A table setting at the Great Hall of the People, including fluted wine glasses. Alcoholic beverage consumption in China is influenced by traditional customs of hospitality and the social protocols of modern business. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.
The use of alcoholic beverages in China has been continuous throughout its history. Today, with traditional customs of hospitality supplemented by the obligations of modern business practices, the ways in which beer, liquor, and wine are consumed reveal an important aspect of Chinese life—and producing these beverages has become a thriving sub-economy.
Evidence of the use of alcoholic beverages in China dates to the discovery and analysis of sediment found in nine-thousand-year-old crockery dug from cave-tombs in Henan Province. Archaeologists have documented that Chinese farmers produced grain, the basis of many alcoholic spirits, as early as seven thousand years ago. Alcoholic beverages have had a place in traditional customs and rituals throughout China’s history, and do so increasingly in modern times as an important part of social and business life.
The alcoholic beverages the Chinese drink include baijiu (Chinese liquor), putaojiu (wine), huangjiu (rice wine), and pijiu (beer). Of the four, baijiu and huangjiu are indigenous and appeal to the most consumers.
Baijiu, literally “white liquor,” is a colorless spirit distilled from sorghum, rice, wheat, corn, peas, or dried yams, or from a mixture of some of the grains aided by sacchariferous starters like yeast and mold. Baijiu has different types of bouquets and may or may not have flavoring added. Ranging from 40 to 65 percent alcohol (i.e., 80 to 130 proof), baijiu’s appearance is similar to that of vodka, yet its taste is distinctive and unique and perhaps a little too strong for some Western palates. Some of the most famous brands are Maotai, Fenjiu, Wuliangye, Jiannanchun, Yanghedaqu, Gujinggong, and Dongjiu. A bottle of low-quality baijiu may cost less than one U.S. dollar, but a bottle of Maotai that has been aged for many years can cost a few thousand.
Huangjiu (rice wine) is fermented like wine and beer but is made primarily of glutinous rice. Other grains can be used, like indica rice, black rice, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, or highland barley, and sometimes dried yams are used. Each gives huangjiu a unique flavor. Before modern technology huangjiu was manually produced in a process that soaked, steamed, and cooled the rice before fermenting it twice and sterilizing the extraction using heat. The Shaoxing huangjiu of Zhejiang Province, the millet huangjiu of Shandong Province, and the monascus (mold-fermented) huangjiu of Fujian Province are among the best of the country. Their prices are comparable to those of higher-end baijiu.
As their standard of living has improved, the Chinese have become health-conscious and concerned about their drinking habits, now preferring liquor of lower alcohol percentage. Baijiu, still the dominant “national drink,” is being challenged by wine and beer, whose consumption is growing rapidly. While leading the world in the increase of beer drinking, China imports great volumes of top-grade wines and spirits each year. Favored in luxury hotels, bars, and nightclubs, and as fads of the newly rich, they also targeted to appeal to the average Chinese drinker.
In 2005 an American brewery, Dogfish Head, made headlines when it produced a new beer based on a biochemical analysis of dregs found in shards of crockery unearthed in a 9,000-year-old cave-tomb in Jiahu, Henan Province. Archeologists learned that early Chinese were already farming grains, the major component of wine, in the Yangshao culture six to seven thousand years ago. The excavation of a great variety of five-thousand-year-old drinking vessels from the Longshan culture (c. 3000–1900 BCE) testifies to the popularity of huangjiu at that time. The Chinese were able to produce a dozen types of yeast starters in the fourth century CE, and they understood the natural use of monascus mold for fermentation a thousand years ago.
Baijiu came later. A bronze distiller was discovered in a tomb of the Eastern Han period (25–220 CE), and records of the sixth or seventh century mention shaojiu, namely baijiu, but historians would rather place the time of its mass production in the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Grape wines and their fermenting techniques were imported from Central Asia during the Han (202 BCE–220 CE) or Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties. The first Chinese brewery, though, was not built until 1892 in Zhangyu, Hebei Province, which first produced beer and then wine. Tsingtao, the only Chinese beer known to Westerners today, was first manufactured in 1903 in a brewery of German propriety in Qingdao, Shandong Province.
Today China is a major liquor producer. In 2007, it produced 500,000 kiloliters of baijiu; 66,500,000 metric tons of putaojiu; 2,000,000 metric tons of huangjiu; and 39,313,700 kiloliters of pijiu. The majority of this volume was consumed domestically. In the same year, China imported more than 150,000 kiloliters of wine and 205,700 kiloliters of beer. China has become the third largest consumer of Martell cognac, following only Great Britain and the United States (Wang, 2008).
It is difficult to describe the customs of drinking in China because they vary from region to region, from ethnicity to ethnicity, and from occasion to occasion. They also vary among people of different tastes and occupations. Traditionally, women did not drink alcohol. Today most women in China still shun liquor and choose non-alcoholic beverages. However, because business deals in China are closed more often at dinner tables than in meeting rooms, a growing number of enterprises and government agencies require that their public relations officers, mostly young women, develop a great capacity for drinking, much to the chagrin of the public. In general, older people choose baijiu; younger ones prefer beer; and people of middle age are fond of both. White-collar workers drink wine more than anything else.
Urging someone to drink is an important part of the Chinese tradition at large. To do so, people resort to various strategies and tactics. They may look for (or invent) a reason to make a toast. While Han Chinese use eloquent speech, ethnic minorities mostly sing their quanjiuge (songs that urge drinking) or jingjiuge (songs of toast). The idea is to show hospitality and to make sure guests are “drinking well.” The Chinese, seeing straightforwardness as impolite, often take “no” for a euphemistic way of saying “yes.” The only way to get a guest to drink to his heart’s content, they reason, is to urge him repeatedly. In such a culture, the avoidance of overdrinking is equally important. This is usually achieved by pacing the amount one drinks over the course of a gathering or dinner. Cheating may be committed as a necessary evil by either stealthily substituting water for liquor or by covertly spitting liquor out into a napkin. Spilling some liquor “unintentionally” also does the trick. This custom of “offense” and “defense” over a drink can sometimes get out of hand and become a very annoying tug-of-war, which ha
ppens often at family and friendly gatherings in rural areas of eastern China.
Drinking can become unruly at home and in small eateries, where people play a caiquan (finger-guessing) game, something like the Italian morra. Each round involves two people. They stretch out a number of fingers from one or both hands at the same time that they shout out a number from 2 to 20. The one who shouts out a number equal to the total number of extended fingers will win. Whoever loses the game has to suffer the penalty of draining a glass full of alcohol. After guessing the number of fingers, the contestants also shout out a series of rhymes, known as xingjiuling, to pun on the numbers, such as “one respectful heart” for the number 1, “two brotherly friends” for 2, “three shining stars” for 3 and so on. As excitement builds, each tries to shout down the other. Upscale restaurants always ban the game.
Drinking etiquette can also require subtlety. When toasting, one has to make certain of the pecking order because a junior member of a group should never raise a cup higher than a senior does. The most polite way to toast, particularly to a guest or senior, is to say, “I’ll drink it up [meaning one glass], but you can drink as much as you can.” At the table, one can never drink alone without initiating a toast or inviting others to drink. Otherwise people may think it rude. People often stand up to toast one another and clink their cups or glasses. When less excited, they may just sit and toast. As they cannot reach each other at a large table, they may instead gently tap the lazy Susan with the edge of the bottom of their cup or glass.
Ethnic Chinese usually observe their diverse time-honored rituals. When guests come to visit Mongolians, for example, they are invited into the yurt, presented with kha-btags (silk scarves of good wishes), and offered an alcoholic beverage made with horse milk. According to another Mongolian tradition, the guests must bless the earth, the heaven, and themselves before drinking by dipping a little finger in the liquor and tossing it in the air, snapping it to the ground, and daubing it on their foreheads.
To the Chinese, drinking without good food is unthinkable, so each formal dinner has at least two courses. The first, consisting of lighter dishes, is geared primarily to facilitate drinking, and is followed by the second course of heavier dishes. Today, however, Western-style bars or pubs that serve drinks without the accompaniment of a “proper” meal are mushrooming in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, catering to foreigners and locals alike.
The popular Chinese saying “He jiu he hou le; du bo du bo le (Drinking brings people closer, but gambling sets people apart)” vividly signifies the role drinking plays in human relations in China. Drinking is not only an integral part of social life but is increasingly becoming a ritual in business culture. A lot of business deals are sealed at dinner tables amongst boisterous toasting and the clinking of cups and glasses.
Wang, Xiaohui. (2008, September 10). Madieli ruhe rong ru Zhongguuo shehui. Retrieved January 13, 2009, from http://www.cnwinenews.com/html/200809/10/20080910083730.htm
Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). Wine Culture. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2447–2449. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Wine Culture (Ji? wénhuà ???)|Ji? wénhuà ??? (Wine Culture)