Beijing -- It was quite a scene. In the graceful, many-tiered pagodas set among the waterfalls and goldfish ponds of Zhongshan Park near Tiananmen Square, more than 300 diners set upon such niceties as stewed and seasoned mock-bear pads, pearl-in-the-bosom-of-an-aged-clam and black-dragon sea cucumber, eating to the muted strains of traditional Chinese music.
This was no ordinary banquet. On the second night of China's first international food conference, held here in July, the menu, the music, even the restaurant itself had been created as a sort of living, breathing paean to what could be China's most famous novel, "The Dream of the Red Mansion."
Written in 1750 by Cao Xueqin, it is something of a cult classic. Since its reprinting in 1978, the book has spun off into a television show, a restaurant (Lai Ju Xuan, open since 1981, which played host to "The Red Mansion Feast" at the food conference) and even a Dream of the Red Mansion Institute, which says it has 20 members devoted to the study of the foods within the book.
Part soap-opera, part social history, "The Dream of the Red Mansion" chronicles the rise and fall of the well-to-do Jia family in the Qing dynasty.
"It's like a Henry James novel," said Timothy Connor, a librarian at the Yen Ching Library at Harvard University. "The book is seen as the crowning achievement of traditional Chinese fiction."
With chapter headings like "To Kill Time, Money Is Raised to Celebrate a Birthday," "A Henpecked Young Profligate Takes a Concubine in Secret" and "A Girl in Love Is Rejected and Kills Herself," it is no wonder the book has attained such a following.
The feast was just one event at the five-day conference, where food professionals -- nutritionists, chefs, restaurateurs, manufacturers, scholars -- from all over the world gathered to exchange information on such diverse topics as the origin of pasta, the importance of Chinese traditional medicine in the diet and wine making in the Song Dynasty and to compare notes on the differences between the Chinese "pot" culture and Western "plate" culture.
At a time when the Chinese government has come under continued criticism for its hard-line views, it seems paradoxical that the powers-that-be have given scholars free rein and ample support to explore their culinary, even decadent, past.
"Previously, the country was in a process of promoting economic development and everyone was just concerned with the problem of feeding themselves," said Li Xing, deputy chief of the feature department of the China Daily Newspaper, an English periodical.
"Food was only thought of in its most basic form: as subsistence. It's only recently we've had the luxury of looking at food as anything more than that. Now, culinary historians are finally being taken seriously and are allowed to research their topic in depth."
Cao Yu Xuan, the resident expert on "The Dream of the Red Mansion" cuisine, presided over the feast and is a founder of the Dream of the Red Mansion Institute. He and many of the Chinese scholars who attended the conference have benefited from the government's recent support.
"The late '80s were a golden age for research of the science of the 'Dream of the Red Mansion,' Mr. Cao said, as guests piled their plates with "fragrant eggplant with assorted nuts" (from Chapter 49, "Girls Enjoy Rustic Fare at a Venison Barbecue") and "steamed longevity buns" (from Chapter 63, "Girls Feast at Night to Celebrate Pao Yu's Birthday"). "As a result, books such as 'The Complete Guide to the Beautiful Food at the Red Mansion' and 'Dictionary of the Dream of the Red Mansion' have been published."
While the guests at the feast swooned over the offerings, Mr. Cao quietly informed them of the proper table etiquette outlined in the book.
"The descriptions of eating in the 'Dream of the Red Mansion' are always connected with making poems, listening to traditional Chinese opera and playing cards and finger-guessing games," he said. " 'The Dream of the Red Mansion' was written in the middle of the 18th century and stands as a historical and true-to-life scroll of aristocratic life in a Chinese feudalistic society."
At this point, many of the guests were rowdily toasting one another and seemed oblivious to talk of proper etiquette.
A few evenings later, the same guests gathered for a re-creation of a traditional Manchu Han banquet. The meal, which turned out to be even more extravagant than the Red Mansion affair, was held at the stately Fang Shan restaurant over looking the lake at Beihai Park.
Willowy maidens outfitted in Qing Dynasty robes welcomed the diners with a graceful dance set to music resonating from a tape player.
The tables were set with elaborate carvings of daikon radishes depicting phoenixes, and dragons perched beside dishes of pickled and assorted meats and seafood.