»  The Straggler, No. 64

March 10, 2008

  White Lightning

I see that the highest grades of Chinese baijiu ("white liquor" — it's pronounced bye-jee-oo) were retailing at over three thousand dollars the bottle this Lunar New Year. It is good to know that all the T-bonds we have been shipping over there are having their coupons put to use.

This particular extravagance probably seems very baffling to non-Chinese who have had some slight acquaintance with baijiu. General opinion among round-eyes is that while the stuff is probably very efficacious at stripping the rust off bolts, it is not fit for human consumption.

What do they know, these barbarous dilettantes? I have been drinking baijiu for thirty years, and have got a taste for it. We have a good selection in the cocktail cabinet here, replenished at intervals from a shop in Manhattan's Chinatown. I'll allow that it took me a while to see the virtues of baijiu. I'll even allow, if pressed, that the principal one of those virtues is a very quick buzz. Mrs. Straggler drinks the stuff, though, and our Chinese friends drink it, so I have gotten used to it by way of social obligation.

To be perfectly honest about it, I am not sure I can distinguish one type of baijiu from another. The invaluable Wikipedia lists twenty varieties, most of whose names I recognize, but I should fail dismally on a blind tasting test. I think I might be able to pick out Yuk Bing Siu, which I used to drink by the tumbler in my reckless Hong Kong days, and which has a peculiar texture. As well it might if Wikipedia is to be believed:

After distillation, pork fat is stored with the liquor but removed before bottling. Its name probably derives from the brewing process: in Cantonese, yuk ("jade") is a homophone of "meat," and bing means "ice," which describes the appearance of the pork fat floating in the liquor.

Like everything that Chinese people ingest, baijiu comes with a catalog of instructions from whoever introduces you to it — promised health benefits, proper times and seasons for use, correct accompanying items and events, history, geography, and so on. No wonder Asian kids ace the SAT. I can never hold much of the data in my mind for long, but I do like the buzz.

There is a widespread impression in lands beyond the wall that the Chinese are not great drinkers. This is quite wrong, though as always in that "world within the world," there are regional variations. Mrs. Straggler's home district in the northeast (a Chinese person never says "Manchuria") was opened up to regular Chinese settlement only late in the last dynasty. The soil is very fertile, but there was no transport infrastructure. Nineteenth-century travelers saw stills everywhere. H.E.M. James, passing through in the 1880s, explains the logic:

The distilleries were really formidable places, with strong brick walls, eighteen feet high, surmounted by terre-plein and parapet all complete, the gate fortified, and at each angle flanking towers armed with small carronades … The doors and door-frames are of sheet iron, ornamented with massive studs … These distilleries represent the capital and wealth of the district, which can only export its surplus grain in the form of liquor, owing to its distance from the sea and the badness of the roads.

I have seen men lying dead drunk in the street in Manchuria, and in winter months, too. The strong Russian influence in the region probably has not helped matters.

Chinese dipsomania goes far back, though. Li Po, the most imaginative of the great tranche of eighth-century poets, was a notorious lush, and wrote some fine poems about drinking. He was once summoned to the Emperor's presence when too drunk to walk — he was carried in on a chair — and ordered to compose a poem for the Emperor's favorite concubine, plump and devious Lady Yang. Li dashed off three quatrains on the spot. They were at once set to music and sung, the Emperor himself playing the melody on a jade lute, and now they are in all the anthologies:

Lovely now together, his lady and his flowers
Lighten for ever the Emperor's eye…

It's a good story, though a dubious one: Li left the capital for good late in 744, while Lady Yang did not show herself openly at court until fall of 745.

A century and a half previously, the philosopher Wang Ji wrote about a journey he claimed to have made to the Land of the Drunk, one of those fantasy places the medieval Chinese loved to invent, and ended up half-believing in. There, he said, citizens "sip the wind and drink the dew, and abstain from the five cereals."

Wang was inspired by a third-century clique of Taoist nonconformists called the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who engaged in drinking parties and homosexual romps while philosophizing about — what else? — ideal forms of government. They actually came up with a political philosophy of inebriation. Says Wolfgang Bauer in China and the Search for Happiness:

The official collapsing with glazed eyes behind his desk, who uses his offices primarily for drinking bouts, and makes his acceptance of a position in the provinces depend upon the quality of the wine cellar, became a kind of ideal figure to be applauded and admired.

(It helps here to understand that the Taoist-Legalist ideal of statecraft was a system of such all-encompassing and inflexibly-applied laws and punishments that the ruler had nothing to do — nothing but, as a very old cliché prescribed, "sit on his throne as though drunk.")

There is even a style of martial arts called "Drunk Man," in which participants stagger and weave to evade each other's blows. I have seen it done: it looks just as silly as it sounds. I understand the escapist appeal, though, to the inmates of a civilization obsessed with enumeration and order.

And so we finish up our New Year's meal in a quiet suburb far from China, and as far in time from emperors and philosophers. Husband and wife toast each other in Fen Jiu, one of the oldest marques (sixth century), fancying all the drunks of the ages looking down at us from above the February mists. The kids have already started on the sticky-cake dessert — essential to the meal because its name is a homophone for "top of the year." In China, time flows downwards. Happy New Year!