The birth of baijiu, part II: What’s in a name?

This is the second in a three-part series exploring the question “When did the Chinese start drinking baijiu?” In the first installment we established that the earliest period in which the Chinese had the technology required to distill alcohol was during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220AD). This time around, we’ll be trying to establish the other end of the spectrum: “When was the latest that baijiu could have first been distilled?” For this question we’ll need to dip into our philological toolkits.

Today we call Chinese spirits baijiu 白酒 (white alcohol) and spirits in general zhengliujiu 蒸馏酒 (distilled alcohol). In ancient China there were many names for baijiu, the most common of which was shaojiu 烧酒 (burnt wine). One suggested solution for determining baijiu’s origins has thus been to trace the origins of the word shaojiu, which first appears in the second half of the first millennium, AD.

Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Yong Tao wrote, “After acquainting myself with the shaojiu of Chengdu, I no longer wish to return to Chang’an.”* This is interesting because it indicates that the Chinese could have been drinking baijiu at a very early date, and also that my adopted home, Chengdu, has been a center for baijiu-making for over a millennium. Another well-known Tang poet, Bai Juyi, wrote a verse to shaojiu, which he said shone “bright as amber.” A chronicle of China’s most famous alcohols at the time also mentions a brand called “Jiannan zhi Shaochun” 剑南之烧春 (Southern Sword Shaochun), shaochun being synonymous with saying shaojiu.**

So there was unquestionably a drink called shaojiu during the Tang Dynasty, but was it baijiu? The only clue comes from a Tang Dynasty miscellany, Touhuang Zalu 投荒杂录, which states:

“Southerners have a drink they call ‘Jishao 既烧’ (already burnt). This is actually a jar full of alcohol covered with mud on top and then placed over fire. If it isn’t warm, you shouldn’t drink it.”

Unusual, but baijiu it ain’t.

Next came the Song Dynasty (960-1279), where the story gets downright messy. For much of Song rule, the alcohol industry was strictly controlled by the state, which meant that if the Chinese were making spirits, they also had a mechanism by which to spread its gospel to all corners of the empire. Archeologists have uncovered stills from the Song Dynasty (and its northern contemporary, the Jin Dynasty) that are more advanced than those of their Eastern Han ancestors. As was the case with the Tang era, there are countless mentions of shaojiu in Song writings, and also the arrival of a newcomer: zhengjiu 蒸酒 (steamed wine).

Much later zhengjiu would be used as an abbreviated form of the word for distilled alcohol (zhengliujiu), but what did it mean to Song drinkers? Song historian Hong Mai writes, “One master of alcohol fell into the fire because of zhengjiu”, but doesn’t indicate whether our brewmaster was making alcohol at the time or was just fell in the fire because he was drunk, or whether the fire was being used to distill alcohol or steam rice. What’s more, we don’t know if the “steamed wine” referred to is a wine that is distilled (converted to steam) or to an undistilled wine made using steamed rice. Still nothing conclusive.

Finally we come to the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Mongols conquered half the world at a time when people living in not so distant lands had were hitting the hard stuff, but there’s also textual evidence indicating they had it back home. Writing during the Ming Dynasty, which directly followed the Yuan, physician Li Shizhen writes:

“Shaojiu wasn’t made in ancient times, but was created during the Yuan Dynasty. The method uses strong wine and flavoring. Steam rises up and its drops are collected using a device.”

Dr. Li’s claim that spirits were created during the Yuan Dynasty is open to debate, but the method he describes is clearly distillation.

We can thus say with confidence that baijiu was definitely first consumed sometime between the Eastern Han and the Yuan periods – that is, between the first and the fourteenth centuries, AD – and probably during the Song or the Yuan periods. Which begs the question: Where did it come from? Find out next week in “The birth of baijiu, part III: The national drink?”

*Chang’an, modern day Xi’an, was the capital of Tang Dynasty.

**Today Jiannanchun 剑南春 is the name of  a popular Sichuan-based baijiu company. The brand was founded early on in the People’s Republic, but the town in which it is manufactured has been making baijiu for centuries, so there’s the ever-so-slight chance of a connection.

For “Birth of baijiu, part I: Still here after all these years,” click here.

For “Birth of baijiu, part III: The national drink,” click here.

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5 Responses to The birth of baijiu, part II: What’s in a name?

  1. Hi, I like your writing. I guess Baijiu came around after Song Dynasty. The Great hero Wu Song who beat that tiger to death with bear hands in the Riverside Story (水浒)after gulping down 18 bowls of wine would not have achieved that feat if he had drunk Baijiu.

  2. nf says:

    Hi, I love your blog, I am also a lover of baijiu.

    I think Chinese started baijiu much earlier, before Eastern Han Dynasty. Legend has it that “Du Kang” invented baijiu somewhere during the Zhou Dynasty. What is known for sure though is that Cao Cao (曹操), of the Three Kingdoms, wrote in his poem (短歌行) “何以解憂?唯有杜康” or “What can unravel these woes of mine? I know but one drink – Du Kang Wine”. Du Kang is a baijiu, so I think it is reasonable to say that the earliest would be around the time of Cao Cao.

  3. Derek says:

    Hi NF, glad you enjoy the blog. Don’t worry, I would never forget Du Kang, the legendary inventor of sorghum/millet wine.
    Many believe that Du Kang lived during the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600BC), which means that he not only lived thousands of years before baijiu came to China, but also before huangjiu. What he brewed would probably have most closely resembled a beer or barley wine, but not a baijiu. The baijiu you refer to, Ruyang Du Kang, is brewed in Du’s hometown (Ruyang) and otherwise has no connection to the original (possibly mythical) Du Kang.

  4. Paul Arnold says:

    Interesting article, thanks. Just a little confused though, according to wiki and the dictionary,”Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes or other fruits.” I mean, there is rice wine, and then now I come across baijiu, which supposedly is extracted from sorghum. Could it be our translation of “alcohol” in the west is off base when applying to cultures like China. Kinda perplexing, lost in translation. They call vodka wine no?

    • Derek says:

      Hi Paul. You are correct, our translations frequently miss the mark when applied to Chinese alcohol. Wine is technically an alcoholic beverage made from fermented fruit, whereas fermented grain drinks are typically referred to as ‘beers’. However in the case of huangjiu, simple Chinese grain-based alcoholic beverages, we are dealing with a drink that is clearly different from the Western notion of beer and is at least superficially (color, alcohol levels, sweetness, etc.) more similar to wine. So while I sometimes use the term grain wine or rice wine, I’m talking about a huangjiu or saké — drinks for which a Western equivalent does not exist.

      In terms of jiu 酒, I think the most accurate translation is “alcoholic beverage”. As a literal translation, it’s a bit of a mouthful, so like most people I have elected to use context to determine the meaning: huangjiu (Chinese grain wine), baijiu (Chinese spirits), pijiu (beer), putaojiu (grape wine), etc.

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