What is the Chinese culture about alcohol

The origin of viticulture is in China

Today, France or Italy are more likely to be the centers of viticulture, but the roots of wine are not in Europe, but in Asia. In China, archaeological finds and historical records show that alcoholic beverages were made from grapes as early as 9,000 years ago. Long before the establishment of the Silk Road, this drink and its raw materials were also sought-after barter and trade goods.

Alcoholic beverages are not only luxury goods, they also played an important role in the culture and religion of early civilizations thousands of years ago. The semi-sedentary people of the Natufien culture in the Middle East brewed a kind of beer from wild grain and other plant additives as early as 13,000 years ago. On the other hand, 5000 year old finds of brewing utensils and mash residues in northern China are evidence of the advanced art of brewing.

Mixture of beer, wine and mead

But what about the wine - after all, one of the most popular alcoholic beverages today? "Alcohol and especially grape wine played a very significant role on the Eurasian continent for thousands of years," explains Peter Kupfer, sinologist from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. "The emergence of all Eurasian high cultures is closely linked to the development of an initially magical and subsequently socio-religious ritualized wine and alcohol culture." The scientist has been researching the origins and development of wine culture in China for around 40 years and has now gained his knowledge summarized in a book.

According to Kupfer, it is probably not beer but wine that is the oldest and most widespread cultural and ritual drink known to mankind. Evidence for this is provided, among other things, by finds from Jiahu in the northern Chinese province of Henan. There, archaeologists around Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania discovered vessels from around 7000 BC in which residues of a fermented drink were preserved. Closer analysis revealed that this drink was a mixture of beer, wine and mead. It was made with grapes, rice, honey, and certain mushroom cultures. Only a little later, around 8,000 years ago, viticulture began in Georgia, as archaeological finds suggest.

Nomadic tribes as "development workers"

It is no coincidence that what is possibly the oldest wine in the world was found in China of all places, as Kupfer explains. Because it was in this region that the greatest diversity and density of wild vines grew at that time. Even today there are more than 40 wild Vitis species in China, 30 of which are native species. China's early winemaking experienced a strong boom, especially during the Bronze Age, when members of the nomadic Rong and Di tribes invaded China from what is now Iran. "These tribes brought their viticulture and winemaking skills from Central Asia and ancient Persia to northern China, where they began to cultivate and trade in wine," reports Kupfer.

In the period that followed, the knowledge of viticulture and winemaking was also spread to other areas of China and Eurasia. Eurasian societies have maintained contact and exchange with one another over vast geographical distances, not only since the silk road was in bloom two thousand years ago, but also since prehistoric times - including about the best methods of producing alcoholic beverages. It is still unknown whether there was a direct connection between the sites of the earliest evidence of wine production in China and Georgia. In the opinion of Kupfer, however, this is entirely possible.

Drink of heaven

What is clear, however, is that alcohol has played an important role in Chinese culture over the millennia. Especially from the Zhou dynasty around 1100 BC. Alcohol was considered a drink from heaven. “The idea prevailed that alcohol was a cosmic and universal phenomenon that originated in heaven,” explains Kupfer. Humans, in turn, were given the decision on how to use alcohol. Confucianism also took up this idea. "Even today people in China toast themselves as it was prescribed in written instructions about hospitality 3,000 years ago," explains Kupfer.

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz; Book: "Amber Luster and Black Dragon Pearls: The History of Chinese Wine Culture"; ISBN-13: 978-3-946114-28-4

April 21, 2020

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