lucky enough to travel one of the best things you can to is make friends with a local and have them take you to the places they enjoy.   It will take some bravery on your part and of course you have to be careful like any where else.  But if you want to taste the flavor of a country, locale or region you won't find it in the tourist spots.

my-new-life-in-asia
my-new-life-in-asia

I do not believe that the "humble" demeanour of certain Western politicians really impresses the majority of the Chinese. In fact, in Chinese culture money and social status matter perhaps more than it is the case in the West, at least on average.

Money gives you power and face, and showing off your wealth is a normal attitude in China. For instance, it is perfectly normal for parents to push their daughters to marry a man who owns a car and a flat, without considering love as an important prerequisite for marriage. In Chinese culture, status, stability, "filial piety" and economic success are widely seen as the main criteria to judge a person. 

That doesn't mean that frugality is not to be found in Chinese culture. Chiang Kai-shek, for instance, had a relatively frugal lifestyle for such a powerful head of state, though he tolerated corruption in his own cadres. Recently, Republic of China President's daughter Lesley Ma has been praised for her modest lifestyle.

However, as far as I could observe, even in Taiwan, which has a relative income equality compared to mainland China and Hong Kong, money and status are extremely important. It is true that Taiwanese politicians are definitely more frugal than their mainland counterparts, but that might also be a consequence of the fact that Taiwanese politicians have much less power and wealth than those on a one-party-state. 

Behaving according to one's own power and wealth is a quite normal attitude among a majority of the Chinese.  

leo prades @my-new-life-in-asia.blogspot

notsacredh
notsacredh

Rule of thumb for getting good food, eat where the locals eat.

nofaith
nofaith

@my-new-life-in-asiawhat you are talking about is a fact existing in current China, but that's not at all a Chinese "culture". In Chinese culture of the past serval thousand years, status, stability, filial piety are key components of how we judge a person, but economic success WAS not. In feudal China, a merchant who have a great amount of money did not mean he has a higher social status. 

Now economic success is. Being rich simply means a person can use the money to buy the way  into a higher social status. - This is more a neccessity for survival than a "culture".

nofaith
nofaith

@sacredh No, you missed a word. The rule is: eat where the local cadres eat.

my-new-life-in-asia
my-new-life-in-asia

@nofaith @my-new-life-in-asia I think that in the past, too, wealth was extremely important in China. Although it is true that, since there was no modern industrial production, the way of becoming rich was different from today, money has always been crucial in Chinese society. Just to name a few examples 1) burning paper money is an ancient religious practice (ever since the 9th century part of the official imperial sacrifice practices); 2) the practice of "buying and selling" wives; 3) we usually call old China "feudal", but in reality, old China wasn't feudal in the European sense; in fact, many families in China owned their own land, and it was also possible for families to acquire more land and become wealthier; apart from that, given the imperial examination system, men could improve their status by becoming "civil servants", which meant power and wealth. 

To show my point I'll give you three examples, two from ancient Chinese literature and one from Jung Chang's novel "Wild Swans".  

1) The novel from the Ming dynasty "The Golden Lotus" (金瓶梅; pinyin: Jīn Píng Méi) tells the story of the rich merchant Ximen who owns an apothecary; his wealth allows him to provide for his six wives (one of whom is "Golden Lotus"), and also to bribe several officials, for example after he has killed Golden Lotus' first husband in order to marry her.

2) In the novel by Feng Menglong (1574-1645) "The Oil Peddler and the Queen of Flowers", the Queen of flowers, after getting lost in a crowd, is found by an old man and sold as a prostitute to a brothel. At first she refuses to become a prostitutes, but then a friend of her procuress tells her how much money she could earn thanks to her beauty, and that she would only sleep with noble and rich people, and she accepts. I recommend you to read that novel, because money and gold are everywhere.

3) Jung Chang tells in her novel how her grandmother was sold as a concubine by her father to the famous general Xue Zhi-heng; of course, the motive behind this was the financial return of such a transaction.


leo prades @my-new-life-in-asia.blogspot


my-new-life-in-asia
my-new-life-in-asia

@nofaith @my-new-life-in-asia

Hi, thanks for your very detailed reply. Of course, I do not want to convince you, I am just expressing my own impression about the connection between the old Chinese society and the present. 

I lived in Taiwan for more than a year. Taiwan industrialized earlier than the Mainland and has already reached a high per capita income. Nevertheless, I found that money and social status are extremely important in Taiwanese society, too. Actually, people are obsessed with it, much more than I ever experienced in Europe. So, I personally don't think that the importance of money today is only a consequence of the Mainland's peculiar pattern of economic development.

What you say about Chinese culture is perfectly right. However, I think that a culture has a lot of different aspects, and in my opinion, it is possible to see in pre-1949 Chinese culture some aspects that explain at least partially why in China (meaning Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) money today is so important. 

I would argue that money and status are, of course, important everywhere. For example, although the West was for centuries dominated by the Christian religion, which stresses poverty and afterlife, you cannot say that every single Western individual was faithful to those principles; on the contrary, you see a wide range of different behaviours, and there were and are plenty of people who want money. Some people believed in Christian values, others said they believed in them but behaved differently, others again refused them.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that when one compares Western and Chinese cultures, in Chinese culture hierarchy, stability and material welfare were and are considered in general more important than in the West. For instance, the story of the oil peddler is not, as you suggest, a proof that the Queen of Flowers chooses a poor man; in fact, in the story the oil peddler first becomes relatively rich by taking over his adoptive father's oil business, and only afterwards can he marry his beloved one. Besides, you see in that story as well as in the "Golden Lotus" a depiction of the reality, which the authors perhaps criticized, but which in all their details show the importance of money as a means to reach stability and status.

Since the traditional Chinese family is based on stability, and not on love or romance, money is very important. This is not a recent development, but it's based on very old traditions.

For example, in old Chinese culture, children were considered as a sort of old-age insurance. Or when parents arranged marriages for their children, they often took into consideration social and economic prerequisites, not what their children wanted.

Nowadays, parents in mainland and Taiwan often tell their children that love is not important for marriage; mothers tell their daughters to think about their future husband's prerequisites (good job, car and flat) and not to think about love, which is viewed as a fairy tale. You can often hear mothers tell their daughters things like: "愛情不需要" or " 愛情重要還是麵包重要?"

In traditional Chinese society, love was and still is not the main reason why people get married. In my opinion, and as far as I could observe, today's worship of money is a consequence of this old tradition of stressing family as an economic unit in which love is far less important than stability, social status and hierarchy.

Anyway, I am not trying to convince you. I am just telling you my impression. To be honest, I came to these conclusions after living in Asia for some time. I observed the environment around me and I also read a few books about society and family in Chinese culture that, to my surprise, seem to confirm my impressions. Before I came to Asia I had a totally different understanding of the relation between Chinese culture and material well-being.

leo prades @my-new-life-in-asia.blogspot

nofaith
nofaith

@my-new-life-in-asia @nofaith Your wide knowledge of China is impressive, and those examples are presented informatively. But I think you misinterpreted the true meaning hidden behind them.

I did not say money is unimportant even in ancient China, but in which country money or wealth is not crucial to survival or to a better life?

My point is being wealthy isn’t one of the criteria to evaluate a person’s achievements or status in Chinese culture. In Chinese traditional value system, you cannot use your wealth to acquire a true social status and be respected by ordinary people. A wealthy person with a higher social status is regarded as a nobleman, but a person who is merely wealthy is just wealthy and have no special social status at all (you would feel shocked).

There are a special term Shi() in old China, this is a class who follows some standards of true Chinese culture. Those people were either quite rich or extremely poor, but they all were envied by ordinary people. You will never squeeze into the Shi group, no matter how rich you are and how much money you are willing to spend for that purpose, if you do not meet the standards. And then how to be a Shi and have a true approved and respected social status and admired by all? Try to fulfill yourself with these key elements in the true Chinese culture:

Loyalty: to the country, the emperor, the leader etc

Filial piety: to your parents, your grandparents, patriarch, and your ancestor. A gratitude to them.

Humanity: benevolence, kindness, sympathy to other people, especially those in need or weaker

Yi ():  I can’t think of a word to translate this, but one example is to stand up to injustice, or have a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people

Faithfulness: to friend, keep your promise if it is not illegal

Forgiveness: a person is not born with sins.

There are still more to be listed, these are just what I can think about at once. As one of the most famous Chinese saying goes: every profession is inferior to an intellectual. In old China, those inferiors included the richest people no matter how they accumulated their wealth – a poorest intellectual would have a higher social status than a truly rich businessman. But once a hawker did a considerable good deed which met one of the above listed standards, and known by other people, he was no longer a hawker, he probably became a Shi. You can also check the story of Fan Li in Wikipedia, he is considered the first billionaire in China, but what made him famous is his resourcefulness in helping his state to defeat another state.

In traditional teachings of Confucius, one should be content with poverty and care only about one's principles or the Way. Confucius is regarded a saint, and his student Yan Hui, who was extremely poor yet led a virtuous life, is regarded nearly a saint.

Everything was different even three decades ago. Which country can escape changes? What is happening here about the food safety had happened in America, and well described by the novel The Jungle.

Well, come back to your examples.

1) we not just burning paper money, but also many other things to our ancestors, in the hope that they can live a comfortable life in the other world. This is about highly veneration, not about money. – Filial piety and believing in samara lead to one of the still on-going activities of venerating ancestors: tomb sweeping. Your grandparents raised your parents, you pay high respect to them; your parents raised you, you pay high respect to them and in return need to take good care of them when they become older and less capable.

2) buying or selling wives: woman were considered merely a property to a man in many countries in those days. The Chinese riches would never sell their wives, but they did sometimes sell their concubines to get rid of them, or gave them to someone free of charge to bribe. Also, the rich did not buy wives, they bought concubines. The poor, who had no concubines to sell, they most probably sold wives either for survival, or for filial piety when wives or parents did not get along.

3) struggling to pass the imperial examination is to help the emperor to administrate the country, and that’s why it is important to be an intellectual. - Loyality. But again our culture did not judge their future establishments by how much wealth they got after becoming an official.

4) “The Golden Lotus”: your quotation is an exact example showing that we don’t judge a person by his wealth. Now in China, if you want to seriously offend a person, you call a man “Ximen Qin” or call a woman “Pan Jinlian” (the name of the golden lotus). By the way the translation “the Golden Lotus” is not good at all, Jīn Píng Méi 金瓶梅 in Chinese are for three women, the Golden Lotus is only for “Jīn”.

5) “the Oil Peddler and the Queen of Flowers”. Thanks for your recommendation, my first time of reading it is at least two decades ago, when I was in my mid teens – in Chinese, of course. Again, the translated title is misleading. The true meaning of the original title is interpreted as “unthinkably, finally the poor low-down oil peddler got the most beautiful prostitute”. He married the belle who should never belong to him, and this most beautiful woman brought him a great fortune she accumulated by selling her body. Why she became a prostitute? She was forced to. Why she only slept with the rich and those who have power? Because that implied she did not have to sleep with too many men.  Now came the gist of the novel, not the rich, not the officials, but the poor oil peddler who in the end married her. That’s because the oil peddler has a quality of faithfulness, kindness, Yi, and respected a prostitute woman. That’s not about money, that’s about traditional culture.

Another story by the same author tells another beautiful prostitute who threw all her belongings into the river and drowned herself because her man betrayed her.

6) no idea what the novel Wild Swan is about. So no comments. Some say the novel is cliché and for those who want to know China get further away from China after reading it.