Miracle in Dongbei?

Last week Xinhua published a story whose headline announced, “Nation’s oldest brewery unearthed in northeast China.”

The nation’s oldest brewery – Harbin – is indeed in Dongbei, but upon closer inspection this story was about the oldest distillery. The story reports that while performing renovations, a liquor plant in Da’an, Jilin Province, discovered boilers and other equipment dating back to late in the Liao Dynasty (907-1125).

“At the time, nobody thought much of them. We actually tried to sell them as pig iron,” said Kong Linghai, general manager of the factory … Kong later came to realize the value of the devices after visiting a liquor museum in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

Feng Enxue, an archaeologist at Jilin University, believes that the remains are from a baijiu distillery that catered to the Liao emperors, who used Da’an as a resort. If his suspicions are confirmed, the article continues:

… the discovery in Da’an places the liquor’s origin at least 200 years earlier [than previously believed], possibly refuting the theory that baijiu brewing originated in another country, according to Feng.

Baijiu originating in China would, rather inconveniently, contradict the conclusion I reached when examining the spirit’s roots in earlier posts: Alcohol distillation was invented in the Middle East and probably arrived in China during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), definitely not earlier than the Song Dynasty (960-1279). But, setting aside the fact that the Xinhua article’s headline pronounces the verdict before anyone has actually had a chance to study the findings, I think there are a few reasons to be skeptical of the out-of-Dongbei theory.

As I mentioned in my first post on baijiu’s origins, the Chinese first used stills as far back as the Han Dynasty. The Liao Dynasty was concurrent with the Song, who had stills. The Jin Dynasty, who conquered the Liao, also had stills, so it’s not unreasonable to think that the Jin could have inherited their distillation technology from the Liao. The sticking point is the textual evidence. We know that stills were used by the Chinese to create cosmetics and perfumes, but no source describes the distillation of alcohol until the Yuan Dynasty, long after the process was perfected in the Middle East. So even if archaeologists find the boilers to be part of stills, it’s unlikely that the stills were used in the creation of baijiu.

The nationalistic undertones of the story also have me on my guard. Call me a cynic, but whenever I see someone going out of their way to prove China did something before everyone else – as if that mattered – I throw up in my mouth a little (See: Conman/pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies). Yes, a loosely defined China invented a ton of stuff, but in this instance the claim doesn’t even make sense. The Middle Eastern alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan first distilled alcohol around the 8th century, which predates the Liao Dynasty by over a hundred years. Moreover, if the equipment found in Da’an is, as the article claims, about 800 years old, then it would have come from a time when alcohol was already widely disseminated throughout Eurasia.

If the flag-waving isn’t enough to raise your hackles, consider the profit motive. A guy running a baijiu company accidentally discovers the nation’s oldest distillery right underneath his factory. This in a market where baijiu brands bend over backwards to out-heritage each other and prove their baijiu has the most history. I’m not saying this couldn’t happen, but it’d be a coincidence on the order of PT Barnum discovering a wooly mammoth underneath Jumbo’s cage. Keep in mind also that this story appears in a country where positive media coverage is regularly purchased. Not an accusation, just something worth considering.

All the same, I look forward to hearing what the researchers have to say about the Da’an excavation AFTER they’ve had a chance to analyze it. But I’m not holding my breath.

Related stories:

The Birth of Baijiu Part I, Part II, Part III

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