Ode to Baijiu: Drinking Culture in the Middle Kingdom.

Ancient drinking vessels from China.

While living in He Nan province [ 河南省 ] I noticed a trend in men aged 14 to ‘maybe-grew-up-in-feudal-China.’ Many of them drink. Heavily. People in China can be quite boisterous when they drink, which makes for lively dinners of red-faced yelling. Crowded restaurants burst with the sounds of Cai Quan  [ 猜拳 ],a Chinese finger guessing game where the loser drinks. The simplest version of Caiquan is the two handed guessing game where players “throw” whole hands and guess in 5’s a number between one and twenty. I’ve never seen the drinking game from Shanghai Noon in China, but I keep that hope alive. In the North people drink cups of pure Baijiu, an industrial strength super liquor that smells like drain cleaner and tastes sweet before the atomic blast of 55% alcohol begins its radioactive burn. One of the most well known brands of Baiju being ErGuoTou. While Chinese people are generally curious about foreigners, it’s when the alcohol starts flowing that you can be certain someone will engage you in conversation. Or at least muster up a drunken shout of ‘Hello.’

There is some interesting drinking culture to know about here. In China people can come into your life like children making friends on a playground. You just need an open mind and knowledge of a few basic Chinese drinking principles.

1.) In some places drinking without permission of the group seems to be impolite. People typically wait for a chorus of ‘Gan Bei’ [ 干杯 ] before taking a drink.

2.) If the group yells ‘Gan Bei’ you will be forced to drink your entire glass. Keep this in mind when pouring, you don’t want to be pressured into downing a cup full of cleaning solvent Baijiu.

3.) If you are going to cheers your glass with someone it is considered polite to hold your cup lower than the other person’s. This is a way Chinese people show respect to elders/superiors. Some people physically hold the bottom of the other person’s glass to make sure they can hold their own lower. In HeNan I saw men practically lowering their glasses to the floor to try and get under the other person.

4.) People will periodically want to perform a Jing Jiu [ 敬酒 ] for someone, which means kind of ‘respectful cheers.’ The first one usually goes to the leader/eldest person. People will also frequently want to respect the foreigner. This just entails a lot of polite language and wishes of happiness and longevity. I have come to appreciate all the respect Chinese people constantly show to each other. It creates a nice atmosphere.

Some of these drinking rituals date back quite a bit as China has a very long drinking culture. In fact, “the earliest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world was discovered at Jiahu in the Yellow River Valley of China (Henan province), ca. 7000-6600 B.C.”  In many of the ancient period TV dramas in China, alcohol is served and consumed heartily on screen in the classic old drinking vessels. According to the epic scenes in The Three Kingdoms series, a toast was proposed for any warrior about to charge out into a death duel with the opposing army’s general.

There are also some beautiful old poems and works of literature that document the history of boozing in China. There is a historical group of scholars from the Tang Dynasty known as “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.” Among this group of drunken sages is the most famous poet in China: Li Bai. He penned many a work on the topic of intoxication, but I am particularly fond of this one:

Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志)
處世若大夢, Life in the world is a big dream;
胡爲勞其生. I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
所以終日醉, so saying, I was drunk all the day,
頹然臥前楹. lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
覺來盼庭前, when I awoke, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
一鳥花間鳴. a lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
借問此何時, I asked the bird, what time is it?
春風語流鶯. the Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.
感之欲嘆息, moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
對酒還自傾. and, as wine was there, I filled my own cup.
浩歌待明月, wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
曲盡已忘情. when my song was over, all my senses had gone.

Around the drinking table I have heard a few different Li Bai poems uttered before a hearty ‘Gan Bei.’ People seem to like the pithy line “人生得意须尽欢,莫使金樽空对月,” from the poem 敬酒诗. I translate this roughly as “When you are pleased with yourself you should engage in merriment to your heart’s content. Do not let your golden chalice lack booze in the face of the night moon.” There are plenty of other ancient poems reveling in libation, but my absolute favorite comes from Cao Cao in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. During an important night before The Battle of the Red Cliff he says: “对酒当歌,人生几何!譬如朝露,去日苦多。慨当以慷,忧思难忘。何以解忧?唯有杜康。”  These wonderful lines have great meaning, and I found a more poetic and beautiful translation than I am capable of from Frank C Yue:

O Let’s all drink and sing our song —
How many years is a human life?
Just like the transient morning dew,
Gone my sufferings, but more are due.
I will live my life to the full
Though worries are around me, too.
What can one do to be care-free?
Only answer — Come, drink with me!

…..

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