Holding your bladder

Last month a court in Beijing sentenced a businessman to life in prison for illegally smuggling over 70 thousand bottles of wine, valued at around RMB45 million ($7.1 million). The man in question, 62-year-old Sun Xitai of Liaoning Province, was declaring expensive bottles as inferior brands in order to avoid the exorbitant tax rate on imported liquor. As reported in the Shanghai Daily:

Sun said at his trial last September that he had no choice but to smuggle, as the tax rate on wines – up to 50 percent – was too high for him. “It would be difficult to stay in business if I went through official channels,” Sun said.

It’s China’s biggest liquor smuggling case to date, but the sentence seems a little harsh – I mean, if we punished tax evaders like that in America, we’d have no legitimate challenger for the presidency. It seems especially unreasonable when we consider China’s proud history with regard to alcohol taxes.

In old imperial Peking, for example, Chinese alcohol was consumed in much the same way it is today. If you wanted booze, you headed over to the local jiuguan 酒馆 or jiulou 酒楼, establishments where one could purchase and consume alcohol while dining, or at a smaller but similar venue, the jiubu 酒餔. Just like today, you bought your alcohol to go at small convenience stores rather than designated alcohol shops. And then as now, people hated paying taxes on their alcohol.

19th century map of Peking (Beijing)

Beijing was a walled city, and the Customs House was located just outside at the Chongwen (Hatamen) Gate in the southeast corner of the Tartar City. The Customs levied fines on all alcohol coming into the city from the major distilleries located to the east of the city. To get around paying the duties, inns that specialized in wholesale liquor, known as jiudian 酒店, set up shop just outside the gate. Other techniques included smuggling the alcohol through the Chaoyang (Qihua) Gate or foisting it over the 50ft (15m) high walls, neither of which would have been feasible without the tacit approval of corrupt – or possibly thirsty – local officials.

And then there’s the old bladder method, as described by Dr. John Dudgeon of Imperial University (now Peking University) in his seminal 1895 text Beverages of China:

A Chinaman or woman, with their loose clothes and long gowns, can secrete 120 catties [about 60kg or 132lb] in 5 or 6 catty pig’s bladders around their waists. They carry a few of these bladders likewise quite exposed on their shoulders, and for these they perhaps pay a small duty to the petty officials. They make three or four runs daily. A very large quantity of spirits is thus smuggled into the city. Poor people who desire to make a livelihood are found on the streets or by the road-sides, with tea and spirits for sale. The large kettles are wrapped round with a close-fitting felt covering, to keep the tea infusion warm; and the mouth of the spirit jar is covered with a pig’s bladder, to prevent evaporation. It is often sold in considerable quantities in these bladders.

Old habits die hard, but in the intervening century certain smuggling methods seem to have fallen by the wayside. Wrapping yourself in entrails to underreport your taxes – wonder why Sun Xitai never thought of that?

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