“Drunk in China: Baiju and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture” by Derek Sandhaus


I have sat through dozens of Chinese toasting banquets, raised glasses with Communist Party officials and even—God help me—gone shot-for-shot with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. So I can hold my baijiu. If you want to know if I enjoy it, that’s another matter entirely.

Derek Sandhaus has it on good authority—a drinking buddy who also happens to be a methodically minded engineer—that there’s an exact number of those tiny glasses that need to be gulped before one actually likes the stuff, and notably tracked his own progress in a blog entitled “300 Shots at Greatness”. Though he still remains skeptical of such accurate precision, Drunk in China: Baiju and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture reveals some considerable time in the trenches.


Sandhaus’s previous outing, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, took the reader through the four bouquet-based categories of baijiu (strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma and rice aroma), dedicating more than half its length to annotating specific brands by style and region with capsule histories and tasting notes. If you want a quick-hit, no-nonsense guide to Chinese liquor, Baijiu from 2013 is still the way to go.

Drunk in China is rather more ambitious. It is, in fact, a distillation of what might have been three completely different books: a social history of Chinese drinking (complete with copious literary references), the role of hard liquor in modern China (from early connections with the Communist Party to its place in the Party’s recent crackdown on corruption) and the future of Chinese liquor (with domestic alcoholism and international promotion budgets rising in roughly equal measure). Tying these threads together is a boozy travelogue leading up to that 300th shot, recounting situations familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered a Chinese toasting banquet while being carefully inclusive of regional differences in tastes and cultural practices.


Drunk in China: Baiju and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture, Derek Sandhaus (Potomac Books, November 2019)
Drunk in China: Baiju and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture, Derek Sandhaus (Potomac Books, November 2019)

At the heart of Drunk in China is a salient question: “How can a drink, consumed for centuries by the world’s most populous nation, become the world’s best-selling liquor and still remain functionally invisible abroad?” If Sandhaus’s rejoinder at times seems indulgently expansive, it never falsely minimizes a substantial gap in perception between Chinese and non-Chinese drinkers.

Part of the difference is linguistic. The modern Chinese word for alcoholic beverages is jiu, usually rendered indiscriminately in English as “wine”. Semantic gradations in Chinese range from beer (pijiu) to grain wines (huangjiu) to white spirits (baijiu), with corresponding alcohol levels rising by more than a factor of 10. And yet, conflation between fermented and distilled beverages crops up even among Chinese. I was once a part of museum delegation concerning a proposed Museum of Drinking in Guizhou province where even—or perhaps especially—liquor industry professionals made no distinction between the fermented tipple of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (a one-time resident of the region) and the 100-proof firewater that PLA soldiers famously used to sterilize wounds.

Occasionally Sandhaus finds some of the modern myths backed by verifiable facts. “In the first decade of Communist rule,” he writes, “the government built the baijiu industry from the top down.” The first business license in the People’s Republic in fact went to Red Star Erguotou, a light-aroma baijiu made in Beijing.

Baijiu’s reputation as “the people’s drink” also rings true, particularly for those with expense accounts. Although alcohol has been considered part of fine Chinese dining for centuries, only in the past decades has its potency and prevalence become a problem. As China has grown in wealth and prominence, so too has “ganbei culture” taken hold of the workplace; toasting sessions that once took place a couple of times a year now occur several times a week. As Sandhaus observes:


Few high-level decisions in China are made without the aid of a strong drink. So closely is professional advancement tied to one’s drinking that the more successful one becomes, the more they must drink. China is the world’s only nation where an adult’s likelihood to binge increases with age.


With any Confucian sense of moderation now in stark decline, alcohol tolerance in China has become a professional skill (often cited on résumés) and alcohol poisoning an occupational hazard. Sandhaus cites a 2011 hospital study documenting the ill health of government officials in Hubei province: nearly 34 percent suffered from liver damage, with kidney malfunction running a close second.

China’s drinking culture took another hit from Beijing’s anti-corruption purge in 2012. To understand how the liquor industry—particularly the blue-chip brand Kweichow Moutai—became a primary target, you only need to see the figures. Sandhaus recounts a Global Times estimate pegging the Chinese government’s 2011 liquor tab at 600 billion yuan (about US$95 billion), roughly three times the country’s official defense budget.

Though China’s liquor industry has recovered since, it’s still in something of a holding pattern regarding its profile abroad. Sandhaus writes about his own work in promoting baijiu internationally, in large part as co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Ming River Sichuan Baijiu. He does, though, overstate his case a bit in describing his 2013 gathering in Shanghai to invent a vocabulary for Chinese liquor in saying that “nothing like this had ever been attempted.”

Something like that was in fact attempted back in 2006, much to my wife’s dismay, when I coopted our wedding retreat in Guizhou into coaxing some 20 friends—formidable drinkers from both sides of the Pacific—into applying to baijiu the same rigor they normally reserved for wine and whisky. (After about 15 different liquors, mostly from Guizhou and Sichuan, “moldy tennis shoe” became a non-judgmental category much the way “cat pee” is an accepted, even favorable, descriptor for Sauvignon Blanc.)

The fundamental problem in creating a mutually understandable baijiu vocabulary is that even when the Chinese and non-Chinese drinkers use the same word—“fragrant” comes up a lot, as does “pure”—they often mean different things. It took some time for the Americans and Europeans to realize that “pure” meant strict consistency from aroma to aftertaste. (Our Chinese drinkers had no problem with complexity, but they wanted it all at once.)

Sandhaus himself hints at the underlying problem in such an exercise: red wines and distilled malts have become the elites of the drink chain, while baijiu from the beginning has been regarded as an Everyman’s Drink. More appropriate comparisons would come with grappa or tequila, two culturally specific drinks that—partly through their association with food—have crossed over into the world’s culinary mainstream with greater success.

Though he often positions baijiu by turns as a cause or target of China’s woes, Sandhaus remains consistently upbeat about its future, his microhistory ultimately treating alcohol more as an indicator of systematic troubles in need of correction. Many details may be culturally specific, but like drinking anywhere, the answers all boil down to quality and quantity.

Ken Smith is an award-winning critic and journalist. He covers music and cultural developments on five continents for a wide range of media.