Arabs are supposed to have btought grapes to China by the second century B.C., but ealier alcoholic beverages were distilled from sorghum. Grape wine were popular among poests and mandarins in the 11th century, but in the 14th century, an emperor destroyed the local vines and relaced them with cereal crops. Some grape wines continued to be made (Marco Polo enjoyed some), but they never commanded the agricultural importance of wine-making as it developed in France and Italy.
The traditional Chinese rice wine, called Shaohsing, is made by fermenting sweetened glutinous rice or millet. This Chinese invention dates from the 3rd century B.C., and it also contunues to be popular today, under a number of different brand names, such as Chia Fan, Hua Tiao, Yen Hung, and Hsiahg Huseh.
In Chinese, there is only one word for both wine and spirits: Chiu. That covers the dry sherry-like shaohsing and the white Kaoloang, which resembles gin or vodka, and ultimately includes the notorious Mao-Tai. Reaching a potency of 150 proof, Mao-Tai can knock your socks off.At a formal Chinese banquet, it would be drunk straight, with no water or ice to dilute its flavor.
The Chinese Drink their wines at dinner, with food, rather than before dinner. If you are ar a Chinese banquet, and if it's your turn to toast the host, raise your glass and say, "Kan Pei!" That means, "Bottoms up." If you are invited to a banquet among North American Chinese, you may be surprised to find that whiskey or brandy has replaced rice wine as the Chinese alcoholic beverage of choice. Of course, part of this may have to do with the difficulty to obtaining a good selection of Chinese wines in this country.
Just remember that the principle activity at a dinner is eating, not drinking. Too much drink numbs the palate, which means that all those delicious dishes just go to waste.