More than a quarter-million people live in Pujiang, and most of them were watching when I started to like baijiu.
I was in the middle of a cordoned-off intersection in the city center, surrounded by a battalion of adorable Sichuanese schoolgirls in bright red silk pajamas. They were all armed with drums. I had a drum, too: one of the girls strapped it to me before dragging me from my seat. The girls were performing a complicated drum/dance routine, which I was supposed to be, but had no chance of, following.
This should have been embarrassing, but I was having a blast. And I owe it all to baijiu.
My day began under the mistaken impression that I was going to a company picnic with my wife, and a feeling of sinking dread kicked in when I realized what I’d gotten myself into. The Sichuan Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries hosted the day’s festivities. I’d been to similar “Friendship” events in the past (I still have nightmares about sitting through a particularly odious variety show at the Shanghai Grand Theater), so I knew that I was in for government officials rattling off statistics and ham-handed platitudes ad nauseam, and several “traditional” Chinese activities.
The morning’s events were predictably dull – a stop at a development zone in the middle of nowhere and a walk around a Ming Dynasty garden – but things picked up at lunch. The familiar fruity, nail-polish-remover-y smell found me the instant I entered the banquet hall. There was baijiu at every table, lots of baijiu. And not just any baijiu, it was Luzhou Laojiao’s 泸州老窖 flagship Guojiao (National Cellar) 1573. Its name refers to the age of the old fermentation cellar (lao jiao 老窖), supposedly China’s oldest cellar still in use, and it retails for around RMB1,400 (US$220).
No one was really touching the stuff, but I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. I answered a Party official’s wine toast with baijiu, and responded with a toast of my own. It was smooth, warm going down but without the burning or gag reflex. The taste was complex and possibly even pleasant. It was the best baijiu I have ever tasted.
So I enjoyed drinking baijiu. Does this mean my 300 shot challenge is at an end? Hardly. After five shots of mystery baijiu at dinner, I would’ve washed my mouth out with toilet water, if only to get the taste out. When I asked the official next to me what kind of baijiu we were drinking, he replied, “hao jiu” (“good alcohol”). Never a good sign.
The deeper significance of this episode is that I’m finally starting to get a sense of how baijiu fits into the China puzzle. Most outsiders dread the formal Chinese event, because they fear drinking baijiu and having to endure a tedious succession of events, but the secret is to drink baijiu in order to enjoy the tedious succession of events. I banged on drums with children, I danced the rural Sichuanese equivalent of a horah with women in minority costumes, and I and watched a firework display while holding a swag stuffed elephant like a five-year old. And I loved it. With the help of my fiery little friend, what should have been a long slog was transformed into 13 hours of awesome. There’s still ground to cover, but the first line of defense has been breached.
233 shots to go.
For media coverage of my performance, follow the links below: