The best books on Chinese alcohol and drinking culture

The Books I Picked & Why

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

By Patrick E. McGovern

Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages

Why this book?

Patrick McGovern is an archeologist on a mission to discover ancient tipples. In Uncorking the Past he recounts several of his most significant finds, including the world’s oldest-known manmade alcoholic beverage at Jiahu, a nine-thousand-year-old site near the Yellow River in north-central China. The story of its discovery—and recreation with Dogfish Head Brewery—is fascinating, but the explanation of the role of alcohol in neolithic Chinese life makes it required reading.


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The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)

By Ha Jin

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)

Why this book?

Li Bai is the best known of China’s “Eight Immortals of the Wine Glass,” a group of Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) poets famous for their drinking prowess. Using historical records, Ha Jin’s biography is a portrait of a frustrated half-Chinese outcast, brilliant but arrogant, who struggles to find a place in a world where talent alone is not enough. Brought down to earth, Li the man is less inspiring than the legend but far more sympathetic.


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Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science

By H. T. Huang

Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5, Fermentations and Food Science

Why this book?

During the height of the Second World War, British biochemist Joseph Needham traveled across China with his assistant H.T. Huang to study Chinese scientific development, braving breakthroughs, and Japanese incursion along the way. Needham spent the next half-century compiling his findings into the Science and Civilization in China series, which rewrote our understanding of China’s place in world history. The story of its creation, and the colorful characters behind it, is memorably told in Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China, a book that sadly had little to tell us about Chinese drinks. This volume, however, written by Huang, is the urtext for understanding the development of Chinese alcoholic beverages.


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Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

By Fuchsia Dunlop

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

Why this book?

In China there’s an expression that roughly translates, “It’s not a meal without alcohol.” The converse is equally true: Chinese alcohol yearns to be paired with food. This list would thus be incomplete without a book that seriously delves into Chinese food culture. And in many ways, my own journey into Chinese spirits was an unintentional compliment to Dunlop’s earlier book. We both learned from local experts, followed our respective passions around China, and spent the bulk of our time in the idyllic Sichuanese capital of Chengdu. I especially appreciate Dunlop’s willingness to explore uncomfortable cultural dissonances, and the compelling and poignant case she makes for overcoming them.


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Soju: A Global History

By Hyunhee Park

Soju: A Global History

Why this book?

A book about Korean liquor might seem out of place on this list, but hear me out. Park’s book tells the story of soju from an unusual perspective, explaining Korean distilled spirits’ origins and development in terms of the historical circumstances that created them. It explores Korea’s place in the ancient world to explain when the country first encountered and widely adopted distilled spirits, a task that necessitates a sustained gaze on China. Accordingly, Soju provides readers with the most detailed examination of ancient Chinese liquor since H.T. Huang’s, and provides several noteworthy updates and improvements on his work.


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