Before the wine could cool, an archer slays a beast

Wine is a common beverage as well as a cultural phenomenon in China and drinking wine has been an important social activity since ancient times.

Wine is a common beverage as well as a cultural phenomenon in China and drinking wine has been an important social activity since ancient times.

A wide range of Chinese wines, from mild yellow wine to strong baijiu (white liquor), is enjoyed across the country on all kinds of occasions, and China’s wine drinking culture is reflected in numerous literary texts.

In “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the 14th-century historical novel with legendary and mythical elements by Luo Guanzhong and one of the four great classic novels in Chinese literature, wine, which flourished during the period, made an impact on the Chinese lifestyle.

The way that wine was drunk then has passed down in history and is still practiced today, like warming up the wine and liquor before drinking. In the 21st chapter of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Cao Cao, the warlord who founded the state of Wei (220-265), invited Liu Bei, the warlord who established the state of Shu (221-263), to his private garden where there were green plum trees.

They sat in a small pavilion to enjoy liquor that had been heated tableside and eat green plums while talking about the politics and heroes of the time. The story of qingmei zhujiu (green plums and boiled liquor) was a celebrated text that vividly portrayed the two characters.

As Cao and Liu talked over the drink, Cao said that “the only heroes in the world are you and I.” Liu gasped, and the spoon and chopsticks rattled to the floor. Just at that moment the storm burst with a tremendous peal of thunder and rush of rain.

A common misunderstanding of the story is that some people think the plums were being boiled in wine to make plum wine, which was not the case. The plums were served on the side.

Xu Jingjing / SHINE

The story of qingmei zhujiu (green plums and boiled liquor) is a celebrated text about Cao Cao (right) and Liu Bei from the 14th-century historical classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

And in the story of Guan Yu defeating Hua Xiong, a glass of warm wine was a testimony to Guan’s bravery and strength.

The warriors in the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280) always fought in front of the soldiers of both sides before major battles, which showcased the strength of the army and cheered up the moral of the winning party.

Guan, courtesy name Yunchang, was a general who served under Liu. The red-faced general who always wore a green robe and carried qinglong yanyue dao (green dragon crescent blade) is among the best-known figures in Chinese history, and he played a significant role in assisting Liu establishing the state of Shu after the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) came to an end.

At the beginning of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Liu joined a coalition of 18 feudal lords led by Yuan Shao to fight Dong Zhuo, the tyrannical warlord of the Eastern Han Dynasty who seized power in a state of turmoil.

Hua was an unrivaled warrior and chief commander serving under Dong and he was described as “a stalwart man of fierce mien, lithe and supple as a beast. He had a round head like a leopard and shoulders like an ape’s.”

In the opening duel of the Battle of Sishui Pass from chapter five, the invincible Hua slew four warriors from the coalition in a row. Then, Guan, who wasn’t known by the leaders of the coalition, volunteered to kill Hua in a calm and deep voice: “I will go, take Hua Xiong’s head, and lay it before you here.”

The generals doubted Guan’s ability, as he was a mere mounted archer. Yuan said it was an insult that an archer spoke in front of the lords, but Cao intervened and asked Yuan to give Guan a chance to try.

Yuan still thought Hua would laugh at the coalition if they sent an archer to the fight, but Cao argued that Guan looked like no common person, and the enemy wouldn’t know he was a bowman.

“If I fail, then you can take my head,” said Guan.

Cao, who admired Guan’s courage and bravery, poured a glass of warm wine to send off the hero. Guan asked him to set it aside and wait for his return.

Guan went to the battlefield on a horse with his weapon in hand, and very shortly he returned and threw the head of Hua in front of the feudal lords.

The wine was still warm as it hadn’t taken the archer long to defeat the invincible warrior.

This famous fight was celebrated in verse:

The power of the man stands first in all the world,

At the gate of the camp was heard the rolling of the battle drums;

Then Guan Yu set aside the wine cup till he should have displayed his valor,

And the wine was still warm when Hua Xiong had been slain.

The author Luo didn’t depict the battle scene in detail but shaped the tension in the atmosphere from describing the coalition’s meeting room and celebrated Guan’s quick win through a glass of warm wine.


A porcelain vessel dating back to the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) designed to warm up the wines.

Warm wine

Western liquors, like vodka or rum, are usually served with ice, as the ice can reduce the piquant feeling of the alcohol and make the taste milder, though the melting ice would also dilute the drink.

But Chinese people prefer to drink warm wine, especially in winter. This method of drinking originated in ancient times when winemaking techniques weren’t so advanced and the rice wine contained impurities and harmful substances that would evaporate in high temperatures.

The expression of boiling the wine doesn’t necessarily mean to bring the wine to a boil but heat it up so the wine becomes warm enough.

Though modern winemaking has long solved the problems of residual substances, the tradition of warming the wine before drinking has remained in the Chinese lifestyle. The aroma of the wine, whether yellow wine, rice wine or white liquor, becomes richer and mellower when it’s warm, and the flavor becomes smoother and gentler. Chinese people also believe that drinking warm wine has health benefits and can warm up the body.

To warm up Shaoxing yellow wine, pour the wine into a container and place it in boiling water until the temperature of the wine reaches 40 to 45 degrees Celsius, which is slightly higher than body temperature. If the temperature is too high, the alcohol can vaporize, and if it’s too low, the aroma won’t be brought out. Warm wine is also very comfortable to drink and quite friendly for the stomach.

Some people add ginger or preserved plum to the warm yellow wine to add flavor, though the original flavor is preferred.

For strong baijiu, there’s a debate about whether to warm up the spirit. Some people say the ethanol in baijiu easily vaporizes when heated, hence it disrupts the texture and taste of the wine. But since ancient times, the Chinese have been drinking warm baijiu.

In addition to ethanol, baijiu also contains a small amount of methanol, acetaldehyde and fusel oil that are harmful to health. When the liquor is heated, these substances will be removed.

Fruit wines can also be served warm although not as common as for yellow wine or baijiu. Plum wine can be served warm in winter and the sour tasting drink can cleanse the palate after eating rich and greasy food.

Mulled wine from Europe is also becoming more popular in China, as the wine heated with oranges, apple, cinnamon, cloves and lemon is sweet, warm and easy to drink.

Many people would agree that nothing beats a cold beer in summer, and naturally it’s a beverage that’s served chilled. In China, the tradition of drinking warm wine has extended to beer, a Western drink, as well.

In southern China, beer and fermented glutinous rice are cooked together in a pot with some goji berries and rock sugar.

The light and sweet drink is very easy to drink, but it still contains alcohol from both the beer and fermented rice.

And since the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC), different wine vessels have been designed for the purpose of warming up the wines. And the glasses used to serve the warm wine should also be warmed to the similar temperature to ensure a coherent experience.

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