Drink and lose your head

Updated: 2013-07-12 08:50

By Ginger Huang (China Daily)

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 Drink and lose your head

How wine was brewed in ancient China: pound grain with a stone mortar; steam the pounded grain; spread out the steamed grain, cool to a lukewarm temperature and blend with wine yeast; ferment in a large clay jar. Provided to China Daily

Alcohol has played a major part in China's history but at times imbibing could lead to death

In a typical Chinese soap opera, a scene introducing a hero usually shows a broad-shouldered, macho swordsman downing a bowl of jiu in one gulp, then putting down the bowl heavily on the table and roaring: "Good jiu!(好酒 Hǎojǐu)"

Such scenes appeared frequently in the 2011 show Outlaws of the Marsh, adapted from the Ming Dynasty novel of the same name. In the story, the 108 outlaws who ganged up on the Song Dynasty authorities all drank jiu as if it ran in their blood.

So it came as a great surprise when a TV station claimed it was going to blur all the drinking scenes in the show to reduce their unwholesome influence. For one thing, they might have encouraged drink-driving.

The TV station's attitude became a joke, but it was not the first time in China that jiu has been considered a threat to public morals. Drinkers in ancient China would have envied today's unfettered imbibers. Prohibition in China can be traced back to ancient times, and those who challenged it faced penalties of death, imprisonment and bankrupting fines. Yet jiu always came back in triumph.

The first recorded prohibition in China coincided with the invention of jiu. China's counterpart to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, was called Yidi. She lived at the juncture of China's tribal period and the first hereditary dynasty, the Xia (BC 2070-1600). She made the first pot of jiu and offered it to Yu, the wise chief. Yu found it pleasing and sweet, but he also detected the dangerous seduction in this novelty beverage. "It will lure some future king into losing his kingdom," he said.

Instead of rewarding Yidi, Yu distanced himself from her, and banned the brewing of jiu.

However, Yu did not keep his people sober for long. His son became the first king of the Xia Dynasty, and removed the ban after his father died. So jiu came back, and became a ceremonial drink. Its most important use was to be offered to gods in rituals, where it was contained in bronze vessels that were as big as bathtubs and adorned with animals, weird monsters and elaborate scripts.

After the ritual, all attendants could drink according to the orders of the ceremony's host. Part of those rituals is still alive in a minor way - on Tomb Sweeping Day people still offer liquor and food to the deceased.

Brewing skills in the early days were rough. Usually three kinds of jiu were poured into the bronze containers: the least valuable kind was freshly brewed and still contained lees; the second also had lees, but had been stored in a cellar to smooth the taste; the third and best was called qingjiu and was aged and lees-free.

While the spirits in heaven enjoyed jiu, human beings risked their lives drinking it. During the Western Zhou Dynasty (BC 1046-771), the Duke of Zhou, whom hundreds of years later Confucius deemed a mentor, laid down this verdict: "It is the will of heaven that our courtesans and our people should drink only during major sacrificial rituals."

Zhou was the country's true ruler when the king, his nephew, was young, and he ruled with a great emphasis on rituals and social rank. He imposed prohibition with an iron hand that came close to cruelty. Those who drank in groups would be executed in the capital, and officials who did not properly carry out such orders also faced the death penalty.

The last king of the Shang Dynasty, Zhouwang, was the most infamous Chinese tyrant. He built a pond of jiu and a forest of meat, in which men and women chased each other naked and drank all night. However, some modern researchers have found evidence that shows how Zhouwang's hedonism was greatly exaggerated in historical texts over the centuries. They suspect tales of his debauchery were more fiction than fact. Perhaps blaming the fall of a dynasty on jiu is as reasonable as blaming it on a woman.

As history moved on, banning jiu became rare and drinkers were spared the threat of being beheaded.

During the Warring States Period (BC 476-221), a conversation between the courtesan, Chun Yukun, and her king showed how social norms had changed. Asked how much she could drink, Chun answered, "I got drunk on a dou, and I got drunk on a dan. (Dou, an ancient measurement, was 10 liters and a dan was 100 liters.) It all depends on where and with whom I'm drinking. If your highness has me drink at a palace feast, I'll be all shivering, and one dou is enough to floor me. With acquaintances of my family, two dou at most; reuniting with old friends, I can drink six dou; but if I'm in a marketplace in the countryside with men and women sitting together without being segregated, everyone enjoys drinking games and as time goes by the women's robes became loose and their hair falls down. There, I'll be so happy that I can drink a whole dan."

The menace of death still hovered over drinkers' heads during the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280). Cao Cao, a warlord and the founding emperor of Northern Wei, was also a decent poet, one of whose best-known poems is considered the earliest advertisement for jiu:

Sing when you drink!

Because life is brief;

Like evaporating dew it goes past,

And days slip away painfully fast.

Over the feast I sing, high-spirited,

Yet my mind remains afflicted.

What can rid me of my worries?

Nothing else than the Dukang jiu.





Duì jǐu dāng gē, rénshēng jǐhé?

Pìrǘ zhāolù, qù rì kǔ duō.

Kǎi dāng yǐ kāng, yōu sī nán wàng.

Hé yǐ jiěyōu, wéiyǒu Dù Kāng!

Although most aspects of Chinese culture date back to the origin of civilization, baijiu had a late start. Like its relatives vodka and brandy, baijiu has to be distilled. For a long time in ancient China, people drank jiu with less than 20 percent alcohol content because they did not know how to distil it. Whether the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) people mastered this vital art is open to debate. The only certainty is that in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) people were drinking the early form of baijiu. Because of the heating process involved, baijiu was also called shaojiu (fire-heated jiu).

In the Tang and Song dynasties, jiu became the essential element in all events: the poets drank when leaving a good friend, when it snowed and when the flowers bloomed, when they felt like outcasts or went on an excursion with their friends. As a result, 300 of the 1400 poems written by Du Fu, the "saint of poetry", mention jiu. Li Bai wrote more than 130 poems mentioning jiu and died from excessive drinking. In 28 of the surviving 58 poems by the poet Li Qingzhao she was elegantly drunk.

However, the laws about drinking changed. An emperor's governance had always been judged on whether he and his officials were drinkers. In the Jin Dynasty the law was clear: "Courtesans are not allowed to drink. Those who disobey will be beheaded."

In comparison, modern Chinese drinkers are probably the most blissful in history. Chinese civil servants - the biggest and heaviest drinking community in the country - have never been prohibited from drinking during work time. In a society built on the web of guanxi, or contacts, drinking is an important way for government officials to get work done, get contracts signed and make good connections. In 2007, the local government of Xinyang, Henan province, decreed a prohibition trying to stop government workers from drinking at lunchtime so they would not come back to work at 3pm red-faced and wobbly on their feet. In six months, the third-tier city's government saved 43 million yuan on buying liquor.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese,


The World of Chinese

(China Daily European Weekly 07/12/2013 page27)