‘A peculiar oriental odor’

The love-hate (but mostly hate) relationship between baijiu and the outside world has been well documented. I’m doing my damnedest to win over a few new recruits to team baijiu, but I recognize that this is an uphill battle against deep-seated animosities. But just how deeply seated are they?

Today’s question comes from Paul in Shanghai, who asks:

“[Do] you know of any historical references by foreigners to the dreaded white spirit? Going back a bit – I remember Dan Rather referring to Maotai as “liquid razor blades” during the ’72 Nixon trip but anything from pre-1949?”

To answer this one we need to go back to the very beginning. As I’ve written elsewhere, baijiu has been warming bellies and clouding minds in the Middle Kingdom since no later than the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It just so happens that Marco Polo, the original China expat, passed through China during this period.* Polo provides the following description of Chinese tipples:

“The greater part of the inhabitants of the province of Cathay drink a sort of wine made from rice mixed with a variety of spices and drugs. This beverage, or wine as it may be termed is so good and well flavoured that they do not wish for better. It is clear, bright, and pleasant to the taste, and being (made) very hot, has the quality of inebriating sooner than any other.” (Marsden, 1818.)

It’s unclear whether he is describing baijiu or not, as spirits were not yet well known in Europe or Asia, but the bit about being clear, made hot and going to your head all sounds dead on. The safe assumption is that he’s just referring to standard-issue mijiu (rice wine), which would have been served warm at the time and widely available.

Jumping ahead half a millennium to when foreigners began flocking to China in great numbers to buy tea, flood the domestic market with opium and make a general nuisance of themselves, we start seeing widespread reports on baijiu from all walks of life.

Some of the more colorful early descriptions of baijiu come to us from the seafaring class. Dr. C. Toogood Downing of the Royal College of Surgeons was traveling in China with the British navy in 1836-7. He records that the admiral issued a strict order to all officers against baijiu, because it is “found to be poison to the human frame.” The doctor correctly records the baijiu production process, and concludes that it should be “highly pungent and stimulating” but should in no way cause “deadly effects.” Then, in an about face of Yellow Peril-esque hysterics as painful to read as it is to type, Dr. Downing decides that the Chinese must put some deleterious poison in the baijiu afterwards, making it “that which very quickly saps the foundation of health, and brings the sailor to his last and final anchorage.”

Moving on to the Opium War, you have the case of the Kite, which wrecked off the coast of Chusan (Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province) and whose crew was taken prisoner in 1840. Merchant sailor John Lee Scott tells of his experiences on Christmas of that year:

“…we prevailed on the old jailer to allow us to have some samshu,** a liquor very like gin, and obtained from rice. We made a better Christmas of it than I had expected, and after our dinner we called our jailer in, and drank his health[.]”

Prisoners though they were, Chinese hospitality will not, and cannot, be denied. The jailor brought them a fresh haunch of goat to return the gesture and “as much samshu as [they] liked;” adding “with the exception of one Lascar [Indian crewman] getting drunk, no one ever forgot himself.”

It seems that the crew of the Kite were not the only ones who enjoyed the delights of Chinese hooch. Sir Robert Hastings Harris, who would retire a Royal Navy Admiral, writes of a Chinese merchant’s banquet he attended with another officer around the turn of the twentieth century in Hong Kong. He reports that in addition to being force-fed an astonishing 26 courses and drinking an equivalent amount of baijiu, he suffered no ill effects:

“Comparing notes with my brother officer the next day, I found that, like myself, he was none the worse for the festive Chinese banquet, or the large amount of “samshu” that had been swallowed. We concluded that it must have been very good liquor, and also drew the further moral that it is a safe and good practice not to partake of more than one beverage at a big dinner. We had certainly not expected to feel so fit after putting such a big tax upon our digestive organs, seeing that we were thoroughly ‘stodged’ at the end of the second feed.”

From the above cross-section we can reasonably conclude either (a) British sailors were more open-minded than many of their compatriots, or (b) British sailors would be happy drinking just about anything you put in front of them.

The American military view was more pragmatic, as evidenced by a Chinese phrase book given to troops during World War II, which says that baijiu is “quite good as a disinfectant when nothing else can be obtained.” Before you laugh, you should know that a certain brand of Erguotou (I won’t say which) started off by making disinfectant.

Then you have the men of science.*** Dr. John Dudgeon M.D. of Imperial College – which later became Peking University – deemed baijiu to be “devoid of all fragrance, and there is a great want of variety.” He adds that baijiu is a self-regulating drink. Because of the “fiery nature of their spirit,” the Chinese “cannot carry their drinking to the extent of intoxication” (1895). I think we’ll all sleep better knowing that Chinese will never abuse baijiu.

Science and Industry (1900) is brief and to the point: “The samshu was a very strong and potent article.”

J.H. Holland says, “The spirit possesses a peculiar pungent and disagreeable odour, which makes it unsuitable for certain purposes” (1912), but declines to specify what those purposes might be.

Chemist Charles E. Munsell writes, “It is not agreeable to the taste of Caucasians, as it tastes and smells like spoiled Jamaica rum” (1885).

The World’s Advance (1915) adds, “Samshu has a peculiar oriental odor and flavor, offensive to a foreigner, but quite popular with the native population. It is sold only in native stores and costs somewhat less than one cent per glass.” At least it’s good bang for your buck.

Finally we have the missionary take, which as you might guess is generally anti-baijiu. In 1840 the famous missionary cum translator cum opium peddling apologist Karl Gützlaff writes that “the use of spiritous liquors, especially that distilled from suh-leang [sorgham] grain, was very general, and intemperance, with its usual consequences, very prevalent.”

Reverend Justus Doolittle, which I hope was a pen name, provides this misleading tidbit, “Chinese wine is always a distilled liquor, a kind of whisky” (1867). This of course isn’t true, and is a baffling comment from someone who was based in Fujian, one of the major producers of undistilled rice wine.

The French Catholic missionary Évariste Régis Huc seems quite well informed on Chinese alcohol, but ultimately sides against the firewater, writing:

“This horrible drink is the delight of the Chinese, especially of those of the North, who swallow it like water . . . One can hardly imagine what pleasure the Chinese find in imbibing these burning drinks, which are absolutely like liquid fire, and, moreover, very ill tasted” (1854).

So the early foreign devil verdict was not altogether favorable, but, as Abbé Huc notes, foreigners in his day were “always disposed to judge a priori of Chinese productions.” Such attitudes have probably changed less than we’d like to admit in the time since.

I should also point out that until the latter half of the twentieth century, baijiu was almost exclusively produced by small private distillers with no quality standards or government oversight. It wasn’t until the 1980s that you could be reasonably certain that you were drinking unadulterated products. So if you think baijiu’s bad now, take comfort in the idea that in the period during which these people were writing it was almost certainly worse. A lot worse.

*There is some debate about whether Marco Polo ever actually spent time in China and, if so, how much of it he saw thanks in part to the work of the brilliant Frances Wood. But that is a question for another day.

**Samshu, or saamsiu 三燒, is Cantonese for “thrice fired,” which originally referred to a triple-distilled rice baijiu sold in Qing-era Canton (Guangzhou). The literal translation was lost on most foreigners in old China, who began using it to refer to all baijiu.

***Women, it is sad to note, were curiously absent in the discussion of baijiu. 

Got a question about baijiu? Send it to derek (at) sandha.us.

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One Response to ‘A peculiar oriental odor’

  1. Pingback: The Baijiu Bender : The Last Word On Nothing

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