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More About Jiu, China's Alcoholic Beverages

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Summer Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(2) page(s): 28 and 29

To the Chinese, all alcoholic beverages distilled or not, were and are called jiu. You may have seen them spelled chiu or chiew, even other ways, but no matter their name or pronunciation, no matter their alcohol content (most are from one to sixty percent), all are still called jiu. Most are made from sorghum, millet, rice, and/or glutinous rice. Some are made with wheat, barley, corn, white and/or sweet potatoes, manioc, and/or legumes. Others can be made with fruits such as peach, plum, jujube, and grape; and they can be made from any combination of these foods.

Matters not if folks have their jiu with lunch or dinner, or with snacks, most often they were and are consumed at hosted events, though many are had that are not hosted. The Chinese do use these alcoholic beverages for toasts. They start off a meal or a festivity and are popular for all Chinese populations except those who are Buddhists and abstain form all forms of alcohol.

The origins if jiu of any nature are ancient indeed, and selected by taste, location, and economics. Often the more expensive ones are preferred. Recently, we did read that jiu can be beer, wine, or hard liquor, and that these different terms are more popular now than is the simple historical use of the word jiu. In Chinese, the new names are pi jou for beer, bei jiu for white wine, huang jiu for yellow wine, yao jiu for medicinal wines, guo jiu for fruit wines, etc. The do use the word pu tuo if the fruit is grape.

Traditionally, Chinese limited alcoholic beverage consumption to when eating foods and when writing poetry. On those occasions, the host offered a toast to one or to all, and host and person or persons toasted then drank together. Sometime after that first drink, a person would return the toast to the host or they would offer a toast to someone else. Again folks drank together. Also traditional, was to gam bei or 'bottoms up' the alcoholic beverage. This latter behavior is becoming a thing of the past. Currently, it is acceptable when toasting or being toasted to bring the glass to the lips and just wet them, not even taking a swig. Elder Chinese will vehemently disagree. They know that solo drinking was not popular in China's early days when is alcoholic beverages were mostly used for ritual purposes.

These days and in the recent past, jiu was and still is intimately connected with Chinese men of letters. Wine was and is offered to honored guests, jiu still seals deals among friends and business associates, even doing likewise among enemies. Jiu is also an offer of hospitality, a recognition of congeniality, and an opportunity to enhance one's qi. Jiu is consumed in low and lofty places, used to celebrate the senses, to lure spirits back to the world of the living, and for sacrifices, solemnity, and super enthusiasm.

The origin of jiu is clouded in mystery. Some say its use began in the court of King Yu, founder of the Xia Dynasty circa the 21st century BCE. Others say nonsense and think the use of alcohol ten thousand years or more older when neolithic men made and consumed fermented beverages. A tale about this king says with jiu given to him, he became drunk and soon thereafter issued a proclamation prohibiting its availability at social and other functions.

Few doubt that alcoholic beverages have been made in China since antiquity. Most agree they were first used for ritual purposes, and made from staple foods such as rice. Those made from fruits and fruit juices became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). In Tang times, jiu inspired poets and painters and drinking jiu became entangled with gamesmanship such as finger games, testing games that included historical questions, and games akin to darts.

Scholars believe fermentation originated before the Yangshao Period (5,000 - 3,000 BCE). They say that containers found at the Lin Yang Hu site in Shandong Province and at other sites have been radio-carbon dated as some forty-eight hundred plus years old. In the Shang (1600 - 1122 BCE) and in the Zhou Dynasties (1122 - 256 BCE), jiu consumption was recorded on oracle bones and elsewhere. Its most frequently recorded use was by rulers who wanted to hear from the spirit world. Jiu was also reported heated and mixed with meat or millet or both, and cooked for ancestors to attract their spiritual beings to return to earth. Jiu was sacrificed at feasts for the dead, poured on the ground at grave sites, and consumed by the living. Earthenware and bronze vessels for food and drink found at early excavations and tombs confirm this thinking.

Archeologists will ultimately unravel fact from fiction ritualistically and medicinally. They have already found many thousand year old pieces of pottery, quite a few with a small hole at the bottom. They believe these were stoppered to contain their liquid, then later removed when they wanted to release the fermented beverages. The holes were small, but not tiny, and they could leave solids behind so only liquid came out. Many such vessels were uncovered in the Shandong Province at Dawenkou dating back four thousand years, others found are even earlier; and some later ones have been found at more recent digs.

Also located at these sites are millet and rice beverages used for religious and medicinal purposes. In the Shang Dynasty (18 - 12th century BCE), bronze containers found were used for eating and drinking, different ones for different purposes. The scratches on some of them indicate they were used for low levels of alcohol called li. Those stronger and of higher alcohol content were called chang. Different shapes for beverages with higher alcohol content were also found, some mixed with herbs. For more general information, see the article titled: Alcoholic Beverages: Ancient Usage, it was in this magazine’s Volume 16(4) on pages 8 and 10.

During Shang times, pottery and bronze containers to store jiu were called hu. Those to heat these beverages were known as he, and still others simply used to pour the jiu were known as lei. During Shang times, staffs of one hundred ten officials were in charge of jiu, three hundred and forty were said to serve jiu, and one hundred seventy considered jiu specialists. Consuming jiu was not a new notion that began during the Shang Dynasty. Some use, attributed to their neolithic ancestors, was said to be 'a mandate from heaven' and reports about these times advise drinking and hunting as main forms of entertainment.

In the Zhou Dynasty that followed the Shang (1045 - 221 BCE), drinking of jiu was reduced, some say replaced with more eating. In Zhou times, fewer beverage-shaped vessels were found and more food containers located. Jiu did not disappear, it seems that different amounts of attention were paid to it.

What are some of the ways that historians learn about jiu? For example, in the Shi Jing or Book of Songs, two lines tell "they sow many sorts of grain...make wine as offering to ancestors...the blessed ancestors are at rest." Confucius, in his analects or Lin Yu, tell how Chinese eat and drink. In the Li Ju or Book of Rites, there is a discussion of three types of containers used at the ceremonial alter. There, guests are reminded not to bolt food nor swill jiu. In the Zhao Hun, which is a poem referred to as 'Summons of the Soul,' wine or jiu is used to entice a deceased soul to return home. In these items, four kinds are mentioned. They are li, he, lao, and cheng. These are, respectively, clear, fragrant, ice-cooled, and mixed with musk.

Later, in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), jiu is reported accompanying all proper banquets. The poet, Zou Yang, writes one that mentions two different kinds of jiu. There is white or li which is said to be sweet and plain, another said to be thick, dark, and cloudy. One tomb fresco of those times dubbed 'The Banquet of Hung' with a man boiling a pig leg and nearby two men are drinking from a horn. The story of this banquet, told by Sima Qian in the Shi Ji or Records of the Historian, tells that millet and rice were the principle sources of alcoholic beverages at this time. we know that grapes came to China later.

By the Tang Dynasty (618 - 906 CE), poetry and paintings detail lots about alcoholic beverage consumption; so the assumption is there is an increase in its consumption. Du Fu wrote a poem called 'The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup' saying he 'naps in a wine shop in Xian ignoring the Emperor's call telling him: Your majesty...I am a drunken immortal. Li Bo, another poet, is said to also drink too much. In one of his poems, he says: Among the flowers, a winepot. I pour alone, friendless...and turn to the moon and face my shadow, making us three.

These and many other poems, some popular and others less so, discuss alcoholic beverage consumption. Tributes of jiu to the emperor were popular, and minority populations also send theirs, as did many in the Han population. There was one jiu sent by Uighur folk called Mare's Teats. Another poet, speaking of grape wine, said "we guard grape wines on their way to China."

Later, in the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), relaxing, painting, dining, and drinking expanded yet again, the later a part of most social gatherings. In the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) there was even more use of assorted jiu beverages.

Now, post Mao and in China's ever increasing consumer society, affluence has made purchase and consumption of all alcoholic beverages much more popular. China is now one of, if not the largest purchaser worldwide of wine futures. In addition, they make many kinds of beer, and produce lots of high and very high alcohol beverages, some with a one hundred percent alcohol content. Those opposed to the use of jiu in past generations may be, as the expression goes, rolling over in their graves.

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