Inebriation is as much a part of millennia-old Chinese culture and history as drinking tea. The Chinese share toasts for good health and happiness; they get drunk to celebrate joyous occasions and to seal business deals; they drink for ceremonial or night capping purposes. As a laowai looking for a Chinese wife, you should expect to share more than a few drinks with your future wife’s father and to join in “spirited” family celebrations. Especially if you’re only an occasional drinker, you may want to familiarize yourself – your taste buds and your bloodstream – with the different types of Chinese alcohol.
There are two general types of Chinese spirits: white/clear liquors (made from sorghum), or baiju, and yellow liquors (made from rice, millet, or wheat), or huangjiu.
Baiju is also known as fire water. Though the Chinese regularly drink this distilled liquor during family dinners and celebrations, at home or in restaurants, or with friends and colleagues (in much the same way that westerners drink beer), most foreigners find its taste very unfavorable, at best, or just downright painful, at worst.
In fact, author Tim Clissold said this of most foreigners’ experience drinking China’s most popular drink, “after drinking it, most people screw up their faces in an involuntary expression of pain and some even yell out.”
One of the most common jokes among foreigners is that if they start enjoying a glass of baiju, then they’ve probably been in China too long. At first sip, Baiju has a subtle sweet flavor that will make you think “It’s not as bad as people say.” But the drink has not earned the nickname “fire water” for nothing. The liquor comes in 80% to 120% proof (40%-60% alcohol) and actually tastes more like rubbing alcohol or diesel fuel, depending on the brand and proof. Popular varieties of Baiju include: Fen jiu, Zhu Ye Qing jiu, Mao Tai jiu, Gao Liang jiu, Da Gujiu, and ErGuoTou.
Huangjiu is liquor that is also widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. This “yellow wine/liquor” actually varies in color, from clear to beige, to yellowish-brown, or reddish-brown; it has less than 20% alcohol and, unlike Baiju, is not made through distillation.
This liquor is often served during ceremonies and special occasions, such as during the birth of a child, engagements and weddings, and funerals; it is also sometimes used in cooking. The different varieties of Huangiu are classified according to their levels of dryness and sweetness, and also based on the production method and the started used.
Popular Huangjiu include Mijiu (which is similar to Japanese sake), Fujian glutinous rice wine (which uses many expensive medicinal herbs), Shaoxing wine (often used in cooking), and Liaojiu (which is another common cooking wine).
Pijiu is Chinese beer and, just like most other beers, was introduced by the Germans. Chinese beers have the same light taste as, but come in bigger bottles than, their western counterparts. China’s number one ale is Tsingtao, which originates from Qingdao, Shandong Province. Local brands can also be found in most cities and provinces.
Chinese men are known to drink heavily at all times of the day; drinking and driving are a common habit so always cross the streets extra-carefully. When you finally meet your future Chinese wife’s family, it would be impolite to refuse a drink offered to you, as well as the refills. So remember to pace yourself, especially if you’re not a heavy drinker. And make sure you’ve had your fill during dinner so as to slow down the effects of alcohol. You might as well learn one or two toasts in Chinese, too!
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