Today is our discussion of Bai Jiu, that great and strong Chinese liquor that just the mention of will bring a smile to all Northern Chinese men - the ultimate male bonding drink in China. Most Bai Jiu is a sorghum-based liquor with anywhere from 80 to 120 proof. This drink is probably as old as Chinese civilization and is a staple of any great Chinese banquet. Usually it is consumed in small shot glasses with a toast and then the expression gan bei, literally meaning dry the glass or bottoms up. Like any good liquor the price and quality can vary vastly, from the high end a good bottle can set you back $3,000 to $4,000, but a good cheap bottle can cost as little as $10 or so. Generally, the older the better and more expensive.
It has to be said that any locality worth its salt in China, especially in Northern China, has its own brand of Bai Jiu, and usually they are pretty good. But the two most famous Chinese brands are Moutai and Wuliangye (or 5 grain bai jiu), and if you really want to impress a Chinese dinner guest, this is the liquor of choice. There is also a special government Moutai Baijiu, which is supposed to be the preferred drink of the Central government leadership and prviliged Party members, though I have consumed it several times with provincial Party leaders and businessmen, so I don't think it is as exclusive as it used to be. I have to say, I have probably tasted about 20 different types of Bai Jiu in my 4 years in China, and there really is a difference in quality between the local brew and the two national brands. Moutai is consistently strong and usually higher on the proof meter, though Wuliangye is smoother with perhaps a slightly lower alcohol content. At a certain point though it just seems like drinking rubbing alcohol, though Wuliangye and some of the local varieties can be a bit on the sweet and smooth side.
But the real point of drinking Bai Jiu is not the taste, it is the social bonding that goes on that is key. In the typical chinese banquet you have a lazy susan in the middle of the table and then the waiter will start to bring the ordered dishes to the table. They will put the dishes at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o'clock and at the same time start filling each person's small shot glass with bai jiu. When the fourth dish is placed on the lazy susan, that is the cue for the host to make the first toast, usually a welcoming of the guests and a short statement about friendship, etc. Depending on the occassion and the people, the banquet can quickly descend to a drinking frenzy, with rapid fire toasts offered by everyone at the table, one after another. When it is clear the dinner is coming to end it is also time for the host to make a toast thanking everyone for coming and sharing in the meal. As you can see, the Chinese meal and drinking etiquette, though becoming more and more informal, is still influenced greatly by tradition and formality. What is more important, the meal and drinking is hugely important in bonding and creating relationships and friendships. To operate effectively in China as a diplomat, a businessman, or a respectful tourist, it really is necessary to know this ritual and engage in it as much as you can (note: it is still possible to operate effectively in China without drinking, though it is much more difficult).
There is also another drink that is well-known in China, and not nearly packing the some kind of punch as bai jiu, and that is Huangjiu, or Yellow wine or Yellow liquor. This is a much sweeter alcohol than your typical Bai Jiu and is usually ony about 50-70 proof. It is hugely popular with the Japanese, in fact on occassions when I go down to the most famous area in China for Huangjiu, I will usually bring back a bottle for a Japanese friend in Shenyang and you should just see how his face lights up with happiness at just the sight of Haungjiu. Now the most famous place in China for HuangJiu is Shaoxing, a town just one hour from the beautiful city of Hangzhou. Since this is a literary web site, Shaoxing also has relevance as it is the home of China's most famous modern novelist, Lu Xun, and also the home of "Stinky Tofu", a delicacy of the town.
I also told you that every city usually has its own Bai Jiu, but I forgot to mention that many little villages also will brew their own "moonshine", or bai jiu. One of the most interesting meals I have had in the past few years was while taking a trip to rural Heilongjiang, about an hour outside of Harbin to eat a typical village meal. Much to my surprise as I was munching on tofu wraps with cucumbers, onions and a spicy sauce stuffed inside, the host brought in some very, very local BaiJiu. I was told the proof was about 150 and it was the strongest liquor on the planet in my estimation. Every drink was like drinking moonsine and it burned every part of my throat and body as the drink proceeded from my mouth to my stomach. It was a fascinating lunch, but I just thank God that I wasn't driving back to Harbin that day. Well, today I forgot to get the pictures of these bottles of Baijiu, like I did for the beer yesterday, but i promise to get some pictures for tomorrow's post. Take care.