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.