Chinese Drinking

I came across this really interesting article about Asian immigrants who live in Oregon and are the only distillers of the traditional Chines liquor, baijiu. When we were in China in 2005, we were frequently served baijiu. It is very viscous and has a high alcohol content.  The baijiu we had was made from sorghum. The people in Oregon seem to use rice.

I am posting something I wrote about out trip to China. I did post in the blog I had before this WordPress¬† site but I can’t seem to find out if I have ever posted it here. If it is a repeat, I apologize.

Chinese Drinking

My family and I recently returned from visiting Hong Kong and mainland China. My husband is the vice president of a private undergraduate liberal arts college and the purpose of our trip was to visit several Chinese educational institutions. Because of this, the very nice, friendly, and generous Chinese people we met treated us as celebrities or in their context, dignitaries. The main consequences of this treatment were many banquets held in our honor.

I have not attended that many banquets in the United States but the few I have been at have begun with a cocktail hour then proceeded to a multi course meal with dessert and wine. Chinese banquets are completely different from this. The meal always takes place in a private room around a round table. At each place setting there are three glasses; a water glass, a wine glass, and a very small shot glass, probably one-half ounce in capacity. At the beginning of the meal, the host will ask the honored guest, my husband in our case, if they want “spirits”.

At our first banquet this request elicited amused responses from the other Chinese guests as well as some good-natured warnings about the potent “firepower” of the spirits. The Chinese woman sitting next to me who spoke English stated the spirits “were not for women.” Although this surprised me, I wished to be polite and therefore refrained.

When my husband said he would try it, his water glass probably about eight ounces-was filled with a 50 percent alcohol, clear, viscous liquid. This alcoholic beverage was baijiu, which is distilled from sorghum. All the guests drinking also had their glasses filled. As the meal proceeded the host toasted my husband, pouring from his big glass into the small shot glass, raising it high, downing it while saying Gam Bei (Bottoms Up!) and then showing the empty glass to my husband. At that first banquet there must have been at least ten toasts. Many of the guests completely emptied their large glasses and then received refills. The whole event had a competitive and masculine tone with the goal being to see who can drink the most.

All of our subsequent banquets followed this pattern. Some did not involve spirits so the drinking was much more subdued. At different banquets, various participants had a greater or lesser affinity for alcohol and the total amount of alcohol consumed varied. Women did participate although not as vociferously as the men. Some participants filled their large glasses with water and then proceeded to participate in the social aspects of the toasting ritual without running the risk of inebriation.

As a historian who has written about alcohol and the industry and has attended over twenty-five years of conferences on the general subject, the heavy drinking I observed in China came as a complete surprise. The global studies of alcohol and drugs have always focused on opium and tea as China’s chosen psychoactive substances. There is also a literature that seems to suggest that, because Chinese drinking takes place during meals, it is more moderate.

Alcohol experts define binge drinking as the consumption of five or more drinks at one time. In the United States and increasingly internationally, it is college age people who most often indulge in this behavior. Binge drinking on college campuses has led to an increase in death from alcohol poisoning and is the subject of many research projects.

At the Chinese banquets I attended many of the men present had at least eight drinks. Binge drinking in America often has a ritualistic aspect; newly “legal” drinkers in the Southwest spend their first night as a twenty-one year old seeing how much alcohol they can consume. The showing of empty glasses and the good-natured urging to continue drinking at Chinese banquets is the same kind of behavior. There is obviously a whole aspect of Chinese consumption of psychoactive substances that remains unexplored.

When I was thinking about posting the above, a front page article in the New York Times appeared. Entitled, “Got a Mint, Comrade? China Cracks Down on Liquid Lunch,” the article discussed the Chines practice of lunchtime banquets where alcohol, usually baijiu, plays a large role. The Chinese government usually foots the bill for these alcohol-laden meals and thus wants to curtail the amount of drinking.

The article also indicates that consumption of baijiu has declined as a more prosperous, younger generation has begun to drink other spirits, wine, and beer. Around the same time the Times covered this story we entertained visiting Chinese scholars in our home. They all declared that the thing they missed most from home was baijiu. The drinking habits of China, both historically and in the ever-changing global market, call out for further exploration and research.

%d bloggers like this: