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Li Jinyuan

Chairman of Tiens Group who recently paid for 3,000 employees to holiday in Spain and will be paying 10,000 to go to Bali in September, when talking on CNN about US-China relations and cultural exchange, quoted this Chinese proverb.

一加一大于二

one plus one is greater than two

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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.

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Just saw some mind-blowing maths, courtesy of my uncle’s wisdom, that shows why 2016 will be a wonderful year, and it’s all to do with numbers that we Chinese find lucky!

2016 = 168+168+168+168+168+168+168+168+168+168+168

2016 = 666+666+666+6+6+6

2016 = 888+888+88+88+8+8+8+8+8+8+8+8

2016 = 999+999+9+9

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Flying Sarsae High

Sarsae

In the first week in my second term of this academic year, my knees were weakened in pleasure by the sight of some cans of Sarsae on the shelves in the Chinese supermarket Lung Wah Chong (41-42 Hythe Bridge Street, Oxford OX1 2EP). Sarsae was my favourite soft drink when I was a child living in Hong Kong, just ahead of Schweppes Cream Soda, and way ahead of Coca Cola and that lot. A Hong Kong brand (from food company Watson) of what is essentially sarsaparilla, I remember it being hard to find, even on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets in China. The summer before, I had been impressed with Nottingham when I visited, just because a tiny corner Chinese supermarket there stocked Sarsae. So I was overjoyed when I came across Sarsae in Oxford, and bought 6 cans in one go. However, my joy was not matched by the 3 friends to whom I gave cans to try. One, a Chinese mainlander, did not like it. Another, an American, found it too similar to good old American root beer. And the third, a Brit, thought it tasted “like medicine”. But drinking my first can early on in the term, I maintain that it still tasted as good as it did in my younger days. This soft drink, unlike Inca Kola, is not reviewed by Soda Tasting, so I hope that I’ve done this soft drink more justice.

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My reaction to seeing tatsoi at Waitrose (where it is on limited edition 3 for 2 sale) was, “what?!” We’ve all heard of pak choi, but it was the first time I had heard of this vegetable, grown in China since AD 500 and now grown worldwide. It may be more popular outside of than inside of China, since none of my relatives on the mainland have heard of it (in Chinese it is 塌菜, literally translated as ‘collapsing vegetable’). I cut the stalks in half and sautéed them like I do with most Chinese greens: with thin-sliced garlic and a splash of soy sauce, or with finely chopped chilli and ginger and a splash of soy sauce. It tastes slightly of mustard, and has no bitter taste. It has a stronger taste than pak choi. It costs around the same price but is twice as nutritious as pak choi. If ever there was a time to shift vegetable allegiances, it is now.