China Wines: The Drink of Transformation

Author: Oleg Cherne

China Wines - The Drink of Transformation

China is a very special country, and their wine is truly one of a kind. In many countries, people drink wine for pleasure, but in China it’s consumption is closely related to the country’s traditional medicine and Taoism.

And while the rest of the world associates wine with the grape, in Ancient China this word (jiu in Chinese) meant any number of different fermented beverages. Taoism is the source of great efforts in the research of natural and transformative laws, making Chinese wine an alchemical beverage praised throughout history for its energy and invigorating power. In the pages ahead, Code de Vino editor-in-chief Oleg Cherne will share with you the secrets of China’s most fascinating and unique winemaking traditions.

Code de Vino editor-in-chief Oleg Cherne will share with you the secrets of China's most fascinating and unique winemaking traditions

When covering this period of history, it is crucial to remember that the Ancient Chinese evaluated drinks from the point of view of their health benefits. Even today, wine is closely related to the theory of Yin and Yang: a high-quality drink is supposed to strengthen your Yang, and absorb your Yin. Otherwise, it is seen as a primitive barbaric beverage.

China Wines - The Drink of Transformation

The ancestors of today’s humans first began dwelling in what is now China as long as 500 thousand years ago. In 1920, paleontologists discovered the remains of a Peking man, Homo Erectus Pekinesis, in the Zhoukoudian cave near Beijing. Depending on the method used, its age is estimated at 500,000 to 790,000 years old. Agriculture was first used in China around 7,000 BC, when the first farmers started cultivating millet in the valley of Huang He. Later, they also started to grow rice in the estuary of the Yangtze. Some scholars of China believe that during those times, grains were used not as food, but as a product to make drinks. If this fact were ever confirmed, it would mean that fermentation existed in China as early as in 7,000 BC. Circumstantial evidence in support of this conjecture can also be found in the ancient Tao tradition of consuming food—chewing it meticulously until it liquefies and resembles a drink.

It is well known that in Ancient China, most research was centered around the nature of macrocosmos. All things that could be naturally transformed and fermented were studied and investigated with a particular interest and regard. Tao masters were indeed the first to systematize their knowledge of the world and found traditional Chinese medicine.

The legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi was the first to ever make notes on fermentation and wine in his famous treatise Inner Canon (approx. 2,600 BC).

Taoists believed that different drinks had the power to either strengthen or debilitate our bodies. According to their texts, grape wine was an essential beverage that helped enhance a person’s nature. High-quality wine was called «pure water,» while bad wine was referred to as «muddy water.» The quality of wine increased with the number of stages, or transformations, it underwent when being produced. Consequently, aged fermented wine had the highest value among Chinese connoisseurs.

The energy level of a wine could also be enhanced by adding various ingredients to it. It took years of experience and a well-developed sense of taste to create a drink of supreme quality in terms of energy saturation. Grape wine was one of the most essential components here, and its role in the Tao tradition can be compared to that of alchemical cinnabar. Taoists referred to the grape as «the jade fruit,» as this mineral symbolized both transformation and structure.

They considered wine a drink with a good strong structure and a source of mysterious energy. However, it needed two conditions to fully reveal its power: firstly, it had to contain the right amount of energy, and secondly, it took a trained man to understand its taste and power. Thus, the ability to perceive and enjoy the energy of a drink was a key requirement in Chinese drinking culture of the period.

Only Tao masters and members of the Chinese nobility could enjoy the luxury of savoring a wine. This limitation was due to the fact that one had to be trained in the art of absorbing sublime energy from drinks in order to appreciate it. In other words, for the Chinese, wine was like a sort of knowledge that could potentially do harm to an inexperienced mind.

China Wines - The Drink of Transformation

If you are interested in reading more about wine in China, I can recommend the 12th century book Beishan Jiu Jing (The Wine Classic of North Mountain) by Jiu Hong; the 12th century’s book Jiu Jing (The Wine Classic) by Su Tongbo; the 16th century’s treatise Jiu Shi (A History of Wine) by Feng Shihua; and the 16th century’s book Jiu Pu (A Guide to Drinking) by Xu Jiu. Among the earlier authors, Ji Xixie deserves special attention, who described various methods of winemaking in his 6th century’s book Qi Min Yao Shu. Out of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, Lü Dongbin and Li Tieguai, a doctor and scientist, respectively, are most interesting for our purposes. Followers of the Tao school Shang Qing («School of the Highest Clarity») demonstrate the highest tolerance to alcohol.

While the Tao showed people how to balance macrocosmos and microcosmos, Chinese traditional medicine in turn taught them to measure the abilities of their minds and bodies according to the world and objects around them. As you can see, it was thus impossible that this «cinnabar» drink could spread widely, as this way it would have done more harm than good. The Tao masters understood clearly how this would have ended up for the people of the Celestial Empire—it would overpower those weak of spirit, and steal away the clarity of their minds, the highest value in Taoism.

The common people of China drank a beverage made from rice or millet. Once again, the Chinese call «wine» (jiu) any beverage resulting from fermentation. It could be made from either rice or millet, which are both widely spread in China. At least, it was this way until the Chinese learned to distill alcohol to make a strong spirit from sorghum known as «baijiu» (lit. ‘white alcohol’), with an alcohol content of 40—60%.

Wine production technology was similar for both wine and rice. All methods included adding various components and bacteria promoting fermentation (jiuqu), such as various kinds of mushrooms and herbs.

The oldest encyclopedia in the world, Qi Min Yao Shu, written in the 6th century CE, describes multiple methods of fermentation, but we are most interested in the description of three energy qualities of fermented drinks listed here:

  • Bailao jiu, or the fast fermentation of young wine, where energy is not distilled or aged. This method is associated with Qi or Jiuqu Qi, the energy of nature.
  • Ben jiu represents the energy of transformation in Tao alchemy. Here, wine undergoes a longer fermentation, and isn’t as light as the previous one.
  • Shen jiu is the drink with the most power. It is aged for a long time, and filtered and distilled over multiple stages. In Tao alchemy, it represents structured energy.

History of Chinese winemaking

China Wines - The Drink of TransformationThe first winemaker of China was the legendary Du Kang who lived during the reign of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi, the first follower of Tao.

There are many legends that tell the story of Du Kang, the God of Wine. According to one of them, Du Kang began making wine in a place seven kilometers to the northwest of the city of Baishui, Shaanxi Province. One winter day, he put steaming hot sorghum porridge into an empty tree stump and then forgot about it. Then one day in spring, a whiff of some elegant aroma reached his nose. He started looking around, and discovered that the fragrance came from the stump and porridge that had fermented in it over winter.

Another story tells how one day Du Kang presented his magic beverage to the Yellow Emperor. The Emperor praised the beverage highly for its ability to increase the appetite and replenish energy.

Different sources mention various ingredients that Du Kang used to make wine, including rice, sorghum, and millet… We see here again that the Chinese cared more about the quality of the final result, rather than the specific components.

China Wines - The Drink of Transformation. Du Kang.

Even today, Du Kang remains a popular hero. The Chinese believe that his grave can still be seen inside his winery. Although now there is a temple standing here, where everyone can pay their respects to the country’s founding winemaker.
The Dukang Wine Company was founded here in 1975. They are known for following ancient Chinese recipes and using clear, sweet water from the spring nearby. One of their most popular wines is named 杜康 (Du Kang) after the famous master himself. Many Chinese restaurants also write a quote on their walls supposedly said by the well-known Chinese poet Cao Cao: «What should one use to loosen sorrow? Only Du Kang.»

The division of wine into categories depending on its components apparently first came about in the Xia Dynasty (approx. 2,100–1,600 BC). This period followed the rule of the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, including the reign of the founder of Taoism and Chinese medicine, Yellow Emperor Huangdi.

According to archaeological evidence, alcoholic beverages made of millet were popular during the Shang Dynasty. Various texts, bronze goblets and ceramic dished discovered here indicate that the Shang nobility was quite passionate about alcohol. There is also proof of the fact that Di Yi, the penultimate king of Shang Dynasty (around 1,500–1,400 BC), loved making different types of wine.

In 1980, a tightly sealed copper vessel was discovered in an ancient tomb in Henan province. Researchers believe that the man buried in the tomb lived during the end of the Shang Dynasty (approx. 3,000 years ago). Scientists of Beijing University analyzed the vessel and identified the remnants of liquid as (you guessed it) nothing other than grape wine.

This served as the basis to assert that the technology for wine production has existed in China as early as during the Shang Dynasty. However, it remains unclear whether the grape used to make that wine was wild-growing or cultivated by Chinese farmers.

Most researchers stick to the theory that grapes first came to China from the west, from Central Asia. Archaeological findings show that the culture of grape cultivation was spread most widely in the western parts of China. This version is supported by the fact that the grape varieties cultivated in China back then were similar to those growing in Central Asia up until today, such as Muscat Sultana and Nimrang, Khusaine and Pink Taifi, Saperavi and Bayan Shirei and many others. Grapes mostly grew in the areas of today’s Henan and Shanxi provinces.

China Wines - The Drink of Transformation

Still, the history of grape wine in China gets its start in the distant past, as suggests a recent find in Henan province. Near an area called Jiaohu, one expedition unearthed fragments of vessels that were apparently used to store grape wine. These vessels date back to 6,000–7,000 BC.

Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of fruits and pits of peach, plum and jojoba in a pot in a winery dating back to the middle of the Shang Dynasty. Although written evidence of the existence of grape wine during this period is yet to be discovered, we can be certain at least that back then the Chinese indeed knew how to make wine from fruit.

During the Zhou period, the culture of beverages and water in particular began to flourish rapidly. The texts of that time mention four kinds of alcoholic beverages, most likely, products of fermentation.

Back then, the force of beverages was related to the mythological beast Taotie, today a symbol of the dark side of human nature. In the past, people associated it with the processes of fermentation that take place in wine.

When the country was united under the Qin dynasty (around 200 BC), the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi implemented numerous reforms to bring peace and order to society. During this time, winemaking also gets a second wind thanks to the arrival of new grape varieties from Central Asia. However, the fall of the Qin dynasty was marked by an increase in social stratification and public discontent, resulting in people trying to hide anything that might reveal their true wealth or make them stand out.

Common Era wine

Taotie. China Wines - The Drink of Transformation


As concerns winemaking, the most fascinating periods of the new era are the Han dynasty (300 BC – 300 CE), Tang dynasty (600–900 CE), and Yuan dynasty of Mongolia (1400–1700 CE). Historical documents dating from these periods contain a wealth of information regarding the drink called Jiu. However, wine was still not a drink of the common people, so these documents allow us to glean information only about the relationship between emperors and this beverage.

The Han years are full of controversies. This period of social instability was a time when Taoism strengthened its positions. Taoists strove to preserve and enhance their understanding of wine and winemaking.

During this period, wine is also considered a drink with an alchemical nature. Later, the Tao alchemist Ge Hong (283–343 or 363) confirmed this fact in his famous book Baopuzi.
The Taoist texts of that period compare grape wine to cinnabar. Apparently, they mean not just any wine, but a fermented wine or wine that underwent several stages of distillation (inner transformation).

Under the Eastern Han dynasty (206 BC– 9 CE), grape wine was a highly valuable drink, as well as during the Western Han (25–220 CE).

China Wines - The Drink of TransformationRecords from the Grand Historian written by Sima Qian during this period mention that the ambassador of Emperor Wu of Han in 138 BC traveled to western countries, and upon his return reported on the popularity of grape wine there. The imperial ambassador took the opportunity to learn as much as he could about grape cultivation and the production process. According to archival data, after the ambassador’s visit, the area of grape plantations and volume of wine production in the Imperial Palace increased by several times.

However, before the Tang dynasty ascended to the throne (618–907 CE), people who inhabited the central plains of China completely forgot their knowledge of grape winemaking. The Emperor Taizong thus sent his embassy to the West again to regain the technologies for making wine. This Emperor was also known for making wine with his own hands in his palace and giving it as a gift to his most distinguished vassals.

Rulers of the Mongol dynasty Yuan (13th–14th century CE) were also particularly fond of this wine. Mongols believed that common folk should also bring this drink to temples as an offering to the gods. By this period, the production of wine had reached a substantial scale in China. The center of winemaking then moved to Xinjiang and Taiyuan.

People drank wine at family holidays, and toasted to their country and good luck. It also became a traditional beverage of various national Chinese holidays. New Year’s Eve, the Holidays of Spring and Lanterns, Dragon Boat Festival – the wine would flow like water.

China also had a curious tradition related to the birth of a baby girl in a family. Carefully prepared wine was first poured into bottles, and then buried in the ground. No one was allowed to touch them until the girl became a bride. Right before the wedding ceremony, the bride’s family dug out the bottles and offered them to all the guests.

China Wines - The Drink of TransformationBaijiu (an alcoholic beverage made from sorghum) was traditionally an indispensable part of all military victories and celebrations. One story even mentions alcohol as an instrument of war – back in Shaoxing, when it was still part of the Yue state. Before attacking other countries, Yue kings would pour yellow rice wine, a variety of baijiu, into the river. Eventually, the soldiers started a contest among themselves, where they would jump into the river and drink the wine dissolved in the water. Wine was a key ingredient in boosting their morale and courage.

Although by the time of the Ming dynasty (14th–17th centuries) rice wine should logically have dominated the market, this fact is contradicted in the notes of scientist, astrologist and agriculturist Xu Guangqi. He mentioned that the Chinese had been cultivating grapes since time immemorial. In addition, we also find descriptions of various grape varieties cultivated in China:

  • Crystal grape, white and pink, with a slightly powdered skin, large and elongated berries, sweet taste;
  • Purple ink grape, both large and small berries, can be either sour or sweet;
  • Green grape cultivated in the center of Sichuan province, mature berries are green;
  • A grape called «Rabbit’s eye,» sweeter than honey, its precious berries have no seeds;
  • Suo Suo grapes cultivated in western areas. With berries as small as pepper seeds, yet those growing in Yunnan are large like jojoba and taste excellent.

The versions about grapes coming to China from Central Asia may look trustworthy, but there is another historical fact that also deserves our attention. In the Taklamakan desert, Xinjiang region, archaeologists have discovered the mummified bodies of… Celts. As it turns out, it was a man called Cherchen and his family (three women and a baby), who came here from Caledonia, central Scotland. The man was buried in a red twill tunic and checkered pants, typical for that region.

DNA analysis shows that they were indeed of Celtic origin. The bodies mummified in the Bronze Age (Xia dynasty, 2070–1765 BC), and preserved significantly better than most Egyptian mummies. Such a finding turns up a lot more confusion than answers, but it is hard to believe that Celts would live somewhere and not brew their famous wine or beer. But this is a whole other story entirely…