Now, being the person I am, with the agenda I have, I must point out to my readers the obvious theatricality of his gesture. Despite the fact that he has generally focused only on the fighting aspects of martial arts, he has obviously acquired some theatrical skill. But why a banquet?
The answer has to do with the importance banquets have in Chinese culture in creating, establishing, transforming, and re-making, patronage networks and alliances.
Many years ago, I showed up a little late to a modest banquet George Xu was putting on for a visiting martial arts master at a local restaurant. The visiting master, about 10 of George's students, a translator and an official from the Chinese consulate, were all already seated when I arrived. As I walked up to the table I made some unconscious sound, I don't know what it was. But suddenly people at the table in front of me split apart and someone gave up a seat for me. The seat they gave me was right next to the translator who was a woman probably in her 40's. As I sat down, introductions were made, everyone took a second to acknowledge me and then the woman translator leaned over and whispered something in Shanghai dialect in my ear. I whispered back an apology in English saying that I really didn't understand any Chinese. The conversation at the table was mostly focused on asking the visiting Master questions. We were taking turns posing questions to be translated. When it was my turn, I asked about the master's early training, how old he was when he started training and what style he studied first. Before the question was translated George looked at me and said, "That is a stupid question, who cares? you waste time." As we ran out of good questions to ask, conversations broke out around the table. The translator and I started talking about this and that, and then she said, "You have a really good Chinese accent. Excellent." Again I told her that my Chinese was quite limited. She ignored this and complemented me again. It was so weird. I asked her, and other Chinese speakers at the table what was going on. Why didn't she believe me? It turned out that whatever that sound was that I made as I walked up to the table was heard as some kind of entirely appropriate status commanding greeting. No one seemed willing to believe that I could make such a sound by accident.
Here is a description of the basic ranking at a banquet.
George Xu told me recently that in China when people throw banquets for him, since he doesn't smoke, no one at the table smokes. This is often appreciated by the guests because it means they get to save money on cigarettes. Normally, if there is a higher status master at the banquet, George will sit next to the right of the other master and be forced to inhale all the second hand smoke. The way it works is that there is a pecking order in which people are allowed to offer the master cigarettes. As soon as he finishes one, the next person in the chain will offer, and so on. I imagine that it would be a big deal, though invisible to an outsider, if the master accepted a cigarette out of order.
Banquets are places where people are often asked to tell stories, to play music, to sing songs, or to perform feats of martial prowess like forms, breaking bricks, sticking bowls to their abdomin that can not be pulled off, breaking chopsticks on their throat, circus stuff, or even accepting friendly challenge matches. Lots of drinking happens too.
George tells me that in his travels around China he will often take martial arts masters out for lunch or dinner (a mini-preliminary-banquet). The irrepressible George Xu will often explain to a given master what he thinks the masters problems are, what mistakes the master is making in his martial training or practice. Most masters immediately try to push the table out of the way so they can test his theory with a full power fight. It is rare that they actually want to entertain the question of their own failures, or regard his challenge as an opportunity to learn. Most of the time he manages to calm them down, saying that fighting would be a waste. After all, he would be forced to fight like a wild animal and there would be no art in it. Kind of reminds me of the famous dueling scene from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai: "Ah, a tie." "No, I won!" ....
Reading Chinese history, or any history for that matter, it becomes apparent that industrial commerce has created a world of food abundance which was unknown 160 years ago. Hunger was common and most people lived with food "insecurity" on a daily basis. Banquets were probably an important way of establishing confidence in the social networks which would provide food to everyone at the banquet. Each person attending a banquet represented not only themselves but lineages, ancestors, big families and many other types of social networks. These networks necessarily involved men of marital prowess who fought both to gain food resources (like land, water, livestock, money, equipment, and safe roads) and to protect the network from bandits, rebels or other types of raiders. The volatility of food resources was in constant play with wide spread violence and ever changing power dynamics. Banquets were a way of establishing patronage alliances, or mending them when they went sour.
The large size of the Chinese empire, its cities, and its wealth, required the constant mobility of men at arms. The diversity of mutually incomprehensible languages in China meant that communication was often a problem. The banquet ritual was probably a way to make sure, as we like to say, everyone was on the same page.
So, my current theory is that martial arts were an extremely important part of the banquet ritual, and the banquet ritual was widespread even among the many non-Han Chinese ethnic groups. The basic ritual involves two tables; a small one against the north wall with offerings for the ancestors, and a large table with offerings for the living. We could venture now into the realm of rituals, food offerings to the gods and to ancestors, but the subject is to big and unwieldy. Banquets are important rituals in Europe too. It's possible to over play the importance of banquets in Chinese culture and it's possible to under play them. It's also such a big subject I want to avoid saying something definitive. Most likely there is a lot of variation in practice.
So rather than stick my foot in my mouth, here is a post I wrote for Rum Soaked Fist forum about the purpose of martial arts forms:
Yes, forms can be used to train meditation, spacial awareness, integration, or to remember enormous amounts of kinesthetic information and...yes, a hundred other things, but it is a mistake to think those can't be trained some other way. Forms are just one way, not the only way.
The problem here is that we should be asking "How" and "When" questions more than "What" and "Why questions. The history of these arts has been intentionally corrupted and distorted. If we assume we already know "How" forms were used, then we prejudice the answers to "What" questions.
How were forms used historically? When were they performed? Given the traditional contexts in which they were used, how well did they function?
Here are some theories (yes, it's all conjecture...reality based conjecture):
1. Banquets and feasts are key Chinese religious and social institutions which were essential to creating alliances between powerful martial leaders, local officials, rebels, bandits, and other stake holders--especially in times of food insecurity. Because it was very often necessary to make alliances with people from different regions, language groups, or ethnic origins, martial arts forms (along with other demonstrations of martial prowess, singing, music, etc...) played a key roll in sealing agreements. A public exchange of forms showed a willingness to put-out and forms were thought to display "zheng," a righteous upright nature. (Calligraphy was also thought to display "zheng.")
2. Troops were often stationed at one location for a few years, and then rotated out, back to their homes--but they were still, in a sense, "on-call." They would also gather periodically for training. It might be that having a form that you practiced with fellow troops when you were together, and then on your own, when you were at home, gave a strong sense of continuity and shared fate--essential elements of a "call-up" army. It was common for troops to be brought from disparate parts of the country where different languages were spoken--they couldn't converse as a way of bonding, so they did forms.
3. In the past, theater and exorcism were one subject. Da (hitting/fighting) is one of the five key components of theatrical training (the other four are singing, reciting history, acting, and dance). Jinghu, Chinese opera, like most if not all Chinese theater styles or jia (literally families), begins with stances (often held for an hour at a time, sometimes measured by an incense stick in the hand), the stances are then connected by transitional movements. The performer is also the conductor, unlike most western traditions, the music follows the movements (they did not need music to practice the forms). The individual aspects of the stances and movement are all taught in great detail, but every movement must be perfectly integrated into a single whole body movement with a seamless flow of qi. A theater performance is a form--identical in nearly every way to a martial arts form.
Forms are just a component of a type of theater which did not always need to be entertaining in the western sense of the word, often it was for the gods--or some other not-so-obvious purpose.
4. Whenever I go into a park early in the morning in a Chinese city, I find a spot and do my forms. If I see some people doing forms which are similar to forms I know, I do those first. If not I just keep going through my forms. Inevitably someone comes up to me and tries to figure out how I'm related to them through lineage, or if not them, someone else in the park. It's a ritual. Forms are like ID cards in China, they say...this guy is a human. It's deep stuff.
5. Forms are a good way of measuring time, before clocks they insured you were practicing a minimum amount of time.