Something funny happened at the San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915. According to China’s baijiu heavyweights, the story goes something like this: China walked into the World’s Fair, unleashed a massive alcoholic beat down and returned home conquering heroes, trail of broken European spirit makers in their wake. In Chinese media, this is often portrayed as something akin to the shock felt after the famous “Judgment of Paris,” where American vintners walloped their French counterparts, and the latter have been whining about it ever since (pun intended).
In the case of China’s triumph, it’s the winners that won’t shut up. According to The Beijing Review, China won 1,211 awards and became “the focus of the event.” Shanxi Fen Jiu says it won a gold medal. So do Wuliangye and Luzhou Laojiao. Maotai claims a respectable second place award. In fact, just about every Chinese alcohol variety from Changyu (grape wine) to Shaoxing (huangjiu, or “yellow” rice wine) claims to have taken home a prize, and almost a hundred years later they’re still fighting about the results.
This has always rubbed me the wrong way. How could any baijiu, let alone many baijius, win an international alcohol competition in 1915? We’re talking about the same 1915 when pasta was exotic foreign food and women showing ankle skin were “loose.” Baijiu is a hard sell in today’s more adventuresome times, and we’re supposed to believe that a bunch of whiskey drinking Yankees were won over by Chinese sorghum funk? Not likely. So with only my bullshit detector to guide me, I set out on some historical sleuthing.
The facts. The Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) was held by the United States to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.* It was seen as a coming out party for the new San Francisco, a city forced to rebuild after the devastating 1906 earthquake.
It was also a coming out for the new Chinese Republic. When China registered for the PPIE in 1912, the United States hadn’t yet officially recognized them. The Chinese people had just overthrown their Manchu rulers, ending several thousand years of monarchy. China had participated in earlier World’s Fairs, but always under the auspices of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, a foreign-run division of the Manchu government seen by many as the vanguard of British colonialism in China. This time around China’s government wanted to show that they could impress on a world stage in their own right; a viewpoint not unlike that of the CCP towards the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Soon after intention to attend was confirmed, reports a 1914 New York Times article entitled “China to Lead at the Fair,” China had “appropriated $1,500,000 [the equivalent of about $33 million today] for its exhibit and has asked for 50 percent more floor space than could be given to that country.” The Chinese display contained a replica of the Tai-Ho Palace and part of the Forbidden City, a miniature model of the Great Wall, a couple of teahouses, several curio stalls and a large exhibit of Chinese art.
What I could not find in any record, official or unofficial, was even a passing mention of Chinese alcohol. The most detailed account of China’s participation comes from Frank Morton Todd’s five-volume magnum opus The Story of the Exposition, in which he recounts bird’s nest and shark’s fin soup being served at several banquets hosted by the Chinese, mostly for Chinese students and visiting dignitaries. Todd also notes, “most of the commodities shown by [China] at the Exposition were adapted to the native Oriental needs, with relatively few designed for foreign commerce”.
The American sources provide no corroborating evidence to support the claim that Chinese alcohol shook the world. So what about Chinese sources? In an interview with Radio 86, Maotai factory director Qiao Hong recounts Maotai’s side of the story:
The bottles were black without clear and distinctive labels. Visitors at the expo walked past the exhibition without noticing the product and even the judges were reluctant to take a taste from the suspicious looking bottles … One of the Maotai representatives got so frustrated with the poorly organized trip [to] the exposition that he smashed one of the unattractive bottles on the floor. The bottle shattered into small pieces and the extraordinary odor of the drink spread into the exposition area. People gathered around, attracted by the smell, and ultimately the drink received several mentions. In those days, China was a poor and undeveloped country. International recognition served to lift the spirit of the Chinese and Maotai was accorded the title of national drink in 1915.
This story is almost certainly apocryphal. In addition to his claim that Maotai was named China’s national drink in 1915 – which actually happened in the 1950s, when Zhou Enlai started using it to entertain dignitaries – the interview contains other epic whoppers, like, “Although alcohol is not good for your health, I dare to say that Maotai liquor is healthy.” As for the 1915 American onlookers being attracted by the smell of baijiu, I’m not buying it.
So how do we explain China’s alleged success at the PPIE? One factor could be that the Expo was held in 1915, when most of the world’s best alcohol producers (from a Western perspective) were distracted by a certain “War to End All Wars.” That being said, the official program lists 16 nations besides China with stands at the expo’s Palace of Food Pavilion. At least some of them (I’m looking at you Italy, Australia and Japan) could have given baijiu a run for its money and America, no slouch in alcohol production, hadn’t yet entered the conflict, so the war theory seems incomplete at best.
So we must find answers by looking to the awards system itself. Baijiu’s accomplishments would surely be diminished if the award system was unofficial or nonexistent, but it turns out that the PPIE had a specially selected panel of 500 judges operating under strict guidelines. They ranked various nations’ products on a hundred point scale and awarded medals as follows:
Grand Prize (Best of Class)
Medal of Honor (95-100 points)
Gold Medal (85-94 points)
Silver Medal (75-84 points)
Bronze Medal (60-74 points)
Honorable Mention (without medal) SOURCE: F.M. Todd
The structure is revealing. The gold medals that the baijiu companies brag about appear to actually be 3rd place awards, and Maotai’s 2nd place may be a 4th place medal. What’s more, the committee awarded a total of over 25,000 medals, meaning that there must have been a category for just about everything. In this light, winning one of five medals in a “best baijiu” category feels equivalent to receiving a participation trophy on field day.
With this discovery, I hope that we can finally put to rest the myth of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Frankly, it didn’t seem like all that impressive an accomplishment to begin with, but what really gets me is the smug laziness of the whole thing. It just feels like baijiu companies are getting far too comfortable on their hundred-year-old laurels, like how Pabst refuses to let us forget about their 1893 “Best Beer in America” award.** You may have invented navigation and printing by the Han Dynasty, China, but what have you done for me lately?
*It’s worth noting that a good number of the Chinese-language stories about the event on the internet seem not to understand that the event took place in California rather than Panama.
**According to Wikipedia, there also seems to be some controversy surrounding PBR’s claim to fame.