Notes from the Middle Kingdom: Beautiful Baijiu

Words: James Kramer
Monday 21 August 2017
reading time: min, words

Nottingham's own cultural attache to China James Kramer is back to preach the virtues of China's national drink baijiu. Bottoms up, youth! 


Following on from the (not wholly successful) international campaign to recognise August the 9th as National Baijiu Day, it feels only pertinent to turn my summer weary head towards that most longstanding and inarguably abusive of my relationships held since being here in the Middle Kingdom. I mean, of course, my relationship with the red queen of all alcoholic beverages, the semi-infamous baijiu.

Though commonly translated into English as ‘white wine’ (白酒, bai: white, jiu: alcohol) Baijiu is far removed from any respectable and socially welcomed sauvignon. In 2012 alone, an estimated ten to seventeen billion litres of baijiu were produced, more than double that of its more well-known brother Vodka. In 2011 the Communist Party mouth-piece Global Times declared that the government budget for food and beverages, of which a sizeable amount goes to the gift giving and imbibing of high-end, top-quality baijiu ran up a higher tab than that of the national defence budget.

Yet to invite it into your home and onto your palate is to taunt the gods, to call Zeus a zoological furry and Hades a pomegranate smoothie making pale-face. It is the alcoholic equivalent to whatever it is that those who consider PCP to be too mild and mellow turn to. To drink it is to wantonly bring depravity and shame to do your door along with a seriously diminished circle of friends. Gin might be mother’s ruin and absinthe may boast a cutesy green fairy, but baijiu packs an ill-tempered Rottweiler with a personal vendetta towards your sanity and reliable sense of self.

I have baijiu to thank for what I refer to as my ‘scar of Christmas Eve 2013’, a title that I can only tentatively apply because it could realistically have been awarded to my face any given point circa that final week of said December. Thanks to baijiu’s loving influence, I cannot remember a single day of it. To tell you that I definitely walked the shores of Hong Kong would be true, but beyond that I draw an absolute blank. I remember the pain that followed and the tidal waves of guilt, and I definitely recall the aftertaste of that demon drink, but the times spent there are forever gone, obliterated for good, now and forever.

 The reasons as to why baijiu has accounted for such a multitude of blackouts, lost weekends and missing appendages could be attributed due to the average 55-75% proof alcoholic content that this lethally strong booze wields. However, seasoned practitioners of its self-destructive processes recognise greater forces of darkness at play. Straight out of school and barely 17, I found my after-work hours spent with the Polish chefs that staffed the Newark kitchen that I called home. It was a place where I spent my hours underground by the old building’s cellar door, lacerating myself while stripping the beards from mussels and peeling off the skin from rabbits. While not my first introduction to serious drinking, this was my baptism into the murky pool of ‘toasting’. This was a pastime that my Polish friends liked to do with homemade vodka, the glasses of coke on the table being purely decorative, along with the salads composed of marooned slices of potato that struggled against generous seas of menacingly sour-ish mayonnaise. My fellow kitchen stooges could really drink.

They introduced me to the concept of disassociation via the downed glass and yet there still arose none of the glaring hangovers, the pure unbridled loss of bearing, the fever dreams and the caustic hallucinations that baijiu toasts have laid siege upon my diminished brain. In China, toasting is also culturally key. Baijiu is drunk traditionally from what look like small porcelain eggcups, and is lifted to 乾杯 (ganbei). In order to show respect, the aim is to meet your compatriot’s glass at a lower angle, in essence to humble yourself. This leads to a race to the bottom of the table as you each try to undercut one another’s outstretched arm, a practice of which becomes less and less a problem as baijiu’s rapid deconstruction of all your basic, low-level motor skills is pretty much going to keep that arm resting on the table, refusing to lift another damn glass.

As far back as the Confucian Book of Rites, baijiu was noted to be a political and ceremonial lubricant. It arguably pre-dates all recorded history in China and overseas. In 1983 evidence arose that the Jiahu civilisation of 7000-580BC were fermenting grapes, hawthorns, honey and rice, making some of the oldest alcohol in the world. In Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, a commissioned ‘lake of wine’ was produced for King Zhou’s pleasure and while there might be a spot of exaggeration going on here, having seen the amount that many hardened Chinese consumers can put comfortably away, it makes me consider for a moment heading over to that there Three Gorges dam just to make sure that it’s water they’re flooding into the valleys. Distillation as a process arrived either from the Middle East in the Song dynasty of 960-1270 or during the Mongolian invasion of the Yung in 1271-1368.

My love affair with baijiu is long since over. Even the smell brings back too many ferocious memories. These days in Beijing I drink a slightly less aggressive tonic. A darker spirit, more akin to fortified wine. I am promised by the label that at least four different types of animal gave their testeronic features to its production. My tipple of choice is advertised online by elderly relatives as taking a sip and then magically becoming free from rheumatism and arthritis, and all sorts of undisclosed ailments. That alongside that this particular alcoholic tonic is sold here in pharmacies rather than corner stores has led me to believe that I’m on my way to ruddy good health.

 So Nottingham, why should we turn to baijiu? Not only is it the most-consumed drink around the world, but let’s face it, adopting baijiu as a tipple would put us on the binge-drinking map. Let us scorn the Scottish love of Buckfast, cast aside the blue plastic crumpled domes of emptied discount cider. For too long we have tried to deny our drinking’s central imperative, to lose sight of the weekday behind and those upcoming days ahead. Let us tote a shot that serves equally as paint thinner, flu remedy and biological weapon. We have the mentality already; now let us lose the mind behind it. Come raise a glass of baijiu with me, and lets see who we really are. 乾杯 my friends, 乾杯.


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