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Drunken modernity: wine in China

Björn Kjellgren


As grape wine tries to sell its way into the standard culinary repertoire of China, it is more than simply a process of a global culinary flow from the centre to the periphery. Chinese wine has become a new tool for identification as well as a sign of the nation’s renegotiated position in the world. For what it is worth, the wine industry also serves the interest of the party-state by strengthening its legitimacy and substantiating its political agenda. In this article, which reviews China’s wine history as well as the present situation, the drink is taken as an example of contemporary culinary change, but foremost as a means to explore the meanings and social limits of an emergent distinctly Chinese modernity. A modernity that in its apparent willingness to embrace the new and foreign supersedes the hitherto predominant Sino-Western dichotomy, while still adhering to the century-old catchphrases ‘make the old serve the present’ and ‘make the foreign serve the Chinese.’

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Editor's notes

Data for this article were collected in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Chengdu during the Spring and Summer of 2004. Besides sources referred to in the text, the following on-line sites/magazines have been consulted: Tang-Yan-Jiu Zhoukan, Winechina, Cnwinenews, Brewchiina, Putaowang, Zhongguo putaojiuwang, Winecollege, Grapevinewine, Farmer, TJYX, Jiuxiangwang, as well as homepages belonging to various Chinese wineries. The author wishes to acknowledge a scholarship from the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT).

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A vintner’s wet dream and the weltanshauung of global market strategists

1From a European perspective, the wine world appears to be in a fluid state. World consumption declines while the industry has an overproduction potential like never before. New brands and producing countries enter an increasingly competitive world market. It would seem as if the discovery of virgin markets were the industry’s best hope of salvation. And along comes China with an increasingly affluent population numbering over 1.3 billion, whose economic avant-garde has just discovered grape wine and seems eager to buy the whole concept, from table wine all the way to domestic châteaux tourism, vintage and ‘nouveau’ wines. It is understandable that international business finds it worthwhile to look into this potentially gigantic market. According to statistics from Euromonitor (2003, 163), sales on the Chinese wine market was in 2001 worth US$ 4.8 billion, and consumption, which is still low per capita, about half a litre/year, is forecasted to double in a few years time. Moreover, China’s entry into the WTO has led to the inhibiting 65 per cent wine tariffs being lowered, first to 44.6 per cent and then this year (2004) to 14 per cent, something which already has increased imports to Beijing by no less than 46 per cent during the first quarter of 2004 as compared to the same period last year (Xinhua 26-05-2004).1

2A number of foreign companies have already established themselves as producers in China, among them Louis M Martini, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, Pernod Ricard, Rémy-Cointreau, Castel, Torres, and Scholle. It is, however – as always – difficult to make the Chinese market work, and global market strategists have their hints about what should be done, unfortunately promoting dated cultural theory and prejudices more than anything else. At a time when many of us were prone to believe that the globe was getting smaller, their ideas are worth some attention since they go a long way in demonstrating just how far away China still is to the ‘Western mind.’ Building on a study (Schutte and Ciarlante 1998) based on the ‘fundamental premises’ that consumer behaviour is strongly influenced by culture and that ‘Asian culture is distinctly different from Western culture,’ Beverland, Bretherton and Carswell (2003) come up with some strange but unfortunately not untypical examples of intercultural misrepresentation: ‘In China,’ they write (ibid., 152), ‘human nature is viewed as intrinsically bad.’ This sinister view – incidentally the opposite of the traditional ideology they otherwise claim rules the ‘Confucian-based society’ [sic] – makes the Chinese wary of ‘dehumanized business,’ i.e., legally binding contracts. How this is supposed to follow logically is hard to understand, but more stereotypes soon take our attention away: As opposed to the rational Westerner who takes ‘calculated risks’ the Chinese are ‘risk averse’ and their fear of face-loss also make them sceptical of young companies no matter their merits (ibid., 152). This is supposedly because – unlike in ‘our more egalitarian Western societies’ where ‘respect and honor go with merit’ – status is China, a country with a ‘collectivistic culture’ is ‘non-merit-related.’ Anyway the Chinese, irrationally scared of loosing face by making individual choices, ‘feel that they have too much choice’ on the market (ibid., 153), making quality branding all the more difficult. Although a difference is seen between ‘traditional Chinese’ and ‘younger Chinese,’ the Western marketer is urged to be ‘careful not to make the mistake of assuming that younger Chinese will be identical to their Western counterparts’ (ibid., 154). ‘As French names,’ as we are told, ‘are very hard to pronounce for Asians,’ companies are well advised to change these into ‘simple’ ones (ibid., 156). Furthermore, cultural codes should be taken into considerations. Since the colour white in China is linked to death, white wine would do better by being marketed as ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’ (ibid., 157). This last glocalising advice seems rather humorous since it is common knowledge that the biggest opponent facing vintners in contemporary China is the fact that the traditionally favoured national drink is distilled grain spirits, baijiu, literally ‘white wine.’ It must also appear as an advice strangely out of touch with time to the strategists in the Chinese wine industry, who by the late 1990s, after more than a decade of labour, finally got the domestic wine drinkers to shift their attention from white to red grape wine (Putao, 2004).

Globalisation, wine, and national myths

3As in the rest of the world, globalisation in the Chinese context refers to an intensified transnational circulation of capital, goods, images, ideas and people, and wine is certainly part of the process. Looking at food, which of course has its own parameters, one can well argue that the process of ‘globalisation’ has been with us since time immemorial – the spread of the Eurasian grape throughout the world is but one example. However, it is not only the content, speed and bulk of these flows, made possible by technical innovations as much as by the worldwide capitalist system itself, which justifies the calling of a new epoch. The ideational baggage that travels together with the goods is also of a new kind. Although as a rule always linked to the new and foreign, never before have these food flows been so explicitly associated with the ideas of the global and the modern, thus to an unprecedented degree nurturing also the cognate ideas of the local and the traditional.

4However, all processes of change have temporal and spatial limitations. As Bhabha (1991/1994), King (1995), Appadurai (1996) and others have pointed out, the notion of modernity has been a Eurocentric one in both these dimensions, despite the fact that the ‘condition’ of modernity and/or post-modernity has emerged in a non-uniform and flickering manner at locations all over the world – Europe and America included. In China, a Sino-Western dichotomy has been the pivot of ideological debates and political programmes since the second half of the nineteenth century, while the contemporary process of food globalisation – as opposed to the Columbian Exchange which of course altered the profile of Chinese agriculture and cuisine much earlier – has coincided with the political programme of ‘openings and reforms’ decided upon in 1978, making wine and other ‘new’ culinary articles – including also previously only locally available Chinese foodstuff – intimately associated with China’s post-Maoist modernisations and re-emergence as a major power. Chronologically, spatially and socially, this new abundance of raw and cooked alternatives, this modernité mangée, has also followed the reform programme, making its presence first felt in the urban eastern parts of China, and there first among those who earliest managed to heed the battle cry of the reformers – ‘to get rich is glorious.’2

5At least since Barthes’ impressionistic analysis of wine (1957) we know that the drink can signify different things in different contexts – and that these ‘myths’ can be more important than the product itself. And China is of course more than a potential market for hard-pressed wine dealers and poorly informed market strategists. While a prestigious European wine writer finds herself reporting from a vineyard in a Chinese desert much to her own surprise (Robinson 2004) and Oz Clarke devotes only a third of the last page in his wine atlas to China (2003, 327), the nation is well on its way of becoming the 48th member state of l’Office International de la Vigne et du Vin, the country’s leading winery – already the biggest in Asia – has set its goal on becoming one of the world’s largest within four years, and the export industry plans to use Chinese restaurants abroad as global commissaries for Chinese wine (Chen 2003; Zhang Yi 2004; Wu and Zong 2004). In terms of quantity, China, although far behind France, Spain and Italy, is already one of the biggest producing countries.3 Wine, although mainly produced with Cabernet Sauvignon and other imported grapes, has come to China with associations quite home-grown, and, as the reform programme itself, their ideational roots reach back well into the nineteenth century while the implications of them stretch out into an unpredictable future.

Legitimacy and the politics of wine

6To fully appreciate the role of the wine industry, it is crucial to understand the ideological significance of the present market economy, which may well be more important than its economic although the two, as we shall see, are closely related. This appears clearly if we apply Weber’s (1914) power legitimacy typology to the last century of Chinese history – excusing the fact that this analysis of necessity also simplifies a complex and less linear reality. The dynastic institution, a traditional source of authority using the flexible principle of the Heavenly Mandate to keep revolutions and invasions within a given protocol of power, while claiming universal legitimacy for ‘all under Heaven,’ had – following a series of humiliating wars between 1839 and 1900 – become untenable and was replaced in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen’s modern and legalistic republic based on the American constitution. On paper that is, since the first half of the last century saw little of power based on authority, with Nationalists, Communists, Chinese warlords and Japanese invaders all scrambling for power. Like the Nationalists, the Communists had as their foremost goal the reconstruction and re-establishment of China’s lost glory in the form of a united country with unyielding borders and a sense of community. To what extent it was necessary to get rid of the traditional Confucian ideology and embrace complete Westernisation, quanpan xihua, in order to accomplish national revival had early on been a major topic of disagreement. Both Nationalists and Communists had of course rejected culturally conservative nativism, benweizhuyi, but the debate would continue to smoulder, living on the post-colonial predicament that followed the decision to dispose of indigenous traditions. Victorious, and partly for this reason seen as the more reliable alternative even among dedicated non-Communists, the Communists proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949. Taiwan’s and – until 1997 – Hong Kong’s existence as entities outside of the regime’s control have also greatly contributed towards upholding the actuality of the theme of ‘unification of the Motherland’ – as has more recently the falling apart of the Soviet Union.

7The rational ground for the Communists was augmented by the charisma of Mao Zedong himself, who, making use of his and the party’s Leninist ideology of power as well as the propaganda culture of the Soviet Union further strengthened this kind of charismatic legitimacy. Mao’s charisma naturally also shed welcomed lustre over the party and its government. Thus, even after the disastrous Great Leap campaign in 1958-59 and the Chairman’s de facto retreat to the so-called second line of control, the party continued to boost its legitimacy with his ever more inflated charisma. Nonetheless, the Cultural Revolution 1966-76, when Mao used his personalised power to crush his opponents within the party and throw the country into chaos, eventually shattered popular belief in Mao, the regime and its ideology. With the deaths of Mao Zedong in 1976, legitimacy of the charismatic type became something of the recent but irrevocable past, and attention passed from ideological orthodoxy to economic pragmatism. The party now depicted itself as the stabilizing force rescuing the country from the extremist political force the party itself had incarnated – while still claiming credit for saving China during the wars of the 1930s and 1940s. The relative success of this operation can partly be said to be the side-effect of the regime’s legitimacy having been so tightly tied to persons: the blame for mistakes and outrages could then be directed at certain individuals, thus leaving the system relatively unquestioned. But it was also done – as before and as today – by maintaining a firm grip over mass media and the activities of the general public. The crucial component of this repositioning was the substitution of the worn-out charismatic legitimacy by the rational kind. However, without a democratic election system to channel resentment that may arise, economic growth has become the sine qua non for the party-state’s existence and it is logical that the two major national crises for the government since the onset of the reforms, the popular support for the students movement in 1989 and the appeal of Falungong in the late 1990s, both were related to economic quandaries, as it the currently enacted preventive policy to develop the western parts of the country.4

8The modernisation process also brought new attention to an old quandary, with many fearing a definite loss of cultural distinctiveness in the wake of the country’s opening up. The debates on the future of Chinese culture and society during the 1980s and early 1990s in many ways echoed the debate of the May Fourth Movement, and, as in the early twentieth century, the government seemed to opt for Westernisation in nationalistic disguise. Nevertheless, the debate, and especially the calls for indigenisation, clearly showed how sensitive the question of national identity became in these times of rapid change (cf. Kjellgren 2002, 2003).

9The link between a strong market economy and the advent of democracy has long been something of an axiom in liberal quarters, and when one contrasts the ideological hegemony and utterly politicised everyday-life of the 1960s and 1970s with the de facto individual freedom of today’s China the argument seems intuitively well-founded. However, this freedom is only valid for those who follow the logic of the party-state. If we apply Luxemburg’s (1922/1940) criterion, ‘Freiheit ist immer nur Freiheit des anders Denkenden,’ then the seemingly won freedom shrinks considerably. Failing to see how the market reforms in fact have strengthened the regime’s position rather than weakened it makes many, like Goldman and MacFarquhar (1999, 16) see ‘an expanding, dynamic economy’ as ‘undermined the authority of the political leaders who made it possible.’ Looking at the present situation, however, a dichotomy between party-state and market is not so conveniently detected. Not only is the open market economy the brainchild and construction of the party-state, it is also as strictly as possible controlled for unintended consequences and unsolicited influences. Although this may not be as unique to China as he tacitly implies, Yan (2002) has appropriately called the situation a ‘managed globalization’ and we can take the wine industry as a case in point. The party-state has not only laid down the goals and rules for production, distribution, and politically correct advertisement, but also, through the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import and Export Corporation established in 1983, somewhat rigged the game – the company is responsible instance for the import and export of wine while simultaneously managing Great Wall, one of the top domestic brands and the biggest exporter. The wine industry is furthermore a highly welcomed aide in the recent efforts to level some of the economic gap between the affluent eastern provinces and China’s underdeveloped western inland. China’s old wineries are all situated in the north-eastern part of the country, but with preferential policies, promises of cheap labour and low taxes, labour-intensive wineries now establish themselves in Xinjiang and Yunnan, giving evidence to the fact that politics are as important as climate in this business. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that politics is business – China’s late president, Jiang Zemin, himself went so far in stressing the preponderance of economic development as to almost redefine the very word ‘politics’ as ‘economic growth’ (1996). Nevertheless, it seemed almost a parody when Suntime, a black horse on the winery scene founded in 1998 with one of the world’s largest vineyards planted in the desert of Xinjiang, in 2002 declared that it would strive for ‘Four Represents’ – thereby outnumbering Jiang Zemin’s own so-called theoretical contribution to Chinese socialism, the ‘Three Represents’ of the Communist party (Liu Yuemei 2002).5

10While the industry’s think-tank had outlined a shift in the nation’s drinking habits towards fruit wine already in 1987, the official blessing came only in 1996, when then Premier Li Peng during Spring Festival celebrations went public with the same message. There should be no doubt that it is the party-state rather than the industry or the consumers that has decided for China to become a wine-drinking nation. The state, ‘under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents,’ as the Constitution puts it, ‘guides, supervises and administers individual and private economies’ (ibid.).

Three trajectories of Chinese wine

11There is, of course, nothing unique about the ideological significance of wine in contemporary China. On the contrary, it is perhaps typicality that makes wine useful as an example of how also seemingly innocent parts of a country’s culinary repertoire may be imbued with meanings only noticeable in the light of a broader historical and political analysis. However, as, e.g., Wang Renxiang (1993) reminds us, this is also a country where alcoholic beverages have long been at the very heart of the food system, in itself arguably the single strongest source of cultural identity. For this reason, the importance of wine, with its ostensibly foreign character, cannot be measured in terms of money or volume alone. Most public associations that wine comes with today can be found by recalling the Chinese wine history, which the country can be said to possess three sets of. The first winds its roots back thousands of years, the second starts in 1892, and the third traces its beginning no further than to the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee meeting in December 1978, taking us back to contemporary politics. As present narratives, the two former are the obvious outcome of the latest development, as is usually the case with history telling, and thus arguably reveals the present more than the past. The following review is based primarily on popular writings, printed or web-based, supplemented with some professional literature and product examples.

Locating the indigenous roots

12Today, China follows the rest of the world in relying almost exclusively on varieties of the Eurasian grape species, Vitis vinifera, for its wine production, and it is usually understood (e.g., McGovern 2003) that the ancient Chinese, like the peoples of North America, made no significant use of the many local wild grapes available to them, at least not before they had already mastered vine cultivation and wine making techniques as imported from Central Asia in the seventh century AD (Schafer 1977, 121-122). This Chinese winelessness is, however, increasingly being questioned in Chinese narratives. Wu Hongguang, a Mainland authority on domestic drink and food technology, argues (2001, 264-307) that grapes from wild domestic species such as V. thunberghii, V. flexuosa and V. amurensis must reasonably have been used to produce wine in China well before the time when evidences of this are found in any written sources, i.e., long before the Zhou dynasty (ca 1100-256 BC) during which indigenous vines are mentioned as being cultivated in royal gardens.6 This is not a too unlikely claim perhaps; as an Anglophone authority on Chinese fermentation technology, Huang Hsing-Tsung (2000, 153), puts it, the ‘making of wine from grapes […] needs no inventiveness. It is, in fact, practically unavoidable.’ Huang, however, assumes that grape wine in China – at least before the Tang dynasty – was produced with the same indigenous qu (ferment cake) technique that was used for making grain wine, something which ‘could have done considerable violence to the taste of the final product’ and in itself been a reason for grape wine’s relative unpopularity in ancient China (ibid., 243).

13Disregarding the question of what ‘grape wine’ was produced and focusing more on archaeological evidence substantiating the claim that grapes were early on used for wine making, grape wine has now become one of the oldest and most authentically native of Chinese beverages. While scientists claim that grape wine was made in China at least three thousand years ago, more popular writers posit that wine made from wild grapes was produced in China between six and seven thousand years ago.

14Ungrounded in hard evidence as these last claims still are, they are well in line with the more general argument that China has not only ‘one of the longest histories in the world’ as the Preamble to the Chinese Constitution puts it, but the longest culinary history of the world. In what appears as one of the literature’s greatest understatements, Li Tingzhi’s culinary dictionary (2003, 3) states that ‘Chinese cooking started relatively early.’ It then goes on to date the advent of the national cuisine to about 550,000 years ago and the use of fire by the Peking Man. Other culinary authorities (e.g., Xiong and Tang 1998, 267; Nie 1999, 12) give the same starting-point, while some food historians (e.g., Tao 1983, 1) even refer back to the misty time before fire, making the claims about domestic wine’s ancient roots seem highly modest. The search for native roots for what is today by most Chinese perceived of as quintessentially Western and non-Chinese follows a beaten track summed up in the phrase gu yi you zhi, ‘it was there [in China] already in antiquity.’ Since many things and institutions in China do come with a long pedigree, most energy is naturally spent on pursuing the suggestion of Chinese anthropology’s doyen, Fei Xiaotong, who in 2000 declared that all modern phenomena have local roots ready to be discovered. In China this sentiment for time, which historically has taken the form of a nostalgic longing for a Golden Age, is limited neither to the Communist regime nor to the present age. But, using history as a spell with which to bind the monster of modernity, comes this in the shape of crime, loose morals, demands for democracy, or the vain striving for other alien things, is of course more needed in times of rapid change and massive global influences. Wine may seem a trivial example when put next to democracy and human rights, but it is the same labelling mechanism working. To the defenders of Chineseness, unwanted ideas and practices are never native to the Chinese tradition – even when they, like the America-inspired Republican constitution, at some point in time have been the theoretical pillars of the nation. On the other hand, their search for native roots to things liked and endorsed always ends either in success or in truly domestic hybrids such as the presently enacted ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’

15Back to history we find, as stated, vine cultivation hinted at in Zhou dynasty records like the Book of Songs (Shijing) and the Book of Rites (Liji), but the first documented contact with Eurasian vines, and western wine technology, is found in Sima Qian’s first century BC history book, Shiji. Sima’s annals tell us how Han dynasty emperor Wu’s envoy from 138 to 119 BC to the countries beyond the newly colonized western regions (i.e., from what is now Xinjiang province in China to the Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan), General Zhang Qian, saw ‘grapes that were used to make wine. The wealthy could have well over 10 000 shi – roughly 200,000 litres – of wine in store, and the oldest was kept several decades without getting spoilt’ (Shiji, Dayuan liezhuan). Obviously impressed, Zhang Qian took with him both vines and oenological expertise to the Han court and soon Chinese vineyards sporting Eurasian grapes were established at the heart of the Han Empire, producing grapes that were turned into wine for the emperor. This episode establishes some basic associations still upheld. Wine is imported luxury, from the West, for the elite to drink, but soon also produced in China. The image of Xinjiang as China’s [!] traditional wine region is of course not forgotten by those who grow it there now. Suntime has several wine labels portraying pre-Islamic Central Asian noblemen, some with the brand name written in mock Arabian style; Dragon Seal has a wine featuring a camel caravan moving through soft sand dunes, evoking all the romanticism of the Silk Road. With Xinjiang’s Uighurs, whose ‘autonomous region’ Xinjiang officially is, being Muslims since centuries, while the Han Chinese owners of Suntime and Dragon Seal have their head-offices in metropolitan Shanghai and Beijing, respectively, as far away from the desert as they possibly can, one cannot but recall something of Barthes’ (1957) critique of French wine interests in Algeria. With fundamentalist separatists in Xinjiang being the Chinese regime’s own internal terrorists against which to wage war, east-coast companies planting vine in the desert are of course highly welcome and also, as already stated, a way of substantiating the last years official policy of ‘develop the west.’

16Returning to history, the western regions were lost during the short-lived reign of Wang Mang (9-23 AD) but recaptured during the following Eastern Han dynasty. However, wine remained a rare treat in the central parts of the country and in a recorded case (Sanguozhi) a certain Meng Ta managed to secure a high office by bestowing a hu of grape wine – approximately 20 litres – on the right person. This episode is by Li Hua (2002, 148) candidly referred to as ‘the first time an office was bought with wine’ and one is reminded of the contemporary practice to lubricate officials with expensive drinks, imported cognac being the favourite; a practice which, however, is becoming increasingly uncommon, replaced as it is by the more substantial ‘gift’ of money. When the Eastern Han dynasty collapsed in 184 AD, China was once again cut off from the wine-producing western regions, and cultivation seems to have ceased in the war-ridden central parts of the divided country. Wine here becomes a natural sign of China’s strength and flourishing trade with the outside world, its absence a sign of domestic crisis and regression. However, written sources inform us that wine and vines were reintroduced a number of times. When the Tang dynasty was established in 626, grape wine was uncommon although sometimes sent as a tribute to the capital. Providentially, the new dynasty soon turned its economic, military and cultural interests westwards. Within a short time, stocks with Horse Nipple grapes were brought from the state of Qocho, (present day’s Turfan in Xinjiang, conquered in 640) and replanted; their fruits made into wine for the Taizong emperor. Gradually the use of grape wine spread to other groups and officially immortal poets such as Bai Juyi and Li Bai sang the drink’s praise while new wine houses opened in Chang’an, the capital. Tang poetry is among the finest ever produced in China, and of course – free from copyright restrictions as it is – frequently used in advertisement. Dragon Seal even has a whole series of wine named ‘The luminous jade cup’ (Yeguangbei) after a line in a famous wine poem by Wang Han. Nevertheless, grape wine continued to play a minor role on the drinking scene as a whole. The seasonality of the grapes and the easily disturbed wine making process could never compete with ‘wine’ (jiu) made of rice and/or other grains and fermented with special ferment cakes, qu, the process typical for Chinese grain wine. The impact of this practice is evident in Zhu Gong’s wine manual from the Northern Song dynasty (1117), where grapes are peeled and rid of their pips (thus inhibiting natural fermentation), mixed with grain and then fermented with the help of added qu. With contemporary China’s wine industry striving to meet international (i.e., OIV) standards, this last story is today held up mostly as a warning, but so-called half-grape wine, with only 50 per cent grape juice, was taken away from store shelves only in June 2004, and the mixing of expensive imported wine and soft drinks was comme il faut in restaurants and bars only a few years ago.7

17Returning once more to history, the Mongols, traditionally intoxicating themselves with the help of koumiss, fermented horse milk, perhaps seem unlikely patrons of grape wine, but their conquests had by the late thirteenth century taken them through Central Asia all the way to the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea. When Genghis Khan’s empire broke up following his death in 1227, the newly acquired taste for grape wine had spread among his followers. During the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the Chinese khanate as it were, grape wine, according to the Xin Yuanshi (Ke 1920), was offered to the imperial forefathers alongside with the traditional milk wine, and Marco Polo as well as Chinese documents tell us that Kublai Khan established vineyards around Taiyuan in present day’s Shanxi province and elsewhere. On common grain wine and its newly popularised distilled versions, a 25 per cent sales tax was levied, but grape wine ‘that requires neither grain nor qu’ and its distilled versions were only taxed between 3,3 and 6 per cent. Despite this preferential policy, grain wine kept its position as the number one alcoholic beverage. This again was a history retold as it was repeated. Li Peng, the premier who in 1996 urged the people as well as the country’s leaders to drink less grain-based spirits and more fruit wine, was also, so the story goes, concerned about the vast quantities of grains turned into alcohol. Moreover, four hundred years after the Yuan dynasty, alcohol-related illness was also an issue as more and more citizens found themselves without public health care at a time when reports praising the health effects of red wine were everywhere to be read.8 Consumption of about half a bottle a day, writes Li Hua (2002, 17) referring to an unnamed French study, would be a good way to avoid heart problem. If everyone heeded this call it would mean an annual consumption increased about three hundred times. But, needless to say, those who cannot afford their hospital bills hardly have the means to support such a beneficial habit.

The recent past remembered

18The first direct import of wine from Europe is likely to have occurred during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when Spanish and Portuguese traders found their way to South China. But, by the end of the next and last imperial dynasty, when the Great Qing had been forcefully opened for foreign interests following the Opium war (1839-42), the needs of a growing number of expatriates and their churches had made the time ripe for modern western-style wineries in China. This, the second of the three wine histories, begins in 1892, and the hero is a ‘patriotic returned Overseas Chinese,’ Zhang Bishi. Born poor in Meizhou, Guangdong province, he had, like many around him, migrated to Southeast Asia, where he, unlike many around him, made a fortune. He returned in glory, fulfilling the dream of most sojourners abroad, and set up a number of industries in China. Zhang decided to set up a modern vineyard in Yantai, Shandong, having heard from a French army officer that men in his troop had recognized first class terrior when on an expedition there. Thus, the first modern wine plant, Changyu, was established in China. In the process Zhang Bishi introduced more than 30 grape varieties from Europe, e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Traminer, Italian Riesling, White Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Unaware of the danger, he also ‘introduced’ Phylloxera, but, with no existing vineyards to ruin, the damage was limited.9 His first wine was officially presented in 1914, three years after the abdication of the last Manchu emperor, and the following year Changyu’s wine brought home China’s first international recognition for wine in the form of a gold medal from the International Pacific Panama Exhibition.10

19During the Republican era, a small number of other wineries established themselves. Most of these, like Changyu, also produced brandy and other kinds of alcoholic beverages. They included La Shangyi Cave de Pékin (after nationalisation renamed the Beijing Winery in 1953), which was established in 1910 by the Catholic convent in Beijing to serve the need of the church and the foreign embassies, curiously by turning a graveyard into a wine cave; The Qingdao Winery, later renamed Melcher & Co., which was established by Germans in 1914; and the Tong Hua Winery, which was established in the by then Japanese-occupied northeastern province of Jilin in 1938. In fact, of the seven modern wineries established before the Communist take over in 1949 and still operating, only two were established and run by Chinese, Changyu in Yantai and the less successful Qingxu Winery in Shanxi province. The early foreign dominance is today remembered in a two-folded way. On the one hand, Changyu can brag – and do brag – about its pure-blood origins, and the fact that most wine today comes from Chinese companies is seen as a source of pride, and as a sign of China’s regained power of self-determination. There is a reason why statesmen from Sun Yat-sen to Jiang Zemin have visited Changyu and bestowed their calligraphy and praise on the company. At the same time, however, wine is today very much sold on its association with the modern and sophisticated foreign, and so it becomes symbolically important that Changyu’s founder Zhang Bishi got his revelation from a Frenchman. Dragon seal, a brand that often on labels and in advertisements flirts with China’s imperial past – in contrast to the smartly dressed young and beautiful urbanites that otherwise represent the industry’s standard imagery – is the reorganised Beijing Winery with its roots in the French friar’s wine cellar, something which gives an air of authenticity to the company as strong as its modern French oenological expertise. Indeed, French roots can even be conjured by new-founded companies, like, e.g., Yunnan Highland Wine, whose labels – otherwise decorated with exotically depicted minority women in a style typical for the province – claim that ‘two hundred years ago, French missionaries discovered this unique highland for growing excellent wine grapes.’ This text, incidentally, comes only in English, as do many label texts on most bottles. Bordeaux is the image model for most wineries today, but English is the language of the International, and of the well-to-do Chinese of the twenty-first century.11

20Back in time again, some attempts were put on up-grading the wine industry in the years following the Communist victory. The 156 most important industry projects in the first five-years plan of 1954 included the establishment of a new winery outside Beijing, and vines were replanted in old vineyards from Xinjiang in the northwest to Jilin in the northeast, while some ten new vineyards were established in Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan, Hebei, Anhui and Jiangsu. New and old grape varieties were imported from Hungary, Bulgaria and the CCCR, while research was carried out to explore the potential of domestic grapes.12 The disastrous Great Leap campaign in 1958, which together with the organisation of rural China into People’s Communes resulted in the greatest famine in China’s known history, of course stopped the process, and the break with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s also meant the end to brotherly expertise from wine producing countries loyal to CCCR.

21In the 1970s, new vineyards were set up in Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia, Hubei, Guangxi, Yunnan and Tianjin. The country’s total wine production, which has been estimated to less than 100 ton in 1949, had in 1978 risen to around 15,000 ton, and around 100 wineries were spread over the country.

The ascent of a reformed industry

22The latest chapter in the history of wine of course starts with the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 11th Central Committee meeting in December 1978, where Deng Xiaoping’s political programme, known as ‘Reform and Opening’ was chosen as China’s and the Communist Party’s salvation. The plans were to be kept at the macro level, but on the micro level the market system was to be implemented, private ownership encouraged, and overseas investments were once again welcomed in the Middle Kingdom.

23The early 1980s saw the constellation of the triad of wineries that still dominates the market today with a combined total of more than 50 per cent: Dynasty, a Sino-French joint-venture established in 1980 with today’s Rémy-Cointreau on the French side, Great Wall, established in 1983 by the already mentioned China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import and Export Corporation, and pioneering Changyu, now Asia’s largest wine company, of late in partnership with French Castel for its wine production and marketing, and with huge ambitions already referred to. The early 1980s also saw the establishment of a simple but functional national wine standard, and work soon begun to prepare a shift from sweet to dry wine, from white to red, and from parochial to international. In 1987, the National work meeting for alcoholic beverages, a planning body for the industry, scheduled four changes to come, of which the shift from distilled drinks to non-distilled, and the shift from grain-based drinks to fruit-based of course constituted a vintner’s dream. In 1988 a record output of over 308,000 ton wine was recorded but the market then fell following the brutal suppression of the student movement in 1989, to recover only in the late 1990s, paradoxically at the same time as the air went out of the wine craze in neighbouring Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong following the so-called Asian financial crisis. China, who was much less affected by the upheaval, picked up the fallen mantle – and much unsold European wine in the region. But, China was not content with imported wine; within a few years, numerous new wineries were established, mostly with Chinese capital but to a large degree working with imported machinery and expertise.

24In the mid 1990s, China had about 250 wineries. This number has reportedly doubled by now, with wineries existing in about half of all provinces, regions and municipalities on the national level. However, most of these are local and far from all have their own vineyards. In 2002, 88 wineries produced more than 90 per cent of the national total, and the top six wineries, Changyu, Great Wall, Dynasty, Tong Hua, Fengshou, and Grand Dragon, together produced more than half of the national total. Most wine is still produced in eastern China, with Shandong alone contributing 44 per cent to the national total in 2002. Dry and half-dry wine stands for more than half of the total production, and about 80 per cent of all wine produced is red (Zhongguo qinggongye nianjian 2003, 261). Branding has long been the main concern of the leading wineries, but this has recently been combined with efforts to promote vin de terroir within the frame of these brands. While wine is yet very far from challenging the domestic dominance of distilled alcohol and beer, the industry has the highest profit margin in the drink sector, lobbies to get its own Appellation Contrôlée system approved by the state, and is in general predicted a profitable future. Anticipating the normalisation of this new drinking habit, wine advocates have already tried out what wine goes with what Chinese dish and started to spread their gospel (e.g., Zhang Daoping et al. 2003). There are certainly problems, fake wine and sub-standard copy brands are two often mentioned, a lack of innovative research another, but when prestigious and nationally leading distillers and breweries such as Moutai, Wuliangye and Tsingtao start their own wine productions, this is a sign as good as any of in which direction the wind is forecasted to blow.

The social limits and elusive promises of a drunken modernity

25For whom then is wine produced? Wine is a product that in China is strongly linked to the project of modernisation. This project, as I have outlined, is carried out against the historical background of China’s international humiliation in the late nineteenth century and the introspective debate on the merits and perils of Chinese tradition that followed. But, where non-distilled rice wine, huangjiu, is trying its best to compete with grape wine by playing on feelings of continuity and tradition, grape wine strives to offer both tradition and modernity. By adopting foreign ideas and practices, turning them Chinese, and of branding the outcome international, the regime symbolically strives to put the period of a ‘weak’ China within brackets, equating the nation’s glorious past with its glorious future, and identifying the national with the International, the latter representing what is basically a fantasy of the modern West, only no longer with Western world dominance. This is a modernity that in its apparent willingness to embrace the new and foreign supersedes the hitherto predominant Sino-Western dichotomy, while still adhering to the century-old catchphrases ‘make the old serve the present’ and ‘make the foreign serve the Chinese.’

26I have elsewhere (Kjellgren, forthcoming) argued that the new culinary abundance of China for the individual consumer who uses his or her consumption to redefine what she is or strives to become foremost signals the freedom from determination. This freedom, however, is promised and negotiated by the market, and distributed in direct proportion to wealth. Marx (1844/1968, 564-565) ironically wrote that what we are has little to do with personality and everything to do with purchasing power. Thus, rather than being what we eat, we are what we have the means to eat. A bottle of decent Chinese-produced table wine today comes at the for most citizens prohibitive price of 40-60 yuan (about 4-6 €) in the supermarket, much more than ordinary grain-based spirits and about twenty times the price of beer, testifying to the fact that this drunken modernity is not for everyone to enjoy.13 The common wine drinker in China is, and will in the near future continue to be, a member of a socio-economic elite. A young urban professional, male, 25-40 years of age who can afford to enjoy wine and know enough to tell if there is something wrong with his drink. Ironically, the wine he drinks is likely to be paid for by public or corporate money, which makes high prices not only unproblematic but something coveted since expensive wine of course works better than cheap wine to produce and uphold sociocultural distinctions between the elite and the masses (cf. Tang 2003).

27But, one can well argue that wine is produced not only for those who actually drink it. As a sign of modernity, of the International, of China joining ranks with the world through reclaiming its past glory, wine carries with it the promise of a brighter and healthier future also for the many who as yet cannot afford it but on whose efforts and continuing belief in the market the system relies. In the final analysis, the fulfilment of this liquid promise is one that the Chinese leaders may well have to realise, lest their own wine turn sour.

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1 France, followed by Australia, is the biggest exporter of bottled wine to China. However, bottled wine makes up only 20 per cent of the total import, which in 2002 amounted to 3,340 metric ton, slightly more than a tenth the size of the domestic production, and almost ten times China’s own export. The vast majority of imported wine hails from Chile, with Argentina as a distant second (Zhongguo qinggongye nianjian 2003, 262).
2 Historically, there does not seem to exist any simple correlation between ‘new food’ and social class (e.g., Mintz 1985). In contemporary China, most of the new culinary diversity, be it Cantonese dim sum sold in Sichuan, McDonald’s burgers in Beijing, French wine, or frozen dumplings, have been products catering first to the more affluent part of the local populations, although differentiations clearly exists also within this group. Given time, the process of normalisation and the more wide-spread recognition of sociocultural distinctions will most probably land the poor with the low and the rich with the high. Signs of this is already to be seen in respect to, e.g., McDonald’s although the price level even of these restaurants still make them off-limit to many (cf. Watson 1997).
3 The actual amount of wine produced in China is unclear. FAO and Chinese official statistics go wide apart starting in 1991, landing China in 2003 with a record output of 1,120,000 metric ton according to FAO (2004) and a more modest, but more plausible, 343,000 Mt according to Chinese statistics. Either way the situation stands in clear contrast to the 100 Mt produced in 1949 and the 15 000 Mt produced in 1978. This should, however, be compared to the national production of distilled spirits, 3,780,000 Mt, and beer, 23,870,000 Mt (data for 2002, Zhongguo jingji nianjian 2003).
4 High inflation in the late 1980s hollowed out the salaries of China’s urban population frustrating economic expectations and generating popular resentment. Pensioners, unemployed and others who felt left out of the country’s economic growth in the late 1990s constituted a majority of members in Falungong, a movement whose charismatic leader Li Hongzhi promised spiritual compensation.
5 Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three Represents,’ since March 2004 engraved as an ‘important thought’ in the Chinese Constitution, is the Chinese Communist Party as representing: the requirements for development of the advanced productive forces of China, the orientation of advanced culture of China, and the fundamental interest of the broadest number of people in China. The winery’s ‘Four Represents’ had the company as representing: the most outstanding wine region in China, the largest and most modernized wine producer in China, the highest wine quality in China, and the holy interests of consumers [sic]. Perhaps the parodic dimension – which most certainly was not intentional – appeared also to the Party; today Suntime declares its strategy not in terms of ‘represents’ but in ordinary terms of increased quality and profit (Suntime 2004).
6 Today, Left Mountain (Zuoshan) and Double Celebration (Shuangqing) are two indigenous ‘mountain grapes’ used to make sweet red wine in the northeastern province of Jilin, where V. vinifera cannot be used, unless grafted on the cold-resistant stocks of V. amurensis or V. thunbergii. Dragon Eye (Longyan) is another native grape, spread over the country and used to produce white wine (Zhu Baoyong 1995). Nonetheless, at least 80 per cent of today’s Chinese wine is made with imported varieties, and Guo Qichang, influential veteran in the domestic wine industry, urges wineries to use nothing else (putao 2004).
7 When conducting fieldwork in Chengdu in the Summer of 2004, I still found stores that tried to sell red wine by offering a free bottle of Coca-Cola to go with it.
8 The health motive is most explicitly used by producers of so-called medical wine (yaojiu) and health wine (jiankangjiu). While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the topic, it should be noted that the connection between food and health – of course – has a long and sophisticated tradition in China.
9 The aphid is now present in Shandong, Liaoning and Shaanxi but not reported from other locations (ZNXW, 2004).
10 Changyu’s medal from 1915 is today seen as a symbol of early international recognition, but it has been observed that one rationale behind both the international fairs and national ranking systems that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century was to grant legitimacy to new kinds of food, establish new food hierarchies, and improve the public image of mass produced products in a time when many of these were of sub-standard quality or even harmful. This rationale is very much alive in China, where an intricate system exists to label products in quality grades and allow certain brands the right to special labels. As an example, in 2002, the Famous brand strategy committee of China granted Great Wall, Dynasty, Changyu, Tong Hua, Fengshou, and Grand Dragon the title ‘Famous national brands’ in the wine category.
11 A similar strategy is used by the beer industry. Stress is on the one hand put on the fact that China since 2001 is the biggest producing country in the world, and the highest praise for a beer is being labelled as ‘national banquet beer.’ On the other hand it is always ‘right’ to claim German roots. That the leading domestic brand, Tsingtao, was founded by Germans is never forgotten while the Teutonic ancestry of the Qingdao Winery is seldom remembered, German wines not enjoying the same status as French wines. Given complex, at times outright hostile, feelings among Chinese consumers about Japan, the Japanese 1930s roots of the Tong Hua Winery are of course hardly ever alluded to.
12 In the period 1892-1962 a total of 77 grape varieties were introduced to China from France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Romania, Soviet, USA, Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Hungary and Japan (Hong 2001).
13 Prices for domestic wine in supermarkets during my field research in Shenzhen and Chengdu ranged from 7 to 180 yuan (0,7-18 €) giving evidence of an already elaborated hierarchy of goods – although with rather disagreeable products in the base (cf. Liu Qing 2002). Nevertheless, wine is not as yet accepted as a ‘common’ product the way the industry would like to define this concept (cf. Guo 2004). Domestic grain-based spirits ranged in price from 3 to 470 yuan (0,3-47 €) in the same stores, mirroring a much more mature market.
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Electronic reference

Björn Kjellgren, « Drunken modernity: wine in China », Anthropology of food [Online], 3 | December 2004, Online since 01 December 2004, connection on 04 July 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Björn Kjellgren

Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

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