The best books on Chinese alcohol and drinking culture

Who am I?

Derek Sandhaus is an award-winning American author of several books on Chinese history and culture. He worked as an editor, publisher, and tour guide in Shanghai, then moved to Chengdu and turned to drink. In 2018 he co-founded Ming River Sichuan Baijiu with China’s oldest distillery, and now spends most of his time talking about Chinese alcohol to anyone who will listen. He currently lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and a very well-traveled dog.


I wrote...

Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture

By Derek Sandhaus,

Book cover of Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture

What is my book about?

China is one of the world’s leading producers and consumers of liquor, with alcohol infusing all aspects of its culture, from religion and literature to business and warfare. Yet to the outside world, China’s most famous spirit, baijiu, remains a mystery. This is about to change, as baijiu is now being served in cocktail bars beyond its borders.

Drunk in China follows Derek Sandhaus’s journey of discovery into the world’s oldest drinking culture. He travels throughout the country and around the globe to meet with distillers, brewers, snake-oil salesmen, archaeologists, and ordinary drinkers. He examines the many ways in which alcohol has shaped Chinese society and its rituals. Along the way, he uncovers a tradition spanning more than nine thousand years and explores how recent economic and political developments have conspired to push Chinese alcohol beyond the nation’s borders for the first time. As Chinese society becomes increasingly international, its drinking culture must also adapt to the times. Can the West also adapt and clink glasses with China? 

The books I picked & why

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

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Patrick E. McGovern,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uncorking the Past as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a lively tour around the world and through the millennia, "Uncorking the Past" tells the compelling story of humanity's ingenious, intoxicating quest for the perfect drink. Following a tantalizing trail of archaeological, chemical, artistic, and textual clues, Patrick E. McGovern, the leading authority on ancient alcoholic beverages, brings us up to date on what we now know about how humans created and enjoyed fermented beverages across cultures. Along the way, he explores a provocative hypothesis about the integral role such libations have played in human evolution. We discover, for example, that the cereal staples of the modern world were…


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

By Ha Jin,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Ha Jin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Banished Immortal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In his own time (701–762), Li Bai’s brilliant poems—shaped by Daoist thought, filled with an irrepressible lust for life—were never given their proper due. Nonetheless, his lines rang out on the lips of tavern singers, soldiers, and writers throughout the Tang dynasty, and his deep desire for a higher, more perfect world gave rise to his nickname: the Banished Immortal. With the instincts of a master novelist, Ha Jin draws on a wide range of historical and literary sources to weave the great poet’s life story, following Bai from his origins on the western frontier to his rambling travels as…


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

By H.T. Huang,

Book cover of 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.

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

By H.T. Huang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Science and Civilisation in China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Today Chinese cuisine is enjoyed in many parts of the world, yet little is known in the West about the technologies involved in making its characteristic ingredients. H. T. Huang's book is the first history of Chinese food technology in a western language. It describes the conversion of agricultural commodities into food and drink, and explores the origins, development and scientific basis of traditional Chinese technology as applied to the processing of four food categories: the fermentation of alcoholic drinks from grains; the conversion of soybeans into soyfoods and condiments; the preservation of foods and the production of noodles, vegetable…


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

By Fuchsia Dunlop,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Fuchsia Dunlop,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning food writer Fuchsia Dunlop went to live in China as a student in 1994, and from the very beginning she vowed to eat everything she was offered, no matter how alien and bizarre it seemed. In this extraordinary memoir, Fuchsia recalls her evolving relationship with China and its food, from her first rapturous encounter with the delicious cuisine of Sichuan Province to brushes with corruption, environmental degradation, and greed. In the course of her fascinating journey, Fuchsia undergoes an apprenticeship at China's premier Sichuan cooking school, where she is the only foreign student in a class of nearly fifty…


Soju: A Global History

By Hyunhee Park,

Book cover of 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.

Soju: A Global History

By Hyunhee Park,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soju as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hyunhee Park offers the first global historical study of soju, the distinctive distilled drink of Korea. Searching for soju's origins, Park leads us into the vast, complex world of premodern Eurasia. She demonstrates how the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries wove together hemispheric flows of trade, empire, scientific and technological transfer and created the conditions for the development of a singularly Korean drink. Soju's rise in Korea marked the evolution of a new material culture through ongoing interactions between the global and local and between tradition and innovation in the adaptation and localization of new technologies. Park's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about alcohol in China, China, and drinking culture.

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