The issue of drinking in China has been addressed at some length on other blogs and websites including the venerable “Lost Laowai” which includes a special page dedicated to just this subject. Similarly the “Middle Kingdom Life” online teaching-in-China guide similarly gives some consideration to the matter of drinking.
Why does drinking feature so heavily in foreign materials concerning China? The are two reasons: one from within and one from without. As anyone who has spent even a little time with expatriates the world over knows – expats live to drink. Stories tell that during the 1980s, alcohol abuse was common among foreigners stationed in Beijing for want of something else to do. Even though the options available for entertainment, work and self enrichment are now comparable in China as anywhere else in the world, heavy consumption of alcohol remains common among expats. This is not just the English teaching set, either. Young and old mangers and others stationed in China – often away from their families – tend to engage in not trivial amounts of alcohol consumption. And what do foreigners do when they drink – they complain! I am increasingly convinced that no one can kvetch like a foreigner stationed overseas.
The second matter – from without – is that China, like many countries, has a thriving and ancient drinking culture. From the earliest fermented fruit slurries consumed in rituals during the Erlitou culture through the elaborate bronze ritual wine vessels of the Shang and Zhou and into the stories of drunken boxing, the drunken poet Li Bai and even the scene in “The Founding of a Republic” where Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai drunkenly belt out the “Internationale” drink has long been part of Chinese civilization. The length of time associated with drinking culture has naturally given rise to different associated customs and traditions. The idea of a bar as a place exclusively for drinking is mostly a Western import. Traditional Chinese always drank with food – even when drinking heavily. Drinking is a very social activity. Toast follows toast and eventually includes drinking games – all part of a drinking culture designed to promote high spirits and camaraderie all around.
While western tipplers in China typically gravitate to various Chinese beers – Tsingdao of course being the most famous, although nearly every town of significant size will have a local brew – traditional Chinese drinking has centered around baijiu.
Foreigners love to criticize baijiu and look down their big laowai noses at it. There are several gross misconceptions about the drink:
1. Bajiu is rice liquor. Why I see this written everywhere is beyond me. Perhaps it is just because it is Asia and obviously that means alcohol must be made from rice. The fact is, some baijiu is made from fermented sticky rice, but the VAST majority is made from sorghum. Most foreigners don’t know what sorghum is but it is grown in our own countries as well as a cereal grain – often used to make sweeteners. FYI, the US is the world’s largest producer of the stuff.
2. Baijiu tastes like paint thinner/jet fuel/diesel fuel/kerosene/gasoline…etc: I don’t know about you but I have never tasted these things so I really can’t compare their taste to that of baijiu. I think the problem is that foreigners go into baijiu expecting something akin to Japanese sake, never realizing sorghum liquor has a very different taste and scent and that baijiu is much more potent. The burn of high proof booze is enough to make anyone wince, especially if they weren’t expecting it.
3. Chinese always try to get the foreigner drunk: this is racist and assumes we laowai are special. In any group of friends drinking together it is commonplace to try to get one person there hammered. It makes like more fun. Being foreign has nothing to do with it.
Indeed we owe the peace of the modern world to baijiu and we should, therefore, be thankful. According to some accounts, then-Secretary of State Kissenger, while eating dinner in New York with Deng Xiaoping stated: “I think if we drink enough Maotai we can solve anything.” Deng Xiaoping replied, “Then when I go back to China, I shall increase production!” During this visit and during the Mao-Nixon summits, a good amount of Maotai was consumed. As one who loves Maotai, I can say a good time was definitely had by all!
A final note, if you really think you hate baijiu, try to stick to the higher end ones like Maotai or Taiwanese Kaoliang. These are potent but less intensely strong and alcohol fierce than lower priced but more throat searing types like Erguotou.
Drink up comrades, this is a topic to which we shall return!