WINE has been called the “Water of Life”. In China, it could also be called the “Water of History” because stories about wine can be found in almost every period of China’s long history.
Nowadays, China is still a country which has a big consumption of alcohol. A few years ago, statistics revealed that the annual output of baijiu, a drink with a high alcoholic content, had reached 10 billion liters consumed annually.
Historically, alcohol pre-dates the formation of the Chinese character and it was around 4,000 BC that ancient China saw its first period of making alcohol. Read more on Baijiu History.
The ancestors of today’s Chinese people made alcohol from corn and they believed the drink had magic powers.
At that time, alcohol was not for ordinary people but was a monopoly of the monarchy. Kings set up special bureaux to take charge of the production and distribution of alcohol and it was a luxury drink reserved for the king and the aristocrats.
Stories from earliest times also associate alcohol with tyrants. A famous one is entitled “The Wine Pool and the Meat Forest”. Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC), was well-known as a tyrant. He was also addicted to alcohol.
He ordered people to make a big pool and had it filled with wine. He then ordered meat to be hung high like a forest and watched naked men and women chase after one another for his amusement.
Modern research has shown that people in early China kept their wine in bronze vessels which made the wine poisonous because the tin in the alloy would dissolve in the drink. So many drinkers were unaware they were poisoning themselves and this was a factor in bringing about the end of the last hard-drinking ruler of the Shang Dynasty.
Inspiration and courage
With the passing of time, the history of alcohol becomes less savage and more civilized. This can be seen especially in Chinese literature whose pages are filled with the fragrance of wine.
The famous poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) is known as the “Immortal of Wine” because of his love of alcohol. Guo Moruo, a modern scholar, compiled statistics about Li’s poems and found 17 per cent of them were about drinking.
Alcohol inspired the poet and helped him create many beautiful poems. When Li Bai was happy he wrote: “People should enjoy drinking as much as possible when they succeed”. When he was sad he wrote: “I tried to comfort myself with wine but the wine made the sadness even worse”.
According to folklore, wine also played a part in the great poet’s death. It is said that one night after a bout of heavy drinking, Li Bai plunged into a pool to catch the moon reflected in the water and drowned.
Early writers liked drinking and thought it an elegant way to pass the time. Apart from the taste of the drink, they also concentrated on the process of drinking. They created many games to go with drinking sessions involving a knowledge of history, literature, music and poetry.
Writers also set out rules in their essays which were to be followed when drinking alcohol.
For example, one’s drinking companions should be “elegant, unrestrained, forthright, understanding, old friends or beautiful”. The best places for drinking should be “in front of flowers, in the bamboo forest, in a high pavilion, in a boat, in a peaceful villa, along a zig-zag stream or by a lotus pool”.
And the best time for drinking should be “spring, a time when flowers are blooming, or in cool autumn, or after snow, or on rainy days or on nights with a crescent moon”.
Writers liked drinking for the inspiration it sometimes provided while warriors liked alcohol because it lifted their spirits and made them braver.
In ancient times, before a battle, a general would feast his soldiers with alcohol and meat. If they won the battle, they would be rewarded with good wine. If a warrior fell in battle, his fellows would scatter wine on the ground as part of a memorial ceremony.
There is another famous story which tells the myth of Wu Song. He drank 18 bowls of strong alcohol and, ignoring warnings, climbed a mountain where tigers were roaming. He came upon a big tiger asleep and Wu, still drunk, dared to kill the tiger with only a stick.
But ordinary people have always just used alcohol to help them celebrate the happiness in their lives.
In China, a banquet known as “Jiu Xi” means an alcohol banquet and the life of every person, from birth to death, should have pauses for drinking banquets starting a month or 100 days after a baby’s birth when the parents should invite people in for a drink.
When someone builds a new house, marries, starts a business, makes a fortune or lives a long life, he should invite people in for a drinking session.
After his death, it is the turn of those living to take wine and drink to his memory.
In modern times it is a pity that the games that go with drinking are not the elegant ones of the past that involved poetry or music. Today, drinkers just play simple finger-guessing games along with a lot of heavy drinking.
It also seems today that friendship depends only on the volume of drink being consumed. It is widely said among the drinking fraternity that “if we are good friends, then bottoms up; if not, then just take a sip”.
And those who are called “winebags” today, even after drinking a hundred bowls, they still wouldn’t be able to compose a poem or dare to touch a tiger.
Try out a few of our baijiu cocktails – Ganbei!
(See: Chinese drinking games and how to drink baijiu)