Most foreigners who live in China learn not to tangle with China’s most notorious and widely-drunk form of alcohol, baijiu. Some acquire this knowledge vicariously, the less-fortunate through hard-bitten experience.
Run-ins with baijiu have left friends in hospital, others close to comatose, and in the case of one Briton, prone in the aisle of an aircraft. His route to inebriation was not atypical: an extended lunchtime banquet following the inking of a power station financing deal in the mid-1990s.
The Brit was an accomplished drinker but late-night negotiation sessions had weakened him, and anyway baijiu has a kick all of its own and can catch the uninitiated unawares. By the time he and his colleagues escaped the banquet for the airport they were already losing ambulatory function. The cabin crew, obviously alerted in advance by local authorities, laid him in the aisle – ready for takeoff. He was still lying there when the plane landed.
Westerners’ efforts to avoid baijiu could fill a thick book. The colorless firewater, usually served at banquets in deceptively small glasses has been discretely tossed over shoulders, poured onto carpeted floors, emptied into hidden bottles, surreptitiously tipped into soup tureens or watered down on the sly in between toasts. Some of the most hardened “Old China Hands” have invoked alleged cancer conditions, esoteric liver diseases, religious restrictions and pregnancy to escape the bitter side-effects of a determined effort by the Chinese members of the banquet party to get everyone plastered in the shortest time possible. A serious baijiu session, often unavoidable in certain parts of the country, can leave you sweating noxious fumes for days.
It is of course subjective, and there are clearly those who like the drink, but for me baijiu’s only redeeming quality is that every glass tastes better than the last.
Depending on who you believe, baijiu (literally “white alcohol”) has been around for anywhere between 600 and 5,000 years. Made from fermented grains, there are thousands of varieties with different tastes. The best examples are said to be sorghum-based. Alcohol content generally hovers between 40 and 60 percent, which explains its considerable impact on the unwary as well as on the long-term health of dedicated drinkers.
Shanghai and the coastal regions to the south have traditionally generally passed on baijiu, preferring the more mild huangjiu (“yellow rice wine”), which is made of rice. In the north and the west and in more remote areas, however, baijiu remains a mainstay of both recreational and official entertaining. In some places baijiu has thankfully largely been replaced by grape wine at banquets, or at least offered as an alternative. But the choice of either baijiu or red wine is often a polite feint, and your Chinese hosts may really want you to allow them to drink their local variety of baijiu. Depending upon where you are in negotiations that might be the wise thing to do.
Spare a thought, however, for the officials who have long borne baijiu’s brunt. Shackled by cultural mores, there is often no escape. A Western former journalist recalls working with some officials in Gansu and Inner Mongolia a decade ago who are now dead because of the stuff. An unintended consequence of President Xi’s crackdown on government entertainment is that it may save others. I occasionally wonder about the longevity of the two Chinese gentlemen who introduced me to baijiu.
I was flying from Beijing to Qingdao in the summer of 1999, and I was the only laowai aboard the plane. Foreigners in China were still something of a novelty, and two fellow passengers befriended me. After landing, they drove me to the city center, found me a hotel room, and offered to take me to a harborside restaurant for dinner. It was downhill from there.
Xu Ximao, Deputy Section Chief of the Foreign Enterprise Department of the Qingdao Council for the Promotion of Overseas Investment (I still have his name card), was proud of Qingdao’s beer, and ordered bottle after bottle, all of which we drank. We raised our glasses to friendship, to our respective countries, to the fraternity of nations, to international harmony, to the Allies’ defeat of Japan, to the port of Qingdao, to the Foreign Enterprise Department, and so on. Each celebration was punctuated with a cry of “ganbei” and an upending of glasses. Somewhere between these liquid inhalations we ate seafood. Then Mr. Xu asked the waiter for a bottle of baijiu.
Moments like these are tipping points. The wise veterans know what lies ahead and retreat. Neophytes press on, emboldened by the alcohol and an inflated sense of self-worth. After two hours of camaraderie and back-slapping I felt as if I had single-handedly erased the Chinese memory of the Opium War; that any further Anglo-Chinese rapprochement would be traced back to this very evening. The baijiu could only make things better.
Two shots were enough to ratchet up the evening’s tempo. The baijiu tasted like hell but I didn’t care. Mr. Xu and his colleague stood on their chairs and sang revolutionary songs. I responded with barely remembered English hymns. The other diners watched more closely as the antics degenerated. With each additional glass, Mr. Xu became more animated, his inner Bacchus unleashed. Soon he invited the neighboring diners to share a drink with us. Next, arms spread wide like a benevolent Caesar, he began summoning all the other patrons. Table by table they marched up. Shot-by-shot, yet another laowai passed into the void.