Essays

The Origins of China’s National Drink8 min read

Baijiu and the myth of the national liquor – Derek Sandhaus

No one casually happens upon Xinghuacun, but many are driven there by drink. A dusty backwater in north-central China’s Shanxi province, for centuries its residents have made a dry and herbaceous distilled spirit called fenjiu. The road in from the provincial capital of Taiyuan presents a bleak, repetitive landscape of belching smokestacks punctuated by the occasional missionary church steeple, leftovers from another time. Turning off the main drag toward the town’s largest distillery, I travelled down Jiudu Dadao, or “Liquor Capital Avenue.” I was here in search of the birthplace of baijiu, China’s beloved national spirit.

Yet thousands of miles southwest, nestled deep in the mountains of Guizhou province, I later found another Liquor Capital Avenue outside of Maotai, whose namesake distillery produces a pungent savory baijiu sometimes affectionally known as the guojiu, or “national liquor.” You can smell the liquor even before you see the factories.

Further west, in Sichuan province, I also walked down a somewhat more modest Liquor City Avenue in Luzhou, home to two of the country’s biggest baijiu distilleries – Luzhou Laojiao and Langjiu. Continuing upstream along the Yangtze to Yibin, most famous for the Wuliangye Distillery, I again encountered Liquor Capital Avenue. More baijiu is made in Sichuan than anywhere else in the country.

In these four cities I encountered four competing claims on Chinese liquor’s provenance. I’ve no doubt there are others scattered across the country. But which one is baijiu’s true birthplace, its spiritual home? Where exactly was the liquor born, and how did it rise to its current national stature?

Like the country that created it, baijiu is an amalgam, enlivened and enriched by the diversity of its parts”

The oldest known Chinese tipple – indeed the oldest known alcoholic drink anywhere, discovered by chemical analysis of burial sites – dates from about 9000 years ago, brewed by Neolithic tribes along the Yellow River. For the early Chinese, alcohol was a means of transcending reality and crossing over into the spirit realm, a function that is preserved in later religious rituals and occasionally achieved during a hot pot bender.

Around the first or second millennium BCE, the Chinese invented a style of grain wine made with naturally harvested yeasts and other microorganisms, a technique that became the basis of most East Asian fermented foods and beverages. They called the new drink jiu (酒), a word that is today synonymous with all alcoholic beverages in China.

As China’s drinking rituals moved into the secular realm, alcohol became a way of connecting people to each other rather than the gods. In the imperial court and in the homes of writers and poets, the people widely consumed a sweet fermented drink derived mainly from millet and rice. It was something between a beer and a wine in taste and character, and we now call it huangjiu (literally “yellow alcohol”). Scanning ancient writings for distilled spirits or baijiu (“white alcohol”) turns up few results.

To make baijiu the Chinese required a device – the wine still – which applies a heat source to alcohol to create a liquid with a higher concentration of alcohol than wine or beer. In Europe they called the resulting drink gebrannt wein (burnt wine, or the Anglicized “brandy”). Similarly, in China it was called shaojiu (burnt alcohol). But unique to China was the use of steam as the heat source for achieving the boozy transformation.

In four cities I encountered four competing claims on Chinese liquor’s provenance. I’ve no doubt there are others scattered across the country.”

Some scholars, notably the biochemist H.T. Huang, argue that distilled spirits may have been in China as early as the Han Dynasty (202BCE-220CE), but scant textual evidence supports the claim. The early texts speak of potent alcohols, but not of how they were made. The earliest compelling mention of baijiu appears around the ninth century, during the hard-drinking, cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty, when poet Bai Juyi wrote of a burnt wine that shone “bright as amber.” Poet Yong Tao similarly wrote of burnt wine in Chengdu, saying that after tasting it he no longer wished to return to the imperial capital in Xi’an. Yet again, no contemporaneous evidence indicates that these drinks were actually distilled spirits.

The first unequivocal mention of a distilled spirit appears during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). This makes sense: the Mongols loved to drink, and their conquests included regions we know to have contained distilled spirits at the time. Within a couple of centuries, China was making several styles of shaojiu that a contemporary baijiu drinker would recognize.

In every corner of the country workshops made their spirits a little differently, tweaked to local ingredients and tastes. Yet none of these drinks achieved anything like universal acclaim. Liquor receives hardly any mention in pre-modern Chinese literature or in imperial court records. Tellingly, not a single technical diagram of a traditional Chinese still or baijiu production manual survives that predates the 20th century.

Long after baijiu’s arrival, Chinese with sway and prestige seem to have preferred huangjiu, as had been the case since the first millennium BCE. Like Western grape wines, huangjiu was necessarily an elitist drink. It was expensive: grains were scarce, China was famine-prone, and most of its inhabitants lacked the resources to drink alcohol.

What China’s peasantry demanded was value – potency at a premium – and baijiu answered the call. By the early Ming Dynasty liquor distilled from sorghum, a rugged grain hardly anyone ate, had appeared in several regions. By all accounts it was rough, powerful stuff, and working Chinese loved it. By the nineteenth century a clear class divide had emerged among drinkers. “Huangjiu is the polished gentleman,” to paraphrase a common saying from the era, “Shaojiu, the ruffian.”

Early Western visitors to Canton (Guangzhou) also indicate that a triple-distilled rice liquor called samshu (thrice burnt) appears to have been widely consumed in the southeast. Yet consumption of spirits there was still limited to a narrow segment of the population, primarily sea-faring folk and merchants.

Around the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, there are some indications of baijiu drinking among the literati. Many of them, such as the famed writer Lu Xun, were from the Yangtze Delta, where huangjiu was king – Lu Xun’s hometown of Shaoxing is known for its yellow wine. Around that time, patriotic Chinese entrepreneurs also began trying to modernize the baijiu industry to create national brands that could compete with the colonial powers’ whiskies and gins.

By the nineteenth century a clear class divide had emerged among drinkers”

In 1937 the Japanese invaded China and, not long after they left, the nation erupted into civil war. Advancement stalled. Then a funny thing happened: The Communists won. Suddenly, the effete huangjiu-sipping elites had lost ground to the shaojiu-swigging masses. This reversal ensured the ascendency of baijiu.

Liquor became a focus of New China’s national project of consolidation and elevation of domestic industries. The first business registered in the PRC, in 1949, was a baijiu distillery – Red Star Erguotou – and large regional distilleries were formed by merging private distilleries in production centers throughout the country.

Chairman Mao’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, had a favorite among the new distilleries: Kweichow Moutai (named for the town of Maotai, in Guizhou, where the distillery is based, using an older romanization system). He had fallen in love with the drink when the People’s Liberation Army marched through Guizhou during the Civil War, and would later make it the official drink served at Chinese state dinners. Moutai, along with Luzhou Laojiao, Xinghuacun Fenjiu and Xifeng Jiu, became known as the “Big Four Famous Liquors” when the government convened to decide which spirits were the most evocative of their respective regional style.

Around this time, in the 1950s, the government introduced the term baijiu to the national lexicon. It was a unifying act, calling all the formerly regional styles of shaojiu “baijiu” or “white liquor.” This brought all Chinese traditional spirits under a single banner, easier to monitor and regulate.

But it was also an oversimplification. The change masked real and substantial differences between the different types of baijiu that were produced. This linguistic shift introduced the misconception that China has a single national liquor. In reality China has at least a dozen unique spirits, made from a variety of ingredients and by employing diverse production techniques. The tropical fruitiness of a Sichuanese baijiu is largely attributable to the southwest’s humid climate and neatly complements the region’s fiery cuisine. The warming bitterness of a Beijing erguotou  – literally “head of the second pot,” for the stronger solution than is distilled further into drinkable baijiu – is most welcome during a frigid winter’s night in the north.

When we speak about Chinese alcohol, we’re referring to a story that traverses provinces and spans at least 9000 years. The question is not which baijiu is the national spirit, but whether any one Chinese liquor can be considered truly representative of such a diverse family of spirits.

And which of the aforementioned cities is the true liquor capital of China? They all are. Each is home to a drink that could not have flourished elsewhere. Like the country that created it, baijiu is an amalgam, enlivened and enriched by the diversity of its parts. ∎

Header: Shelves of baijiu in an American supermarket. (Shwangtianyu on Wikicommons)

Derek Sandhaus

Derek Sandhaus has penned several books on Chinese history and culture, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and the forthcoming Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture. He currently serves as education director for Ming River Sichuan Baijiu and as editor for DrinkBaijiu.com. He lives with his wife and dog in Jerusalem, where he is developing a fondness for arak.