Drinking Bai Jiu at a hostel in China During Spring Festival 2020
“It’s New Years Somewhere” is a series that explores drinking and celebrating around the world
Spring Festival in a big city is always a strange time. Streets are empty, and shops are closed. Most urban residents take the train to their ancestral hometowns to ring in the new year with their whole families.
Ordinarily, I might join Chinese friends to celebrate together, but with the coronavirus spreading, just in time for travel rush, I opted to stay put in Nanjing, a city of 8 million in ordinary times and the ancient capital of China through multiple dynasties. By the time Spring Festival started, already 600 people had caught the highly-contagious disease, and two dozen had died. Now, the total is over 2,000, with more than 50 dead.
Fear over the spread has made cities even more lifeless. Museums are closed, too, and those remaining remaining are scared of going outside. But that didn’t stop me and three foreign friends I met at a hostel in Nanjing from feasting on roast duck and dropping back shots of bai jiu.
After finding storefronts boarded up and the city wall closed, I resigned myself to grabbing a bottle of bai jiu (“white liquor”) and heading to the hostel in Laomendong. Laomendong, an “ancient-style” street south of Confucius Temple, was still more or less bustling. As it was designed with tourism and leisure in mind and decorated with brightly lit lanterns in the shapes of animals and Chinese legends, Laomendong attracted those revelers willing to brave the open air.
Bai jiu is China’s traditional liquor made from sorghum (or other wheat product) that is steamed, fermented, and distilled. It’s the world’s bestselling alcoholic beverage—by far—and no Chinese celebration is complete without it. As any foreigner, myself included, who has been invited to a Chinese wedding can attest, it can be tough to keep up with the constant demands to gan bei (bottoms up).
I selected a bottle of Liuyang He, which came in a bright red box—the color of good fortune—for 35 Chinese yuan, one of the most affordable selections. (The famous national brand Moutai will set you back 3,000.)
Like Moutai, Liuyang He is also named after the region where it is produced. Liuyang is located in northeastern Hunan, east of Changsha, nearby the historical birthplace of Mao Zedong and many early Communist Party leaders. The liquor produced with Liuyang River water has been acclaimed since the Song Dynasty, when local official and poet Yang Shi lauded it in verse. In addition to bai jiu, it is also one of China’s biggest fireworks-producing cities. Its products will have been used widely across the country by the end of the two-weeks-long festival period.
I poured two glasses at the table in the lobby of the hostel and gave one to Thomas, who is from Germany.
“What do you think?” I asked, after we cleaned our glasses.
“Um…” After a pause, he said, “It’s strong.”
It’s 52 percent alcohol.
The local people’s government of Liuyang established the Liuyang He bai jiu factory in 1956—six years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China—inside an old liquor fermenting yard. The brand began acquiring a reputation and was known for its red packaging and its “strong aroma” flavor. In 1998, in order to revitalize the brand, Liuyang He was purchased by the Hunan Zhongshang Group and production was turned over to the nation’s top-selling distillery, Wuliangye.
Sylvain and Lucas, from France, joined us in the lobby, and we went out to look for a restaurant. We ordered a feast of six dishes, including Guangzhou roast duck and glass noodles. It was just coincidental that the restaurant had no Snow Beer in its refrigerator, and Corona was the only brand of beer they had cold.
All three of the foreigners who had come to China to celebrate Spring Festival had their plans thwarted by the virus. “I wanted to go to the Ming Tomb at Purple Mountain,” Thomas said, “but it was closed, so I went to the [Xuanwu] Lake, but it was closed, as well, so I took the Metro back to the Confucius Temple, and the temple was closed, but the area around it, the shops were open.”
With life in the city paralyzed by Spring Festival and coronavirus, there’s nothing much to do but stay inside and get drunk.