Beijing Duck 2008: Culinary Tourism, Cultural Performance, and Heritage Protection
Utah State University
During the 2008 Olympic season, two rival restaurants in Beijing saw an opportunity to proclaim their signature dish of Beijing Roast Duck as authentic cultural heritage. Among the strategies they employed to bolster their claims, both restaurants took advantage of new laws to open museums about their duck. Culinary Tourism as developed by Lucy Long and other folklorists provides a useful framework for analyzing this cultural performance.
Food has a unique function in the tourist economy of experience: it is both the quintessential and quotidian consumer commodity. Quintessential because although it allows for consumption at the visual, tactile, and olfactory levels, it can also be actually consumed – eaten – to be fully experienced. Quotidian because our human position guarantees that we will always be eating in a place, whether or not we have intentionally traveled to that place. Consequently, tourists often consume rather unremarkable meals, even in an exotic environment, unless the culinary experience is somehow marked or set apart as itself exotic and therefore part of the tourist experience.
Michael Owen Jones (2000) asserts that eating is both a physiological and intellectual experience, and so the places we consume as tourists may be physical or imagined. Consider how certain foods have the ability to evoke places – indexically, through the use of indigenous ingredients and localized preparation techniques; or iconically, through its visual presentation. Some regional, ethnic, or national foods depend on a more arbitrary semiotic connection with a place, but they have gathered so much symbolic power behind them over time that their markedness can outweigh other semiotic grounds for their justification as authentic experiences of a place.
Culinary tourism is a concept that captures the meaningful interaction of food and place by describing both the tendency to travel in order to eat authentically and the tendency to eat in order to travel through memory and imagination. Lucy Long’s definition of culinary tourism is “the intentional, exploratory participation in the foodways of an Other” (Long 1998). Working out the intentional exploration of another’s authentic food experience often occurs when foods are re-imagined as cultural performance.
Like other folklore genres, when a food becomes a cultural performance, it becomes responsive and responsible to its audience. And because foods – like songs, dances, and other cultural intangibles – are consumed as they are presented, intertextual gaps between iterations of past performance and future reenactment force any culinary tradition to be constantly reinventing itself. Such reinventions of tradition have the potential of driving away the very clientele they are meant to attract. However, successful manipulation of the performance can mean not only higher economic returns in the physical marketplace, but also socio-political opportunities for recognition and reward.
This paper explores the relationship between a food’s responsibility to its audience and its official recognition as an authentic cultural performance—one that has withstood the test of time unchanged and undiminished despite sociopolitical upheavals. I focus on two restaurant chains in Beijing, China that specialize in Peking Duck (also known as Beijing Roast Duck). Quanjude (全聚德烤鸭店) and Bianyifang (便宜坊烤鸭店) Roast Duck Restaurants are both well-known, “old brand names” (lao zi hao老字号) in Beijing representing two distinct culinary traditions for roasting the city’s signature dish. In 2004 China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced the creation of a National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage that would include, among other things, regional foods and foodways. From that moment, the long-standing rivalry between the two traditions grew into a larger public debate over what counts as authentic and traditional in the performance of Beijing Roast Duck, and what the consequences might be for adhering to or departing from expectations.
I begin my exploration with an outline of the “original score” (Schechner 1981) for this cultural performance, and then move on to analyzing variations in the invention of this tradition. I then turn to theories of culinary tourism, especially those outlined by Lucy Long (1998), and show how they inform the strategies each restaurant adopted to assert its authority over the tradition, adapt to changing circumstances, and minimize the risk of audience disapproval. The restaurants’ rhetorical campaigns for authenticity would ultimately be decided June 14, 2008, when each restaurant would see who was chosen to represent Beijing’s roast duck tradition on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Culinary Cultural Performance
In today’s Beijing, the cultural performance of roast duck adheres to a highly structured script with a definite beginning and end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, and a place and occasion of performance (Singer 1972). Almost any tourist guidebook will tell you that the dish is a tradition dating from Imperial times and is just as essential to a true experience of Beijing as climbing the Great Wall of China.[i]
After this assertion, many guidebooks also include an abbreviated “original score” of this performance to alert the tourist how to appropriately experience the tradition: the freshly roasted duck will be brought to your table whole and carved before your eyes into 120 slices of meat and crispy skin, which are then placed on a duck-themed ceramic tray. A waiter will show you how to pick up the slices of meat with your chopsticks, dip them in a sweet bean sauce, and place them on a small, thin, round wrap. Condiments such as cucumbers and scallions are then added to the meat before the wrap is folded and ready to eat. A typical meal will also include other duck delicacies such as duck feet and a soup made from the carcass of your roasted duck.
From this established performance has grown an idea of Beijing Roast Duck that is so ingrained that it can be referred to and adapted, quoted in whole or in part, in many other contexts. For example, in many restaurants, substitutions of the meal’s essential condiments have been allowed depending on customer tastes – radish, onion, or melon may replace cucumbers and scallions, or the sweet bean sauce may be replaced with a plum sauce, or even a spicy pepper sauce. The wrap and even the very duck itself have been subjected to replacement. In 2003 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in Beijing introduced the “Old Beijing Chicken Wrap,” which included two pieces of the Colonel’s crispy chicken wrapped in a flour tortilla with scallions, cucumber, and bean sauce (China Daily 2003). Such quoting from an “Old Beijing” original underscores the existence of that original and helps perpetuate its authority in a sign system of cultural forms accelerating through time and space because of the ways they “harness different strands of extant inertial culture” (Urban 2001). Referencing even part of the original may be enough for the imagination to fill in the rest of the performance, and depending on the prior knowledge of the audience, that imaginary performance may connect to greater memories. The experience of eating roast duck – or even alluding to the idea of eating roast duck – can become not just an integral part of a larger tourist experience, but a metonym of that experience. All of Beijing reduced to a dish of duck. [ii]
The familiar tourist scene explored by the guidebooks at the restaurant table is actually the finale to a much longer performance. As E.N. Anderson (1988) point out, the tradition of Beijing Duck begins well before the duck arrives at the table:
Peking duck, too, is so dependent for quality on its feeding that the recipe given in one authoritative cookbook in China begins with the duck egg and tells the prospective cook how to incubate, hatch, and raise the bird, so that not one second of its life is left to chance. The duck doesn’t get to the kitchen for several dozen pages. (1988: 180)
Today’s Peking ducks are raised in carefully controlled duck farms on the outskirts of Beijing. After 45 days, the ducks are penned and force-fed for two weeks until they reach the required weight of 5-6 lbs. When they are slaughtered and prepared for roasting, air is pumped under the skin to separate it from the meat beneath, and the skin is coated in a syrup of sugar and sesame oil that turns a shiny red color in the oven. Once they are ready for the oven, the cooking practices of the two leading duck restaurants begin to diverge. At Bianyifang Roast Duck Restaurant, the ducks are placed in a closed oven and roasted for 6 hours using the radial heat generated from a fire fed by sorghum stalks. At Quanjude Restaurant, however, ducks are hung on hooks for 45 minutes over an open flame kindled of date, peach, or pear wood. These may seem like trivial details, but these differences in ovens, oven fires, and roasting times are precisely what bring the question of authenticity for both restaurants to the fore.
Invention of a Culinary Tradition
There is a historic reference to roast duck (shao yazi燒鴨子)in the Complete Recipes for Dishes and Beverages (yin shan zheng yao飲膳正要), written in 1330 by Hu Sihui, an inspector of the imperial kitchen during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). However, records of the actual cooking techniques from this period have not survived. The tradition of roast duck had to be reinvented after the fall of the Yuan. Documenting the process of reinvention – and connecting practices to the Imperial kitchens now long gone – has become the responsibility of any restaurant claiming to be the authentic representative of the tradition. One strategy both Bianyifang and Quanjude adopted to provide evidence of their culinary traditions’ cultural continuity through history was to establish museums at their corporate headquarters. I visited each of these museums in March 2009 to learn how each company tells its own story. The historical outline that follows comes from those visits.
In 1416, a man named Wang came to the capital from Jiangsu or Zhejiang Province in the South of China and set up a restaurant in Mishi Hutong, just outside of the Imperial City near Xuanwumen in downtown Beijing. He adapted his Southern style of preparing oven-roasted ducks to local conditions, creating an entirely new, unique flavor. His business was nicknamed, Pianyi Fang (便宜房), meaning “a place for cheap food,” and it wasn’t until 1552 that a vice-minister of the imperial court officially named the restaurant Bianyifang (便宜坊) “a place for convenient, high-quality food.”
After 300 years, Bianyifang was quite a famous restaurant in Beijing. Domestic and even foreign tourists to the city were mentioning it in writings. In 1855 it opened a satellite restaurant near the front gate of the Imperial City for ease of delivery to people of both high and low status. By the 1920s, there were over 30 restaurants called Bianyifang in the city.
It was precisely at the height of Bianyifang’s popularity that Yang Quanren, a wholesale provider of ducks and poultry, bought a failing restaurant named Dejuquan (德聚全). He reversed the three characters of the restaurant’s name to create Quanjude (全聚德) and began serving roast duck meals. Yang hired a former chef of the Imperial kitchens named Master Sun, and together they developed an open-door oven with hanging hooks for roasting ducks instead of the closed, radial oven used by Bianyifang. The open-door oven was not unique to Quanjude; other restaurants of the time cooked over open flames. But the technique allowed the restaurant to cut production costs and speed up the cooking time to just 45 minutes per duck instead of the 6 hours needed for Bianyifang meals. Quanjude kept its ovens a heavily guarded secret until the 1930s, when a visiting tourist from Germany named Helen Morrison was able to persuade the manager to show them to her. She quickly snapped what has since become an iconic photograph of a cook in a long robe using a long pole to lift a roasting duck out of the oven.
Between 1928 and the time Japan invaded the city in 1937, Bianyifang’s network of restaurants slowly shrank back to just two locations, while Quanjude opened two new satellite stores. The decline of Bianyifang had much to do with the political upheavals of the times and its own high-profile status; indeed, because Bianyifang supplied rations to the Chinese army, the Japanese invaders ordered the restaurant to be entirely shut down in 1937. In the meantime, Quanjude, popular but still small relative to its rival, was able to grow throughout the turmoil. The Quanjude Museum exhibit proudly displays a traditional Chinese bronze cooking vessel containing a tiny flame that represents the undisturbed continuity of restaurant’s century-old cooking fire.
The period of growth for Quanjude and of decline for Bianyifang occurred in Republican Beiping (1911-1949), a city no longer acting as national capital but of intense interest to tourists because of its connection to the Imperial past. Part of Quanjude’s growing appeal in the 1930s – beyond the existential inertia of cultural replication whereby we acquire taste by simply eating what’s there (Urban 2001) – was the recognition spreading among visitors (especially foreigners) that the cooking method was informed by Master Sun, a one-time cook in the Imperial kitchen. In contrast, Bianyifang’s creator was well-known to have had no formal connection to the palace. These facts made Quanjude’s duck not only a contemporary meal, but a trace symbol of an exotic destination from the past. The act of seeking such a novel eating experience adheres to Lucy Long’s definition of culinary tourism as the audience pursues a “food item, cuisine, meal system, or eating style considered as belonging to a culinary system not one’s own” (Long 1998: 181), and in the case of a Chinese Imperial tradition, one already vanishing.
Imagining Quanjude as part of China’s exotic, vanished Imperial past helped establish the restaurant as the tradition bearer through the war years (1937-1949) and into the Communist Era. From there, it continued to gain popularity as Communist and foreign celebrities visited the restaurant and enjoyed the reenactment of an Imperial duck meal. Though the company suffered setbacks during the Cultural Revolution (1964-1978), it was one of the first laozihao “old brands” to reopen in 1979 after its original signboard was found intact in the storehouses of the Forbidden City.[iii] Bianyifang was also able to reopen, thanks to a courageous entrepreneur who memorized the restaurant’s recipes from before the Japanese occupation and rebuilt the old restaurant, but by then Quanjude had a clear head start and never looked back. Like many businesses during China’s 1993 market reforms, Quanjude became a public company, and, under new management, it began to expand its operations. Bianyifang followed suit in 2002. Both companies began planning ways to maintain an image of traditional performance while developing a product for a mass global market. Such a balancing of old and new has required careful planning. In the next section I use Lucy Long’s theoretical framework of culinary tourism to shed light on the strategies they adopted in simultaneously expanding their audience while still vying for the right to represent Beijing Roast Duck on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Culinary Tourism Theoretical Framework
According to Lucy Long (1998), culinary otherness relies on three realms of experience to help the consumer identify how people are using the food to represent the unfamiliar place: the edible, the palatable, and the exotic. Edibility is a cognitive level of experience based on linguistic and cultural standards, while palatability is an aesthetic consideration of taste. Long clarifies that the edible includes “what we can eat” while the palatable describes “what we want to eat” and mentions that though there is an evaluative distinction between the terms, many eaters will collapse the two categories into one (Long 1998: 186).
The term French term exotique was brought into English during the colonial period to refer to plants and animals from distant lands. By 1650, its meaning had broadened to include the lands themselves (Baratay 2002: 29). Although experiencing the exotic can be easily construed as symbolic imperialism, Long refers approvingly to Nelson Graburn, who sees tourism as a way to enhance experience by journeying from the profane to the sacred – implying that the exotic place may reawaken the profound in the tourist’s personal life (Long 181). This is the very experience that Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblet call “the ultimate tourist commodity” (1990: 435).
Both duck restaurants rely heavily on this metaphor of journeying into sacred space by appealing to those who have gone before. Since at least the Nineteenth century, restaurant clientele has included not only residents of Beijing, but foreign and domestic tourists. Over time, these tourists mention the restaurants as part of their exotic experience. The restaurant mentions them too. In the Quanjude museum, for example, I saw on display the tableware used by U.S. Vice President George Bush when he ate there in 1984. Next to this was a picture of Premier Zhou Enlai entertaining Henry Kissinger in 1979, and a letter from Empress Cixi saying that she liked duck with crispy skin best. Also on display in 2009 were pictures of 2008 Olympians who had enjoyed Quanjude in the Olympic Village, where more than 300 duck dinners a day were consumed during the three week event. Going to Quanjude to have roast duck becomes a kind of pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of diplomats, celebrities, and all the rest.
Visualizing the three realms of edible, palatable, and exotic experience as three intersecting axes gives eight possible orientations to food. For example, it is possible to create a meal that seems neither palatable nor even edible, but so exotic that foreigners would try it anyway. Since different groups of culinary tourists are in search of different experiences, foodways producers manipulate the communicative resources at their disposal to broadcast what kinds of experiences are available, and where. Long classifies these resources into five categories: framing devices, labeling, explication, menu selection, and recipe adaptation.
One of the first framing devices that both Quanjude and Bianyifang use in their restaurants to mark an edible, palatable, and yet exotic experience is a display area near the front of the restaurant where visitors can watch their ducks roasting, either in an open- or closed-door oven. Visitors judge for themselves how well the restaurant adheres to its own original score for roasting the duck, but also to standards of cleanliness in meat handling and environmentalism. At Bianyifang, I was told over and over that the closed-door oven was actually more energy efficient and emitted less smoke, thus producing “greener” duck meals. When new regulations on cooking fires were introduced in Beijing prior to the Olympics, Bianyifang responded enthusiastically and announced that they would convert their ovens to natural gas to reduce emissions. At the risk of departing too far from an imagined authenticity, Bianyifang’s gambled that their decision would make their ducks more edible and palatable to an environmentally-conscious foreign clientele attending a “Green Olympics.”
To counter Bianyifang’s move, Quanjude announced on its menus that its method of roasting duck preserved the authentic, sweet flavor that comes from roasting over fruit wood. However, because of the city’s regulations, Quanjude was developing a new sauce that would preserve the flavor after the ovens were converted to gas. The conversion finally took place in 2007, again, just in time for the Olympics.
By 2008 both restaurants had added new choices of ducks on their menus. Some of the new additions no longer contained as much fat as the ducks of the past, thus making them healthier alternatives.[iv] By labeling and advertising duck as a healthy food, the restaurants hoped that it would appear more edible and more palatable in certain circles. Such advertizing gimmicks are common in today’s food marketplace, but relatively novel elements to so strict a cultural performance as Beijing Duck. Bianyifang took the logic of this strategy one step further when they introduced the “Olympic Duck” early in 2008. I was told this duck meal was made from a very high quality breed of duck developed in Great Britain and prepared with a special, secret sauce. But here the power of performance may outweigh the need to attract new audiences. If the duck is from Britain, the cooking method uses modern, environmentally-friendly ovens, and the sauce is specially created for the Olympics, is this meal still an authentic Beijing Roast Duck?
With culinary tourism, experiencing the Other through its authentic food may be only secondary to experiencing a palatable dish. In other words, some experiences are so authentic as to be unappetizing, or even inedible, resulting in a loss for the company. While some in the audience may approach a meal with the view of “getting the full effect” regardless of how it tastes, others are happy with a sample that tastes good or appeals to their sensibilities for proper hygiene and health requirements, regardless of its authenticity. Both are examples of the same exploratory enterprise, but to different degrees. A cultural tradition like Beijing Duck works to please both segments of this market, both exotic adventurers and their creature-comfort-seeking counterparts.
As the restaurant owners mobilized the resources of the exotic place itself and manipulated dimensions of edibility and palatability in their menus to appeal to a variety of tastes, they still could not stray too far from the original score of the cultural performance; otherwise, the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage would fail to recognize their reflexive declarations of themselves as part of the authentic tourist experience. In other words, the restaurants could lose their privileged position in symbolic space and become just like any other roast duck restaurant in the city.
On June 14, 2008, during China’s Third Annual National Cultural Heritage Day, the Ministry of Culture revealed its list of 510 items to be protected as examples of national intangible cultural heritage. Among the many genres of verbal art, handicrafts, games, music, and dance were a variety of food-related traditions, including Beijing Roast Duck. Bianyifang and Quanjude were both listed, and so the rivalry continues.
The dynamic tension expressed in the struggle of these restaurants over both market share and traditional authority reflects the broader redefinition of Twenty-first Century Beijing itself—a modern progressive capital city just like any other; and a unique exotic adventure like nowhere else on Earth. The city has a variety of cultural forms that might express this dual image, but once again, through the magic of metonymic imagination, the whole city might be reduced to a dish of duck. Such an arrangement is both symbolically powerful and economically profitable. And depending on your own palate, it may even taste good.
[i] I have not done a systematic survey of tourist guidebooks to verify this information; my impressions are based on my casual encounters with popular backpackers guides and online tourist itineraries over the past seven years. I will say that in Beijing there is even a popular saying emphasizing the juxtaposition in importance of The Great Wall and Roast Duck, “You are not a true Chinese until you have climbed the Great Wall; if you miss Peking Duck, you will regret it!” (bu dao chang cheng fei hao han, bu chi kao ya zhen yihan不到长城非好汉，不吃烤鸭真遗憾)
[ii] For just one of many examples of the symbolic power of Beijing Duck to stand for all things Chinese, see a review on Epinions.com of the Maple Garden Beijing Duck House in New York, in which the author rates the “excellent, authentic Beijing Duck” he enjoyed there while celebrating Chinese New Year (Epicure 2001).
[iii] The Quanjude Museum also points out that the cooking fire did not actually go out during the Cultural Revolution. All of the satellite restaurants were closed, but thanks to Premier Zhou Enlai, the restaurant’s headquarters near Hepingmen were allowed to remain open, though without any signboard advertizing their presence.
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Singer, Milton. 1972. When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Indian Civilization. New York: Praeger.
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Curtis Ashton is an English teacher, archivist and folklorist whose dissertation research took him to Beijing China from 2007-2009. Between teaching and lecturing responsibilities, he volunteered at museums throughout the capital city. After completing his fieldwork in Beijing, Curtis returned to his home state of Utah, where he now teaches Museum Studies courses for Utah State University.