In other posts I have discussed the power of baijiu to change the course of an evening. What’s less documented is its ability to change the course of world events, such as the time it nearly burned down the White House.*
Like most Maotai-related cautionary tales, our story begins at the Great Hall of the People. The occasion was U.S. President Richard Milhous Nixon’s much-heralded 1972 trip to China. To welcome his delegation the Chinese government prepared a lavish feast with free-flowing Kweichow Moutai 贵州茅台 (a.k.a. Maotai or, as embedded journalist Dan Rather put it, “liquid razor blades”).
Prior to the oft-belligerent president’s arrival, one advisor wired the following message to Washington: “UNDER NO REPEAT NO CIRCUMSTANCES, SHOULD THE PRESIDENT ACTUALLY DRINK FROM HIS GLASS IN RESPONSE TO BANQUET TOASTS.” The advice went unheeded. “Aided only in part by the mao tai,” security advisor John Holdridge later recalled, “the atmosphere in the Great Hall was electric.” And he should know, having spent the evening playing drinking games with the Chinese Minister of Electronics. Walter Cronkite suffered a (possibly baijiu-induced) chopsticks faux pas that sent an olive airborne. Meanwhile at the head table Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was showing a presumably blitzed Nixon a cute party trick – how to set Maotai ablaze.
The trip was a roaring success, and the president returned to Washington with mended Sino-American diplomatic relations, two panda bears for the National Zoo and a couple bottles of Maotai. To give his daughter a practical demonstration of Chinese hooch’s potency, Nixon poured some Maotai in a saucer and attempted to reproduce Zhou’s flaming baijiu trick. The resulting fire was so hot that it cracked the saucer, which in turn set the tablecloth aflame.
The fire was snuffed out before it did any serious damage, but one can easily imagine how the scene could have played out. The jowly president being whisked away by secret service onto the first available helicopter. Pat making a desperate leap into the Rose Garden, trail of smoke in her wake. And, in a dark bunker on the other end of the earth, the Great Helmsman chortling to himself between deep drags of Chunghwa cigarettes…
But it was no elaborate Communist Plot. Just one of many blunders by an American politician well remembered for his missteps. Maotai, for its part, remains popular with Chinese government officials.