Journey to the Center of Baijiu
In the nearly 40 years I’ve lived in China, including the Hong Kong S.A.R. before it became an S.A.R., I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with baijiu. The hate part usually came the morning after the love part.
I was one of those kids in high school who was not part of the alcohol drinking crowd. OK, I was more of a studious type, although I played sports and was sports editor of the high school paper. I had a great time, good social life, and did not feel like I missed out on anything important due to not being a part of the drinkers circle.
I recall my first taste of booze was as a teenager at a family Christmas season dinner when I was offered a “7 and 7”, a cocktail which was a mix of 7-up and bourbon. I drank a few sips, but I did not become an instant convert. I didn’t even like the taste of beer in those days
By the time I arrived in Hong Kong, then in my early 20s, I had acquired the ability to drink alcohol, although I was not a big drinker. Soon after, I discovered Qingdao beer, which is an excellent beer. Until arriving in Hong Kong in 1974, I’d only heard of baijiu in connection with the Mao-Nixon banquet in 1973. Like most foreigners at the time, I imagined that baijiu and Maotai were synonomous. Little did we realize…
I don’t recall ever drinking baijiu in my first year in Hong Kong. I do recall my first exposure to cognac, at a friend’s wedding. The cognac that evening was served in the type of tall glasses from which we’d normally drink milk, orange juice, or water. My first exposure to cognac. Ouch.
Exposure to baijiu began after I started travelling beyond the Lohu border crossing into the Chinese mainland, in 1975. In 1975-1976, there were few if any small group social contacts or dinners among foreigners and mainlanders, but this began to change after the downfall of the Gang of Four in the fall of 1976.
In the table setting protocol of the era, there were precisely three glasses at each and every person’s place setting: one small glass for bajiu, one slightly larger glass for domestic Chinese red wine (very very sweet), and a milk-sized glass for Chinese beer. All were filled at the outset of the lunch or dinner banquet, and repeatedly, incessantly, relentlessly, refilled during the meal, after the mutual toasts, etc.
The most frequent choice of liquids for toasting at Sino-foreign banquets was, of course, the baijiu. On the one hand this was before baijiu became astronomically expensive (often blamed on the Nixon visit, like so many other problems in China which are blamed on us pesky foreigners).
On the other, the politics of the day were so strained as to make conversations between Chinese and foreigners very awkward, so everyone around the table was in the mood for a pain-killer. People were thinking: “Ah-ha! It’s not really safe to discuss anything serious, so let’s drink baijiu and just babble instead!”
The host would start the meal with a toast, often a generic “To your health!”, or the always popular “To the long-term friendship and cooperation of our people!” Then the guest party’s senior person would reciprocate with a toast to thank the host, followed by someone else on the host’s side toasting to something else, and then another guest toasting back. The whole ritual was like playing liquid ping-pong.
And just as in a table tennis match, there was neither the time nor the inclination for much in-depth conversation around the table.
In those days, both Chinese and foreigners were wary of saying the wrong thing, partly because we’d moved very quickly from an era in which no conversation was permitted, for political reasons, into one in which conversation was OK, but only within certain ill-defined and rapidly changing boundaries.
Enter the baijiu, which took the edge off and was, in an odd sense, a useful navigational tool. If so-and-so said something wrong, it could conveniently be blamed on the baijiu, rather than deficiencies in his thought processes, politics, or people skills.
In those early days of opening and reform, the three-glass place setting seemed to be straight from central casting in Beijing. No matter where you went, that was the table setting, at lunch or dinner.
Fortunately, Chinese had not yet adopted the American habit of holding breakfast meetings, or the results would have been catastrophic. Productivity and liver health would have suffered big setbacks, possibly delaying the Open Door era by a decade or more.
Over time, local variations became established. Those of us foreigners who travelled widely in China came to know and recognize those regions of the country where drinking baijiu was more than a perfunctory gesture, but rather a local custom embraced with passion: places in Northeast China, Southwest China, and let’s not forget Shandong Province.
I know other regions harbor many big fans of baijiu, but these are the three places which have the most resonance based on my experience. Not to mention the most recollections of hangovers.
I had the special opportunity during the June 6-8, 2013 Fortune Global Forum in Chengdu, to join a special small group tour of the 600-year old Shui Jing Fang Museum, which has a continuous (and certified) history of producing baijiu for more than six centuries.
It was an extremely interesting tour, partly because we were able to see the traditional distilling techniques still at work, but also because the museum itself sheds so much light on the role of baijiu in the context of Chengdu’s historical development.
Also fascinating for me was to listen to the Managing Director of Shuijingfang, who to my surprise happens to be a fellow American, talk about their branding and positioning strategy, which is very innovative. That came as a surprise, especially for a centuries-old product.
Their product display room features a range of different products within the family, all bajiu, but differentiated by brand name and — for the higher end products — exquisitely designed and hand-finished bottles. Some are limited editions aimed at the collector’s market.
The era of the perfunctory 3-glass table settings and constant toasting at every lunch and dinner meeting is long gone, but baijiu remains an important part of Chinese culture, and one with a long and interesting history.
If you ever get an invitation to visit the Shuijingfang Museum in downtown Chengdu, I highly recommend you accept.