Nixon's Visit to China

Nixon and Zhou toast

US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast, February 25, 1972. Obtained from the Richard Nixon Public Library and Museum.

A Diplomatic Visit

The People's Republic of China and the United States had long experienced a bitter relationship up until Nixon's fateful 1972 visit. The two nations had fought each other in Korea during the 1950s, and again in the largely unpopular Vietnam War in 1971. Despite being vocal during the Cold War, condemning communist governments and the Truman administration for "losing" China to the communists, President Nixon shocked the nation by announcing his plan to travel to Beijing for a week of diplomatic talks. This step toward normalizing the countries' relations both thawed political tension and led to an increase in Chinese food popularity. In following diplomatic protocol, the "reciprocal" banquet was supposed to be hosted by the U.S. in China, however the food was prepared by Chinese cooking staff due to limited space on American Planes. Featuring a duck menu, the event's publicity prompted a Chinese restaurant boom, with white Americans flocking to try the dishes Nixon spoke so highly of.

Chinese Restaurant Industry Prospers

Nixon's diplomatic trip had a somewhat unexpected result: thousands of non-Chinese Americans flocked to Chinese restaurants, eager to try all the dishes the president had eaten during his trip. This prompted a golden age for the Chinese restaurant industry. According to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, the number of Chinese restaurant openings doubled between before the trip and after the trip, bringing us to a present-day estimate of over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. Gone were the days of chop suey and heavily Americanized restaurants; people wanted to try Cantonese food -- and later, Szechaunese food, among other regional cuisines.

It is estimated that over 95% of the American population was following Nixon's visit to China closely, because the United States' diplomatic relations with China hung in a precarious balance. Every moment of the trip was observed and recorded with meticulous detail, like how one article describes the how Nixon made a toast to each table at the banquet of 700 -- a circulation performed by the guest of honor, following Chinese custom. The article goes on to describe the lavish food, the luxurious decorations, and elegant music. Perhaps this is why food became so central to the visit's outcome; the American people had earlier thought of Chinese food as a cheap, convenient fix for take out. Seeing the Chinese delicacies laid out during Nixon's multiple banquets piqued the public's interest, and left Chinese restauranteers scrambling to find talent to cook in Chinese kitchens.

Even decades after the original banquet, the event is memorialized around the world. One article describes a restaurant in Paris that has a menu inspired by the Nixon-Peking banquet which features several dishes that were on the original menu. Multiple reporters have also touched upon how Chinese cuisine may have played a role in politicians' decisions. A nation that had before been wary of its Cold War opponent became united over Chinese cuisine.

Gallery of Primary Texts

Secondary Sources

Chen, Y. (2017, June 28). The Rise of Chinese Food in the United States. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Ed. Retrieved 29 Nov. 2018, from http://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-273.

Coe, A. (2009). Chop suey: A cultural history of Chinese food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ewbank, A. (2017, December 06). The Nixon Dinners That Taught Americans to Stop Worrying and Love Peking Duck. Retrieved November 7, 2018, from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/nixon-visit-china-1972-dinners-peking-duck

History.com Editors. (Ed.). (2009, November 13). Nixon arrives in China for talks. Retrieved December 1, 2018, from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/nixon-arrives-in-china-for-talks

Maguire, L. (2016). The Cold War and Entertainment Television. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.