The spirit of Chinese alcohol drinking culture dates back over 6,000 years, based on the latest archaeological findings. During that time, countless Chinese have dedicated themselves to making the best white spirits, yellow wine and beer possible, always trying to improve the technique.
The Chinese word for alcohol, jiǔ, not only has the same pronunciation as the words for ‘longevity’ and ‘forever’, but also sounds similar to the characters for ‘ownership’ (kàn). Therefore, it plays into Chinese people’s love of auspiciousness.
The company of alcohol
In ancient times alcohol was never absent from ceremonies honouring ancestors, holiday banquets or family celebrations. At a Chinese dinner, you would often hear the saying “Wu jiu bu cheng xi”, meaning ‘no dinner is complete without the company of alcohol’.
Chinese people like to entertain friends with alcohol. At both welcome and farewell parties for friends, Chinese like to drink to show their best wishes. People like to say that all the deep feelings are buried in alcoholic drinks.
During formal occasions, besides the high quality of alcohol, people pay special attention to the environment and etiquette for drinking—for example, there should not be any erratic drinking or forced drinking.
“Jiu guo san xun, cha guo wu wei” was a saying in ancient China, which meant that after five rounds of dishes and three rounds of drinking, there should be no more forced drinking. This exemplifies Chinese people’s viewpoints on how to keep good health and how to be an upright person at the dinner table.
Various strengths and flavours
Chinese people tend to drink white liquor or yellow rice wine. White liquor, or baiju, is a clear spirit primarily distilled from grains like sorghum, rice, and maize. Baijiu comes in various strengths and flavours, and generally falls in the 45-55 percent alcohol by volume level.
Baijiu accounts for approximately one-third of all liquor consumed in the world, although when you consider that China accounts for almost 40 percent of the world’s spirits consumption it isn’t so surprising.
Rice wine belongs to a variety of Chinese liquor called huang jiu (yellow liquor). This refers to fermented alcoholic beverages which are brewed directly from grains such as rice, wheat or millet—the alcohol content is usually less than 20 percent.
One other popular alcoholic beverage in China is Maotai, one of the most famous distilled liquors in the world. This liquor has been around since at least 135 CE and has enjoyed a reputation as China’s chief national wine for almost 1,000 years.
Beer has also been brewed in China ever since a brewery was founded in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, in 1900. Today, there are more than 1,500 domestic beer brands in China making it the world’s leading nation for beer production and consumption.
Cheers, or as you say China, ‘Gānbēi!’