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Alcoholic Beverages: Ancient Usage

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(4) page(s): 8 and 10

Since the article about Chinese foods matching wines several issues ago, there have been a plethora of requests for historical information about wine use in early China. That is the topic of this article. For current thoughts about this beverage and Chinese food, see the article tirled: Wine: A Mathcn Made in...by Drew Innis; it is in this issue.

Religion, the arts, and alcoholic beverages developed side by side in virtually every ancient society, China is no exception. One important difference, however, was that all alcoholic beverages, be they beer, wine, or hard liquor, were known by the same name in Chuina, and for a few thousand years. That name was jiu. Therefore, researching and knowing which is which and searching for early recipes using one or another of these liquids is a true challenge.

In China, the mystique of these beverages, traditions of etiquette, when, why, and how they were consumed, popular lore, and material culture offer a plethora of perspectives. One ancient common saying provides a perspective about jiu and those who consumed it. It said: With the first glass, man drinks jiu; with the second, jiu consumes jiu, and with the third, jiu consumes the man.

So what types of jiu did people consume in years past, and were there special containers used for these drinks? Since antiquity, fermented and distilled alcoholic beverages have been made from grains, cereals, fruits, fruit juices, and other foods. And, they have played various roles in rituals and in social interactions including their use enhancing celebrations, enjoying poetry, and luring spirits back to the real world.

About 3,000 BCE, alcoholic beverages used special containers made of pottery. These have been unearthed, most with drain holes for use during removal of he liquid fermented and stored in them. In Northern China, during the Xia Dynasty (circa the 21st to 16th centuries), there are reports about these beverages offered to the earliest of kings. Supposedly, one of the rulers got inebriated and soon thereafter a decree came forth forbidding imbibing.

Later, in the Shang Dynasty, about the 16th century BCE, oracle bones told of these beverages flavored with herbs. In those times, jiu was primarily used for ritual purposes and mostly consumed by those leading these services. In the Western and Eastern Zhou periods, and during the Warring States (1045 - 221 BCE), records tell of court officials appointed to be in charge of these beverages. For example, the great grandson of the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty sent a chap westward to find out what was there. Zhang Xian was captured, and eventually escaped, and captured again. He finally made it back and brought grape seeds and notions about wine use outside of China. Needless to say, the seeds he returned with were planted and some years later grape wine was made from the fruit of their vines.

During the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), with increased traffic (on what in the 1800's became known as the Silk Road), there was increased traffic in grape seeds, grapes, and grape wines. Later, during the period of the Three Kingdoms, the Jin, and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220 - 581 CE), fermentation of grape and grain beverages expanded so much that a book was written with a chapter totally about the making wines and other alcoholic beverages.

Then, in the dynasties that followed, people and poets spoke about wine, about kumiss, arak, fermented fruit juices and milks, and about beverages made with grains. Their use expanded, and beverages originally from grains and juices, expanded, too, as did their consumption.

However, it was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) that western fermentation techniques took hold. Today the Chinese make many different kinds of beers (taught by the Germans who established a brewery in Qingdao) and all types of very different high-proof alcoholic beverages.

Question remain. In what did they store the beverages from the Bronze age forward? The answer: In all types of bronze vessels including the one shown on this page, also in ones made of pottery. In many of these, they also fermented their jiu beverages. These alcoholic items were primarily used for ceremonial purposes. There were some people of high social status and those with considerable power who consumed them, as well. These containers had names like jue, jia, gu, and zhi.

Main uses for jue containers include what wine was stored in them and it was poured from them for drinking. Jia vessels were items from which wine was poured onto the ground when offering it as an ancestral sacrifice. Gu and zhi containers were those people drank wine from. Zun and hu were containers for storing wines, and for those drinking spicy wines. Of course there was cross-use of many of these vessels, and it is said people were drinking from you's, and those that did often had drinks made from millet. An item called a he was a place to store water intended for mixing with wine; etc.

Most of these early items were carefully designed to be pretty. In the Shanghai Museum in that city, the ox-like vessel shown with this article was called a zun, and this particular one is dated somewhere between early 6th century to about 475 BCE.

Bronze wine vessels in China show this country's ability to make items of precious metal-ware; they did so from circa two plus thousand years ago. Some bronze containers were also made to hold food, but they had different shapes and different names.

When cooking with meat, people used a ding or a li. When steaming foods, the ancients reached for a yan. If pickling foods, there was need for a dou, and when cooking millet or rice, they used vessels called gui, xu, fu, dui pen, and containers called yu.

Hence, very early on, foods and beverages had specific pottery- or bronze-shaped vessels and special names for them. The richer or higher the status of the owner, the more sophisticated and beautiful were these items. Many wrote that the ceremonial items were large and lovely; the ones we have seen certainly were.

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