For thousands of years, alcohol has shaped and been shaped by Chinese culture. From humble beginnings among ancient farmers of the Central Plain to the mass mobilization of modern industry in the People’s Republic, alcohol has touched all aspects of Chinese life. It has influenced religion and art, philosophy and politics. It has helped bring together adversaries and brought about the downfall of kingdoms. Now Chinese spirits are branching out into the world. The story of baijiu is the story of China.
The Chinese have been drinking longer than anyone can remember, long before recorded history. Nine thousand years ago in Jiahu, Henan Province, people brew a drink from rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit. It is the world’s oldest known alcoholic beverage. The ancients drank to transcend their reality. Through alcohol they found a window into the spirit realm to commune with the gods and the dead.
1st millennium BCE: As Chinese civilization began to take shape, wine becomes ever more prized. It now not only bridges worlds but peoples. The ancient kings maintain court brewers to craft drinks used to cement friendships and win over enemies. They make countless drinks, but one wins out, a grain alcohol fermented from naturally harvested yeast. They called it jiu.
1st millennium CE: The Chinese kingdoms have been united into a vast empire, throughout which huangjiu—sweet grain wine—reigns supreme. Under the Han, Tang and Song, huangjiu lifts the guides of painters and coaxes words from poets. Drinking becomes a secular battlefield, where Confucianists advocate moderation and Daoists preach enlightenment through drunkenness. No drinker, before or since, embodies the sublime beauty of the latter school than the poet Li Bai, who transforms solitary drinking into raucous communion with the moon and shadows.
13th century: The Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his disciples smash into China, spread across Central Asia and descend on the Middle East, where chemists have unlocked the secrets of alcohol distillation. Soon the conquerors spread distilled spirits throughout the Mongol Khanate. At least that’s the story later Chinese writers tell. The archeological evidence is murkier, suggesting that distillation may have arrived earlier via trade routes. Some even suspect that the wine still may have been a domestic Chinese invention.
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): The earliest spirits in China were likely some variation of Middle Eastern arak, but China’s brewers waste little time. Thousands of years of folk knowledge are tweaked and refined to incorporate the wine still. The essence of huangjiu is extracted, and by the Ming Dynasty it becomes a potent drink known as shaojiu, or “burnt wine.” Today we call it baijiu.
1644-1948: Baijiu spreads throughout the empire. Wherever it goes, it adapts to the tastes and traditions of the locals, and transforms into several unique styles of liquor. A class division emerges: The aristocratic elite still prefers quaffing huangjiu, while the peasantry prefers the raw power and value of baijiu.
1949: The People’s Republic of China is born. With the elevation of the proletariat comes the elevation of their favorite drink. The state modernizes Chinese spirits, setting up regional distilleries throughout the country. Techniques that had only been passed down from master to apprentice are recorded and codified. Styles are sorted and classified. Production standards and quality rise, and national baijiu brands gain prominence.
Today: A tradition rooted deeply in place ventures out into the world. For the first time Chinese born in the north can easily drink the baijiu of the south, and vice versa. Distilleries begin exporting their spirits overseas, targeting the Chinese Diaspora and new foreign audiences. Will baijiu succeed in becoming an internationally recognized spirit? Will it be welcomed into cocktail bars alongside tequila, gin and brandy? The final chapter in baijiu’s story has yet to be written.