Drunk History

Derek Sandhaus has a vested interest in making Chinese liquor sound good. Unlike Chris Ruffle, whose A Decent Bottle of Wine in China was more about educating the Chinese in Western ways, Sandhaus’s newly published Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture aims teach the West about Chinese drinking, not just today, but through its long history.

It’s an uphill struggle, not the least for Sandhaus himself, who freely admits that his first sip of the liquor in 2006 was so repulsive that “if I never tasted baijiu again it would be too soon.” Baijiu isn’t terrible, he reasons hopefully, it’s just different. Not everyone loves their first taste of beer, or whisky or wine, but surely if your palate gets used to it, it doesn’t taste awful anymore? Two chapters in, however, he is still describing the aroma of baijiu as “Jolly Ranchers mixed with paint thinner” and “a banana soaked in turpentine.”

But there is hope! It turns out that there is such a thing as a Taste Threshold – a point beyond which the body accepts whatever new torment has clearly become a regular item of consumption, like a sort of epicurean Stockholm Syndrome. All you have to do, Sandhaus discovers, is drink baijiu three hundred times, and after that you won’t mind so much.

Quietly, he wrestles with another issue – the prospect that the Chinese don’t really like baijiu, either, instead regarding it as some sort of ritual component of social dining. It is consumed, after all, in single, thimble-sized shots, downed in one as a gesture of sincerity. It’s not designed to be sipped and savoured or mixed in cocktails. Perhaps, he wonders, Chinese drinking culture has developed its peculiarities as a means of coping with the fact that baijiu tastes awful, turning it into a short, sharp, and overwhelmingly powerful medicinal shot, best over and done with as quickly as possible. In an epiphany, Sandhaus realises the awfulness of baijiu and the tedium of Chinese social events cancel each other out. Each makes the other bearable.

Sandhaus’s greatest provocation is not the gotcha game of cultural relativism. It is his assertion that it was the pursuit of booze that caused the first people to form a fixed prehistoric settlement on the banks of the Yellow River – alcohol, he argues, created China. His reasoning for this is the Jiahu site, which, as a small point of order, is actually on a tributary of the Huai River, and where Patrick McGovern and his team did indeed uncover the traces of a fermented alcohol made with rice, honey, wild grapes and hawthorn. But as McGovern himself pleads with Sandhaus in an interview, it’s not really fair to say that Jiahu was the first just because it happens to currently provide the earliest evidence.

Regardless, Sandhaus is not crazy. His theory cites authorities at the cutting edge of academic publishing on alcohol history, and is rooted in the work of the early 20th-century scholar Wu Qichang, who also argued that agriculture was not some magical and plentiful easy fix that created human civilisation. It was, in fact, a difficult and troublesome faff, much more hard work in the short term than the nomadic lifestyle. “Our ancestors,” writes Wu, “first planted rice and millet with the goal of brewing alcohol, not making food.”

It’s a long road from meads and ciders to full-on baijiu. First, the Chinese have to invent qu, the yeast that allows for a swifter fermentation process. Sandhaus isn’t that clear on when qu developed – he cites its “rise” to around the time that the First Emperor’s conquest created greater communications between far-flung regions, but then places its discovery up to two thousand years earlier, only to admit that the earliest text to mention it is the Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qimin Yaoshu) seven hundred years later. It’s not Sandhaus’s fault that the literary record has been purged and flensed by revolutions and accidents, but the ballpark he ends up delineating for the development of yeast is as wide as that separating the present day from Alexander the Great!

Sandhaus also wanders into epigenetics, suggesting that ancient cultures in the Middle East disinfected their water by turning it into beer, creating an evolutionary environment that favoured a physique that manufactured dehydrogenase – the molecule that breaks down alcohol. The Chinese, embracing the boiling of water early on (and infusing it with certain leaves), left themselves more susceptible to drunkenness. By the Han dynasty, which soon begins to derive much of its tax revenue from a state monopoly on alcohol, Sandhaus is ready to declare: “The fate of the nation depended on drink.”

This is all good fun. Any reader of rudimentary intelligence doesn’t need to be reminded that history is a more complex process than that, and an author of Sandhaus’s rhetorical skill could probably argue just as readily that some other commodity – silk, or horses, or jade, or salt – might be conceived as the cornerstone of Chinese culture. In fact, publishing cycles being what they are, it wouldn’t surprise me if he pops up again in a couple of years to say just that. His true aim is to tell the story of China from a quirky new perspective. Daoism, for example, is seen here as the last vestige of Bronze Age ritual intoxication, reimagined as a passive-aggressive challenge to dour Confucianism – Confucius was not a teetotaller, but the books attributed to him do rather leech all the fun out of drinking. Sandhaus sees in China’s many tedious drinking games the distant echoes of Bronze Age ceremonies, in which it was deemed uncouth to drink unless ritual required it.

The poet Li Bai inevitably puts in an appearance as Sandhaus delves into the rich and boozy literature of the affluent Tang dynasty, described here with particular reference to his Drinking Alone by Moonlight. As Sandhaus smartly observes, the poem is a prolonged and somewhat slurred defence of breaking a taboo – it’s not the moonlight that so preoccupies Li, but the fact that he is drinking alone.

The Chinese had distillation as early as the Han dynasty, but there are only scattered, cryptic references to “burnt wine” before the Middle Ages to suggest that they used the technology for anything except perfumes and medicines. It seems it took the Mongol conquest, and the pathways it opened to Arab chemistry, to bring distillation to China and the explosive creation of baijiu. Sandhaus reasonably describes spirits as “attacking China like a virus”, and notes that the first victims were the Mongols themselves – a ruling class used to quaffing large quantities of low-alcohol koumiss, decimated by their encounter with distilled spirits.

Many authors talk of alcohol production as a side-effect of surplus. Sandhaus turns this on its head, taking a desire for alcohol as a given, and then positing that baijiu, for all its acrid unpleasantness, is the most economic means of getting drunk not in times of plenty, but in times of hardship. That, alone should be enough to explain its stolid endurance through China’s troubled 20th century, particularly when Sandhaus maps near-famine conditions to a pointed and deliberate Communist Party focus on native, proletarian commodities. Having myself discovered Red Star erguotou to be literally undrinkable, I feel better now knowing that it was more likely to have been used as a medical disinfectant in the war against the Japanese, and I am curious about the precise identity of the unnamed “Japanese Communist” who apparently designed the logo.

Halfway through the book, when Sandhaus’s history catches up with memoir, he is enthusiastically knocking back Guizhou Maotai, and has largely overcome his earlier distaste. I, personally, think that Guizhou Maotai tastes like pencil erasers dissolved in brake fluid, but Sandhaus has seen the light: “…fermented beans, wild mushrooms, bitter herbs, roasted nuts – the flavours just kept coming. I had been sucker punched by the umami gremlin.” Now, there’s an image.

The history was fascinating enough, but Sandhaus goes up a whole gear when he can talk about his personal experience of manufacturers, banquets and drinking encounters. He runs into “Demolition Girls” (professional party-lubricators who drink baijiu by the bowl), a man selling “three-penis wine”, which is apparently thrice as good as wine made with just one penis, and the various other southern Chinese potions that involve dissolved animal parts, leading to a digression on the Chinese railway workers in the Wild West, and the attempts of various local conmen to copy their medicines made from “snake oil”. His account comes with trenchant observations about the minutiae of everyday life – the “ruthless altruism” of Chinese hospitality, and the common issue of being unable to stay hydrated because there is no potable water in one’s hotel.

Thirteen chapters after Sandhaus first alluded to, shall we say, cultural biases in appraisals of Chinese liquor, he returns to it with subtle vengeance in a section on alcohol safety. Dodgy booze, he writes, is dodgy booze – the question really should be is Chinese booze any dodgier? This, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms regarding food safety and quality control, and Sandhaus has some wonderfully colourful tales to tell, not the least that Laoshan spring water, the source for one of China’s most famous beers, was found by US assessors to contain “an unhealthy level of fecal matter.” This, too, has a sting in the tail, when after chronicling several of the early 2010s food scandals, he reveals that the passing of stricter Chinese safety laws in response ended up catching a bunch of European food companies peddling, for example, cognacs containing unacceptable levels of plasticizer.

Sandhaus does not flinch from the health crisis engendered by China’s “bottoms-up” booze culture. He drops in on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chengdu where, curiously, “God” is still granting serenity in the closing prayer, even in Communist China, and he observes the statistical anomaly that China is “…the only nation in the world where an adult’s likelihood to binge increases with age.” His investigations here carry his out-of-the-box thinking in new and rewarding directions, including a survey of baijiu as a drink that is not drunk, but instead bestowed and re-gifted without leaving its presentation box in a long series of bribes and back-handers. In a razor-sharp observation, he notes that when an official proclaims that a matter needs “more research”, it could be construed as a solicitation for something else – yanjiu means research, but is also a homonym for “smokes and booze.”

Sandhaus’s closing chapters outline the writing process of his earlier book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, in which the man who is still likening his subject matter occasionally to “cough syrup” and “vinegar-glazed cabbage” (and that’s when he’s being nice!) attempts to generate a foreigner-friendly taxonomy of baijiu varieties. In doing so, he investigates the way that the Chinese classify different brands, itself a deeply interesting glimpse of the Party industrial complex at work. An exhaustive account of previous attempts to export baijiu, 99% of the global supply of which, you will be unsurprised to hear, is still drunk in China, is followed by Sandhaus’s speculation that the grading curve – in terms of consumption, quality and respect – for Chinese alcohol is likely to follow that of Chinese food, which itself has had a chequered but upwardly-mobile history.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture, by Derek Sandhaus, is published by Potomac Books.

International Shojo

Over at the All the Anime blog, I review a book of essays and interviews about Japanese comics, Masami Toku’s valuable collection International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Impact of Girl Culture. Topics covered include whether criticism of boys’-love manga is “gay enough”, the relevance of a job at Shake Shack to a pricey academic publication, and whether a manga in a magazine for housewives is really for “girls” at all.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

“Americans will dump all their trash on another’s doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they’re there to help you clean up and that it’s all for your own good.”

Chen Qiufan’s endlessly inventive near-future tale The Waste Tide begins with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac and Ben Elton’s Stark, pitting ecological protestors against a system that is already showing signs of terminal decline. A tense, action-packed scene of shipboard monkey-wrenching shows the high-stakes game being played out on the seas, but it’s a later, quieter scene that really establishes the ghastliness about to unfold. A lobster served at a Chinese banquet has three pincers and a carapace that has been repaired, as if diners are now gorging themselves on invalids and mutants. It doesn’t look good, no matter where you are on the food chain.

Well, unless you live on Silicon Isle. This south Chinese coastal enclave has become a world leader in e-waste recycling, a ready recipient of poisonous junk as part of a ploy to grab useful materials. There’s gold (and platinum, and copper) in them there circuit boards, as long as you don’t mind poisoning the local environment when you harvest it… as long as you don’t mind the miserable, dangerous working conditions.

Scott Brandle is a Dante-quoting rep from an American recycling company, who gawps at the pall of smoke from PVC fires, and the zombie-chic sight of an abandoned prosthetic arm, twitching on the scrap pile. But Brandle is no Old China Hand (sorry), he’s an observer, drinking in the sights of a surveillance state that has invaded the very bodies of its inhabitants, not only with environmentally unfriendly prosthetics, but with RFID chips that are the only things to ward off the guard dogs in your local district’s frequency.

It’s his guide, Kaizong, who is soon revealed as the true hero, a local boy made good, returning to his hometown to confront old ghosts and new problems, seeing Silicon Isle through the eyes of his foreign charges, reminiscing about his American college days in order to allow for moments of incisive infodump. Or is he? Because by the second part of the book, the point-of-view switches to Mimi, a lost girl from the underclass, whose memory is briefly transferred into the intelligence systems of a giant robot, and who has trouble readjusting to being back in her own body. If that sounds curiously “anime”, then it’s not the only playful echo of foreign science fiction in a story that still remains quintessentially Chinese, even as it tips its hat to Akira and All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Chen’s grasp of China’s future remains as chilling and believable as in his acclaimed short stories such as The Fish of Lijiang. Internet entrepreneurs offer online banking in the afterlife, dovetailing the virtual environments of online gaming with an artful religious swindle. A canny trash-comber slices out the still-working cybernetic vagina from a Japanese sex doll; superstitious locals seek shamanic help to deal with what is clearly an envirogenic disease; a factory girl knows nothing about the opposite sex, except that which she has learned from TV dramas. Repeatedly, there are allusions to Earth as a place where the Chinese have nowhere left to run – unwelcome in Australia or the United States, they drift homewards, to the trash heap of their ancestors. Wireheads download nostalgia apps that threaten to give them brain damage, but give them a moment in which they can wallow in how things used to be.

“You are what you eat,” observes Kaizong, in a world where everyone is ingesting granules of plastic, chemical poisons and carcinogenic additives. Capitalism has advanced to the stage where a tour guide will wait for a bribe before trying to rescue a drowning child, and sustained development projects are decried as “legalised looting.”

Translator Ken Liu, any Chinese author’s dream choice, has plenty of fun not only with Chen’s Mandarin, but with the echoes within it of a greater diversity within China – Cantonese slang and Teochew regionalisms. As in the controversial film Sap Nin, voice recognition software has advanced to the stage where it can pick up Mandarin, but southern Chinese topolects with their eight tones and sandhi slides are still beyond it. He also diligently footnotes those parts of the text that he doesn’t expect foreign readers to understand – references to Martin Luther King and Tennyson pass without comment, but when Kaizong alludes to a quote from the Dao De Jing, or a plant only found in south China, Liu has a hyperlink to hand.

Chen’s text gives Liu ample opportunity for cutting observations and satirical clangers – starting with Brandle, a visitor from America who’s tried to bone up on China by reading an “idiot’s guide”, and who is sometimes addressed as Mr Scott. He picks the blandest options on the menu, in what might have been a gentle dig at foreign tourists, except in Chen’s world, this is the only way he can avoid heavy metals.

The tale is set thirty years in our future – a gap the same size as that which separates our present from the Deng Xiaoping reforms that ended Maoism. When it was written in 2013, China was the destination for much of the world’s recycling. This open-door policy was suspended some time ago, causing massive jams and backwashes in many first-world recycling policies. Reporters are finding plastics and chemicals in Ghanaian chickens and Arctic seabirds, and my social media feed is clogged today with stories of environmental catastrophe. Chen’s apocalypse is hence both prescient and familiar – evocative in places of Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008), Eric Tamm’s The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds (2011) and Paul Midler’s Poorly Made in China (2011), and also of the machinations around the suppression of the SARS virus. But that is something that Chen has always excelled at: telling true stories in the cloak of fiction. When his factual, historical discursions suddenly veer off into fiction, the line was so fuzzy I had to Google it just to be sure.

Jonathan Clements is a Contributing Editor at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and the author of A Brief History of China.

Armchair Tokyo

“Clements both mourns and celebrates a constantly changing parade of lost and reborn Tokyos, layered onto and fading into each other, leaving only fragments of each incarnation behind. It’s a vista that will tempt many an armchair traveller to go and see for themselves” — Helen McCarthy, All the Anime

“[a] pocket-sized jaunt through the history of Japan’s capital, from its ancient origins all the way through to its Olympic bid. Fascinating stuff!” — NEO magazine

Published today by Haus, an Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo.

An Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo presents the modern capital of Japan from the first forest clearances on the Kanto plain, through the wars and intrigues of the samurai era, up to the preparations for the 2020 Olympics.

Repeatedly destroyed by fires, earthquakes and war, remnants of old-time Tokyo can still be found amid the modern city’s urban sprawl, where the sites of ancient temples and forgotten battles sit beside run-down boom-era boondoggles and modern malls.

As with other Armchair Traveller guides, a Gazetteer offers detailed information on sites of tourist interest, including the hidden etymologies of familiar locations on the metro map, stripping away the modern streets to reveal stories behind the lost valleys, post stations, castles and gravesites.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of the Samurai, Anime: A History and biographies of Admiral Togo and Prince Saionji. His recent books include Modern Japan: All That Matters and Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion.

 

From Truant to Anime

Up on the All the Anime blog, my review of Mari Okada’s memoir of dismal schooldays and her escape to the not-that-glamorous world of anime screenwriting.

“Mari Okada’s memoir of two decades in the anime business begins and ends with the disastrous premiere screening of Anthem of the Heart in her hometown of Chichibu – a huge event in the middle of nowhere, inconvenient for all attendees, with a film that stops playing halfway. As the screenwriter, she fumes impotently as the patrons wait and flunkies try to look busy, and watches with head-shaking resignation as the celebratory fireworks, timed to coincide with the end of the film, are launched too early while the audience is still waiting for it to restart.

“From Truant to Anime Screenwriter: My Path to Anohana and The Anthem of the Heart is her account of how she got to that place, as the writer of a standalone film. Her writing is distinguished by a constant resistance to the performativity of Japanese life, refusing to play the game of empty accolades and fake-news proclamations that all is well. Instead, she presents a compelling portrayal of a life (and industry) that constantly ‘fails up’, until she becomes one of modern anime’s rare hyphenate talents.”

The Anime Boom

Up on the All the Anime blog, my book review of Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin’s The Anime Boom in the United States: Lessons for Global Creative Industries, which includes the following incendiary quote from Marco Pellitteri:

“Fans are a noisy minority that led many observers in the industry (and in academia!) to think that they are more numerous, representative and important than they actually are…. today, the targeting of narrow audiences is a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of total economic failure: you make a series for a very tiny specific audience, then you want to sell it [overseas] for a higher price, because you want to make abroad the money that you failed to make in your own country.”

Ninja: Unmasking the Myth

Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is a brave book. With a scientific sense of objectivity, Turnbull tears down an edifice that he himself helped to build, shining the harsh glare of academic rigour on his earlier work. In doing so, he uncovers some striking facts about the evolution of the ninja, not the least that the word doesn’t even occur in Japanese-English dictionaries until 1974.”

My review of Stephen Turnbull’s demolition (and reconstruction) of ninja in history, up now on the All the Anime blog.