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Liquor culture as part of Chinese civilization

Updated: 2015-11-20

Keynote speech by Vice President Wang Weihong of PPMG at the London Tasting Event on Sept 28, 2015

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon!

Just speaking of fine liquor, our spirits are lifted as if we were bathed in its aroma. From emperors and generals, literati and artists, to ordinary folk, people have been uplifted by its unique appeal. From ancient times, they have been inspired in their literary and artistic creation. So many forms of art, calligraphy, painting, drama, dance, poetry and prose, are permeated with a sense of liquor. Liquor and spirits have continuously developed with culture. In its millennia-old history, China has developed a liquor culture with great richness and depth that remains vibrant today. I’m very pleased to share with you my thoughts and feelings about the Chinese culture of liquor and spirits. Perhaps this will help you understand why China’s largest publisher, Phoenix, is committed to the development, production and promotion of liquor and spirits.

The word liquor is used here to mean Jiu(酒) in Chinese language, all alcoholic beverages that are brewed, fermented, or distilled.

 

China's long history of liquor-making and liquor culture

As one of the oldest civilizations, China is also a cradle of liquor production. In addition to its best known inventions of paper-making, printing, gunpowder and the compass, China began to brew and drink liquor and make liquor cups and jars in ancient times. According to archaeologists, Chinese ancestors started using pottery for liquor drinking as early as the Peigang Culture between 6,000-5,000 BC. Similar vessels were also discovered in the archaeological research of other subsequent cultures, including the Cishan, Hemudu and Sanxingdui. This proves that grain-based spirits occurred in China at least 7,000 years ago. More and more liquor vessels and other related relics have been discovered from the Xia and Shang dynasties, in particular the Shang, a period that marks the start of China’s recorded history. Archaeological evidence shows that bronze liquor cups had become part of daily life for the nobility, which means drinking liquor had become popular at that time. Oracle bone script epitomizes the civilization of the Shang Dynasty. Of around 4,500 oracle bone characters that have been identified, one third have been deciphered. Of these characters, the character for liquor represents a significant number. The Chinese idiom, Jiuchi Roulin, which literally means liquor pool and meat forest, has its origin in this period. Zhou was the last king of the Shang Dynasty, and was notorious for recklessly building sumptuous palaces. He even ordered festive orgies where a pool was filled with liquor and a forest was festooned with meat. He was a king who completely gave himself over to promiscuity and abandoned morals, thus triggering the downfall of his kingdom. This is why the idiom is synonymous with decadence and extravagance.

China has an abundance of historical records with common views on liquor. But, regarding the genesis of liquor, documentation is limited and often holds diverse views.

There are four beliefs—

The first idea is that liquor was invented by the God of Alcohol in ancient China. In the book, Rites of Zhou, the Alcohol Star is recorded, a significant astronomical discovery in ancient times.

It is also possible that liquor was discovered by apes. They fed on wild fruit, and apes would store large amounts of fruit in caves during a season. The fruit eventually turned into wine and liquor after the natural process of fermentation.

Another thought is that liquor was invented by Yidi. This is documented in the classic encyclopedic text, Lüshi Chunqiu, and other pre-Qin Dynasty writings such as the Strategies of Warring States. Legend has it that Yidi was instructed by the wife of Yu the Great to oversee liquor-making. He finally developed a delicious liquor thanks to his dedicated research.

Finally, liquor was invented by Du Kang. Reputedly, Du Kang used to place leftovers in the hole of a tree in a mulberry orchard. The fermentation of the leftovers gave off a pleasant aroma and thus inspired liquor-making techniques. Du Kang was used as a phrase meaning of liquor in ancient China. During the Three Kingdoms period, Cao Cao once wrote a famous line about liquor, "Nothing but Du Kang can assuage worries."

As early as the 11th century BC, China had introduced a law of liquor prohibition, which is known as Jiu Gao. As China’s first government decree on liquor administration, and incorporated into the Books of Documents, Jiu Gao exerted a far-reaching influence on the formation and development of its later liquor culture.

Liquor epitomizes the convergence of material civilizations and ideals

The traditional Chinese spirit, or baijiu, uses grain as the raw ingredient. Usually, three kilograms of grain can only produce one kilogram of spirits. In the agrarian age, when people were still struggling against hunger, who could afford the luxury of using grain to make liquor? In fact, mass liquor production and universal drinking was only possible when a food surplus resulted from a well-developed agriculture. Only when people started to feel secure about their lives would they begin to seek to satisfy their spiritual and cultural needs in addition to material comforts. It was in this context that the liquor-making industry was born. In ancient China, those pioneering liquor-making regions were all places that enjoyed a high level of civilization and economic prosperity, with better developed agriculture and logistics.

In human history, liquor has always been an integral part of social life and closely linked with material and idealistic progress. In ancient times, the liquor-making industry had been consistently considered by each and every government as an important component of its national economy. Drinking etiquette was also regarded as the gauge of social progress and advancement. As early as the 11th century BC, liquor-making had grown into a separate craft, overseen and regulated by dedicated government officials of the Zhou Dynasty. After the Western Han Dynasty, government monopolies and taxes on liquor were introduced and the industry has since become one of the major sources of tax revenues for the government.

Liquor is not a necessity for human survival. It is more of a life enhancement that adds to enjoyment. Sometimes, liquor is consumed to release emotions, and facilitate inter-personal relationships and communication. It's fair to say that liquor development has been concurrent with the social progress of mankind. As a symbol of social culture and civilization, it represents the convergence of material and society at different stages of civilization.

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