Alcohol has long played a role in Chinese culture. This is because China was the first nation to discover, and create, alcoholic beverages. Although once considered the reserve of the aristocracy in China, alcohol became increasingly available to the proletariat throughout the country’s history.
The invention of baijiu assisted with this greatly. As a result, the history of baijiu and the history of Chinese society are intrinsically linked.
The first example of alcohol dates back to around 7,000 BC. Wine was invented in the town of Jiahu, located in the central China province of Henan. This wine was brewed using grapes, rice, honey for sweetness, and hawthorn fruit.
The intoxicating effect of this beverage was not anticipated or understood by the ancient Chinese. As a result, the citizens of the time believed that wine was a transcendent experience. The people of China would drink this liquid and believe that they were communing with the spirits of the dead and ancient deities.
As time progressed, the ancient Chinese civilisation as we knew it began to become apparent. With these changes, a new social order began to emerge. Kings would place a great deal of emphasis on treasure and wine. The royal courts of China would employ specialists to brew wine, and use it as a social lubricant.
To avoid war, wine would be shared with neighbouring territories to build friendships. It was during this time that qu was also discovered. During experimentation, brewers found that fermenting grains created a form of natural yeast. This was the first step towards the discovery of baijiu.
By the first millennium of the modern calendar, the Chinese empire had been formed. The Han, Tang and Song dynasties treasured honeyed wine, which was known as huangjiu. This translated as, “yellow spirit.” In addition to royalty, artists and poets expressed great admiration and enthusiasm for wine, crediting their creativity to this liquid.
Opinions began to vary on the impact of alcohol through China during this time, however. Those that followed the teachings of Confucius, who placed great emphasis on the importance of tradition, preached that alcohol should only be consumed in moderation. An alternative school of thought was expressed by followers of Taoism, who still considered intoxication to be the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most famous and reputable Taoist of all time is the ancient poet Li Bai, who would later become synonymous with baijiu.
Genghis Khan and his Mongol army invaded China in the 13th Century. As Khan’s empire grew, methods of distillation made their way across Asia. Chinese historians believe that distillation was invented in Persia, and the sharing of trade routes and ideas brought the process to China. There is a second theory, however, that distillation was a Chinese invention. As records were not kept during this time, it is impossible to speak on this with any certainty.
Baijiu as we know it first came to prominence in the 14th Century, during the Ming dynasty. According to Chinese legend, a peasant by the name of Du Kang invented baijiu as a happy accident. It is claimed that Du Kang aimed to ferment wine by burying the ingredients underground but fearing the impact that a harsh winter would have on his sorghum grains, Du Kang hid his sorghum in a tree. To Du Kang’s delight, these ingredients fermented to create the spirit that we know as baijiu.
By the time the 17th Century arrived, a class divide had arisen throughout China revolving around attitudes to alcohol. The aristocracy and military preferred wine, considering it a more elegant choice. Farmers and the peasant classes, however, were believed to embrace the strength and potency of baijiu.
Throughout the next three centuries, baijiu would become increasingly popular and commonplace. More and more individuals were capable of producing their own baijiu, tailored to their preferences and the raw materials available to them. This is why, to this day, baijiu from different territories is produced under different circumstances.
In the first half of the 20th Century, the people took control of China. This means that, as opposed to a regal aristocracy, citizens were elevated to positions of power and authority. This meant that baijiu overtook wine as the national drink of China. Due to the popularity of baijiu, distilleries were created and modernised all over the nation.
It was at this stage that the production of baijiu became a respected industry. Previously, instructions on how to make the spirit were passed down through families. By the 1940s, records were being kept and consistency became key.
The Kweichow Moutai distillery even enjoyed government financial sustenance for many years. This was due to Moutai becoming the baijiu of choice for China’s heads of state. This spirit was served at all state functions, and shared with visiting foreign dignitaries.
As baijiu enters the 21st Century, its popularity has only grown. Due to relaxed trading restrictions and advances in travel, Chinese nationals are no longer restricted in their choice. Citizens of northern China can now enjoy baijiu brewed in the country’s south, and vice versa.
The final frontier for baijiu remains international recognition. Baijiu is the world’s bestselling spirit, but it remains largely unknown outside of China. Many distilleries are working to rectify this, with the intention of making baijiu a truly global experience.
Although baijiu remains difficult to obtain in the west, it can be purchased from a number of international airports. In addition, the multinational beverage manufacturer Diageo own an increasing stake in the baijiu manufacturer Sichuan Shuijingfang Company Limited.
Diageo own such globally recognized alcohol brands as Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff. This suggests that the story of baijiu is yet to reach its conclusion.