Chinese Alcohol — History, Culture, Utensil, Classification, and Etiquette

What is the history of Chinese alcohol?


In the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC — 1600 BC), using grains to make alcohol, also named millet wine, had been popular.


During this period, nobles used Jue, a type of exquisite bronze ware, to place alcohol in sacrificial ceremonies, and to drink it on important occasions.


Bronze Wine Cup (Jue) Unearthed from Erlitou, Believed the Relic Site of Part of the Xia Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

In the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), agriculture further developed, as well as alcohol-making skills. 

Chinese Character of Alcohol, on Unearthed Oracle of the Shang Dynasty

Chinese Character of Alcohol (on Right Side), on Unearthed Oracle of the Shang Dynasty.

When more types of grains were applied in the alcohol-making process, the ruling class tried to limit its production, save money and foodstuff, and avoid any chaos that was caused by over-drinking.     

However, the alcohol industry kept developing, both in types and making techniques.

Bottle and Alcohol of the Warring States Period (403BC — 221BC), Unearthed from Tomb of King of Zhongshan

Bottle and Alcohol of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), Unearthed from Tomb of King of Zhongshan — Hebei Museum

After Zhang Qian (164 BC — 114 BC) opened up the Silk Road and introduced grape, grape wine became an important type. 

Gradually, alcoholic drinks came and popularized in civilians' dining tables, as well as being used to cure disease or relieve pain.

About 1800 years ago, the limitation of alcohol production was finally removed. When people could freely produce, sell, and drink alcohol as much as they want, the industry became prosperous soon.

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) of the Song Dynasty, Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars

Part of Painting (Wen Hui Tu) by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), Presenting the Feast of Intelligent Scholars — Taipei Palace Museum

Afterward, drinking is connected to nearly all important occasions, events, and holidays in Chinese culture.

Who is the Sage of Alcohol in Chinese culture?


Yi Di, an official of Yu the Great, is believed as the person that invented, or well organized and further developed alcohol-making technology. 


Du Kang, also named Shao Kang, is the most famous, well-acknowledged Sage of alcohol in Chinese Culture that invented alcohol using sorghum.


He was an official of the Yellow Emperor, or, in other historical documentations a king of the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC — 1600 BC).


Alcohol Utensils in History, Photo by Dongmaiying.


What are the main functions of Chinese alcohol?

Nowadays, alcohol is an important part of big ceremonies, and to celebrate happiness, to forget sadness, to boost courage.


In old times, it was also widely used for medical purposes, such as to disinfect, and to cure diseases.


When, and who are not suitable to drink alcohol?

It is believed unhealthy for people to drink alcohol:

  • When someone is having bad emotions, such as being too sad or angry;

  • When physically uncomfortable;

  • With an empty or too full stomach.


What are the important elements in Chinese alcohol culture?

  • Companion

Generally, drinking with family and good friends, people with noble morals, and loved ones.

  • Environment

Alcohol should be appreciated in beautiful and elegant places.

Spring in a pavilion, summer in the countryside, autumns on a boat, winter in the house, or nighttime under the moon. 

Painting "Lan Ting Xiu Xi" by Wen Huiming (1470 - 1559)

Painting "Lan Ting Xiu Xi" by Wen Huiming (1470 - 1559), Presents An Ancient Way for People to Drink from Cups that are Floating in River — Palace  Museum

  • Content

People would play wager games, have intelligent or close conversations while drinking, or write poems; many brilliant poems and articles in Chinese history were created when authors were drinking. 

Ivory Carved Cards Used in Drinker's Wager Games of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum

Ivory Carved Cards Used in Drinker's Wager Games of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Main Classifications of Traditional Chinese Alcoholic Drinks


Fruit Wine, or Guojiu

Millet Wine, or Rice Wine, or Huangjiu

Millet Wine, or Rice Wine, or Huangjiu

Flower Wine

Liquor, or Baijiu, highly distilled sprit.

Liquor, or Baijiu

Herbal Wine, or Yaojiu

Herbal Wine, or Yaojiu

What is Chinese Cooking Wine?


When cooking, especially meat dishes, people like to add some alcohol to eliminate smelly odors, such as fishy smell.


In old times, Rice Wine and Liquor were frequently used. 


Nowadays, Liaojiu, a type of alcohol that is specifically for cooking, is widely accepted. It is made by adding some spices and flavorings to low alcohol Rice Wine.

What are the basic table manners and toast etiquettes in China? 

Today, alcohol is still an important part of nearly all the festivals or activities in China, and also an essential way to socialize. 


Table Manner for Drinking 


Generally speaking, the seating position is not as strict as it used to be in ancient China, but if there are older people, leaders, or very important guests, people still follow the Seat Rules.


People need to pour alcohol for elders, leaders, or important guests when their cups are nearly empty; one should refill for themselves after everyone else's cup is full.

Toasting Etiquette


When toasting to others, people usually put their cups a little bit lower than others, unless to peers or younger ones. 

Many could toast to one person, but a person usually could not toast to more than one person at a time, except for the oldest and the most important guest.

Toasting Order is important as well.

  • Firstly, the host would toast to elders, as well as to leaders, or to the most special guest; and then followed by other guests.

  • Afterward, others could start toasting to each other. 

  • If there is no one that is an older or with higher rank, then the toast proceeds clockwise.

In Chinese culture, it is suggested that one always says something nice while toasting, and always uses two hands to hold the wineglass.

If an elder or important guest or leader toasts to you, one should stand up and say thanks.