The BBC documentary ‘The Story of China’ got me thinking of the origins of the round table, or yuán zhuō (圆桌), which along with the lazy susan we nowadays associate with Chinese dining culture. From what I remember of my travels in China, the banqueting tables I saw in palaces and mansions were mainly rectangular or square, and the circular ones were in less grandiose settings, in teahouses and outdoor pavilions.
The round table puts everyone on an equal level, something we associate with the Chinese civil administration rather than imperial court. Since trends tend to stem from court fashion, I can’t imagine large round tables to have been in vogue in China’s imperial past. But it would make sense for it to have gained popularity in the Communist era, when the egalitarian spirit was forced into the Chinese, who had previously respected and fostered domestic and professional hierarchies.
My theory is that the round table is a western import (think King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table), that gradually became common among the governing class of China, from the last years of the Qing dynasty and gaining momentum after the abolishment of imperial rule. Now they feature in the most elegant and pricey restaurants, and are the must-have furniture for banquets.