Chinese beer brewing under the Shang Dynasty (1570 to 1045 BC).



The very ancient period Shang (1570-1045) is known thanks to objects exhumed by archaeologists and through inscriptions using archaic signs and pictograms. The culture of Erligang, between 1500 and 1300 BC, would correspond to the first phase of this dynasty. The site of Anyang (province of Henan) has provided thousands of inscribed turtle shells. These oracular formulas (jiaguwen) carved on bones, turtle shells, bamboo blades or signs engraved on ritualised objects (bronze vessels, pottery, stones, etc.) remain difficult to decipher[1]. All the literary documents evoking this proto-history of China date from the end of the Zhou (1046 - around 256 BC) or from later periods (dynasty Han). The risks of anachronism are tremendous.

Shang dynasty kingdom


In 1974 the remains of a beer brewing plant from the Shang period in Thai-hsi were discovered in the Honan. A sediment at the bottom of a large jar of wêng shape contained yeast cells. A 2nd type of pottery with a pointed bottom seems to have been used as a cooker or fermenter. A third was used for filtering.Next to hemp and jujube seeds, millet shi is used in large quantities [2]. In 1980, sealed bronze vessels yu, dated to the end of the Shang, still contained an alcoholic beverage whose composition has unfortunately not been published (site from Thien-hu-tshun to Lo-shan, Honan province).


Four fermented beverages (jiu) are mentioned for the period Shang by the texts, all written very later, at the end of the dynasty Zhou for the oldest documents :

The Li Chi (Book of Rites) says that two of them, the li and lo beverages, are very ancient.

The beer-li is poorly fermented, probably based on malt (nie) from barley, wheat or millet.

The drink-lo may be made of pressed and fermented beverage. A kind of wine. But some authors evoke a fermented beverage because the drink-lo is later attested among the northern nomadic pastoralists.

The beer-lao is neither filtered nor decanted. It is drunk with its grains like some traditional Asian beers brewed today. A kind of fermented porridge or gruel (Shi Ben, Livres des Origines).

The beer-chang is a ritual beverage with the addition of herbs, probably aromatic. The chang[3] is often mentioned on the oracular bones of the Shang period and once in the Yi Jing (Book of Mutations) of the Zhou.

The classics Shi Jing (Book of Odes), Shu Jing (Book of Documents), Zhou Li (Rites of the Zhou around 300 BC) and Li Chi speak of a beer jiu zhang brewed with black millet. It must have held an important place, judging by the unanimity of the texts.


« In ancient times, there were ( beverages) Li and Lo; it was not before the advent of Yü that jiu was invented", Gu Shi Gao, Ancient Times Investigations written around 250 (Huang 156). The jiu refers here to a strong beer obtained with the help of amylolytic ferments. The text seems to say that the Chinese beer brewing originally only mastered malting and probably another kind of ferment obtained by insalivating cooked grain patties. But this latter inference is not proven by Chinese documents to date. It is based on a comparison of ancient Chinese beer brewing techniques with those of the indigenous populations of the periphery of the late Chinese empire and still practised in recent times, notably in Taiwan (insalivation of cooked rice pellets), or in ancient Japan.

The word jiu has taken on different meanings over the centuries. Indeed, jiu, li and chang are often inscribed on the rods or the oracular shells of turtles as different kinds of fermented beverages. The kings of the Shang dynasty seem to prefer beer-li, but choose jiu beer for sacrifices to deities or ancestors. The dichotomy jiu and li for beers encompasses under the Shang dynasty a technical reality: beer-li based on millet, wheat or barley malts, and beer-jiu (any source of starch) based on beer-ferments whose composition (rice, millet, wheat, beans) is not specified.

The term jiu becomes under the Zhou the sole determinant associated with all types of beer, whatever the brewing method (insalivation, malting, amylolytic ferments). From the Han (206 BC - 220 AD), jiu refers more broadly to all fermented beverages: beers, wines, mead. The sign jiu is then prefixed with the sign of the main cereal used to brew it : maï jiu (barley/wheat beer), shu jiu (millet beer Panicum), shi jiu (millet beer Setaria) or tao jiu (rice beer). This convention makes it possible to identify the types of beer without error and to exclude wines (jiu prefixed by the sign of a fruit or grape, which is very rare).


What are the methods of saccharification implemented under the Shang?

The earliest mention of malt and fermented beer is written around 500 BC. It is a key document for understanding the history of beer brewing in China, although late compared to the Shang Dynasty:

« Ruo zuo jiu li, er wei qu nie,  若 柞 酒 醴 , 爾 惟 麴 蘖 » (Shu Jing, Livre des Documents).

Word-forword: « To make jiu (酒) (or) li (醴), you need qu (麴) (or) nie 蘖 ».

With two diverging translations regarding brewing techniques :

  1.  « To make the beer-jiu (酒) or the beer-li (醴), you need beer-ferment-qu (麴) or malt (nie 蘖) »
  2.  « To make the jiu-li (酒 醴), yu need qu-nie (麴 蘖) »

This very laconic prescription proves the existence of two distinct processes associated with two types of beer. The amylolytic ferment qu to make beer-jiu, and the malt nie to make beer-li. But this late indication dates from the end of Zhou. It may be abusive to assimilate the beer-jiu of this text with the beer-jiu from the oracular texts of the ancient Shang dynasty and to conclude that the amylolytic ferment qu was already mastered in the early Shang dynasty. The similarity of the sinograms may hide different technical realities on the scale of millennia.

That nie refers to malt is beyond doubt.The dictionary Shuo Wen writes "nie = "germinated grain", and the Shi Ming explains in the 2th century that "nie is obtained by soaking the mai grains (barley/wheat) in water until they germinate " (Huang 158).

It cannot be excluded that millet malt could have been made, although this cereal is not very suitable for this purpose. The Shi-ming adds that the beer-li can be ready (fermented) overnight. This corresponds to the fast brewing of malt beers, provided the malt is ready for use: infusion of the crushed malt in hot water for a few hours, optional filtration and fermentation of the wort overnight.


Another translation has been proposed for the quotation of the Shu Jing given above: "For fermented li (jiu-li), one needs ferment-malt (qu-nie)" (Huang 159-160). It raises some technical inconsistency regarding the general beer brewing process.

As we have said, under the dynasty of Zhou, jiu may also prefix li and mean "beer (type)  li" (jiu li). However, this translation comes up against a technical inconsistency. If qu-nie = ferment-malt, what ingredient or brewing technique can it refer to?
Answer 1: to 'mouldy malt' ? A brewing nonsense: the malting process consists precisely in stopping germination by drying. A mouldy malt is a spoiled malt, a very bad brewing ingredient.
Answer 2: to 'fermented malt' ? Other nonsense: malting involves separating the starch saccharification (germination of the grains) and alcoholic fermentation from the sweet wort. When malt is used, yeast is also needed to start the fermentation.
Answer 3: to 'germinated malt' ? Nie already means " sprouted grain " !

Conclusion: qu-nie considered as one and the same ingredient has no practical reality in any of the possible techniques of beer brewing if they are considered separately, each with its own logic and technical specificities : the beer ferment (qu ) on the one hand ensures both starch conversion and alcoholic fermentation, malt (nie ) on the other hand involves separate germination of the grains, then, in a second liquid phase, conversion into sugars and in a third phase, alcoholic fermentation of the wort obtained and the addition of leaven. Only one possibility remains: qu-nie refers to the association of two brewing routes, that of the amylolytic ferment (qu ) and that of malting (nie ). Could a hybrid route have been applied in China 3000 years ago, before these two brewing methods separated? Using which technique? Perhaps malted loaves (nie ) mixed with beer-ferments (qu ), to get a saccharified and fermented porridge as well, kept warm (?), to be then soaked directly in water, the last step for having beer. We do not have any archaeological or documentary evidence to date .


Song Ying-Xing explains in 1637 that " In ancient times, qu was used to make jiu-beer, and nie for li-beer. Later, the making of li beer was discontinued because its flavour was too light and the art of using malt (nie fa  孽 法 ) was therefore lost" (Tian Gong Kai Wu, The Use of the Works of Nature, see Huang 158). This very well argued testimony comes more than a millennium after the progressive abandonment of malting by the traditional Chinese beer brewing, which was erased in the 7th century between the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties. Still it is necessary to understand Song Ying-Xing's remark. The technique of malting does not fall into oblivion. The Chinese continue to produce malt syrup (yi) until today. It is the use of malt for brewing beer that is disappearing in favour of an almost exclusive use of the qu amylolytic ferments. This historical evolution of the beer brewing technology varies from one province to another in the vast Chinese empire.

Can we elucidate the nature of the ferment qu under the Shang? From the Han, qu designates around 200 BC without any doubt an amylolytic ferment. It enables stronger, better attenuated beers to be brewed and easier to keep in hermetically sealed jars. Is it the same as under the Shang? Obviously, the bronze and terracotta jars unearthed by archaeologists contained relatively alcoholic beers. But technically, this result can be obtained with a malt-based brewing. It is the proportion of starch/water that determines the density of fermentable sugars, not the ferment.

It should be noted that unsalivated patties of cooked grain (fan) may in archaic times have played the same technical role as amylolytic ferment qu, be preserved dried and be called "ferment". The brewing of maize chicha and cassava beers is based on this very efficient principle. It produces beers whose alcohol content depends on the fermentation time, calculated in days. The use of unsalivation as a brewing technique has been documented around China, in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan in ancient times. However, to our knowledge, no Chinese source mentions it. The question of the nature of the qu under the Shang thus remains open.


The Historical Annals tell how Di Xin, the last king of the Shang dynasty, lost both his kingdom and the favour of Heaven, immersed in the delight of fermented beverages.

To entertain 3000 guests in a banquet offered to his consort Da Ji " He built a pond filled with beer and a forest of supports with hanging meat, so that they could revel and frolic naked all night long ".

One must understand, beyond this perhaps legendary anecdote, that the last ruler of the Shang did not honour his religious function. Gifted with great physical strength, tyrannical and debauched, his acts announce his fall which the king Wu of the Zhou achieves after the bloody battle of Muye. It must also be understood that such a debauchery of fermented beverages, a pond filled with beer (from millet, wheat or barley), is made possible by the huge accumulation of grains converging towards the capital of the Shang and its palace. The territory controlled by the Shang covered, in northeast China, the present provinces of Shangdong, Hebei and Henan. The population is estimated at about 13.5 million, a majority of peasants working for an aristocracy of clans and kinglets freely associated with the sovereign's authority and privileges.

Highly hierarchical, the Shang society is controlled by a warlike and agrarian aristocracy. Each rank or social level takes the maximum amount of grain and services from the lower level. The peasant (free or slave) eats only a tiny part of the grain he grows in the fields (tian) with stone sickles and hoes, wooden spades. He drinks little if any beer in the hamlet (ye) where he lives in a warmer and wetter climate than today. The local aristocracy drinks beer. The ducal regional courts can brew and drink beer at will, as evidenced by the bronze and terracotta drinking services, not all of which have a funerary use. But the court of the sovereign Shang knows no restraints. More than anywhere else, it can brew highly alcoholic beers, that is to say beers whose brewing swallows unlimited volumes of grain to reach very high densities. This is what the banquets and the debaucheries with strong beers organised by the last king of the dynasty Shang tell us.

The administrative tasks attested in the oracular texts are numerous. The high administration of the Shang kings is based on family and personal relationships. The management of the kingdom's affairs, and in particular the royal domain and its dependents, requires the a newly created administration to register and account grain and stored goods. The period of Anyang (1300-1050 BC) established a more elaborate administration and management techniques, assisted in by a newly improved writing system.

The administrative and technical efficiency of the Shang kingdom also causes its loss, with the excessiveness of the king Di Xin and his entourage. Living in the middle of overabundant reserves of grains and beers, the sovereign and his clan fall ... in basins overflowing with beer. The Shang clan lost the bloody battle of Murye in 1046 BC against the Zhou clan.

The victorious Zhou will take up and develop this administrative and political heritage of the Shang, while professing the measure regarding fermented beverages, especially strong beers. Condemning the excessive consumption of strong beers will become a leitmotif of imperial political morality for the many Chinese dynasties to come. In the 5th century B.C., the philosopher Mozi (or Mo Tzu, circa -470 to -391) writes that " if the rulers sincerely desire order in the kingdom and hate to see disorder, they must not indulge in excess meat and alcoholic beverages" [4]. Mozi  knows well the history of the Shang dynasty, especially its disastrous end. He implies that Di Xin and his consort Da Ji lost their kingdom because of their debauchery of beer and meat, among other excesses.


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[1] Oracular inscriptions (jiaguwen): 20,000 inscriptions on turtle shells or bovine shoulder blades have been found on the site of Yin (present Anyang, in Henan), the last capital of the Shang. Since the first official excavations (1928-1937) conducted by the Chinese archaeologist Li Ji, researchers have discovered twice as many on other sites. Many mention beer because this drink accompanied divinations or was served more often during libations to deities or ancestors that were questioned in rituals.

[2] Huang H. T. 2000, Fermentation and Food Science in Science and Civilisation in China (Needham J. ed.) Vol. 6 Part. V, 151-153.

[3] Not to be confused with the Tibetan chang, an autochthonous beer made from barley and amylolytic ferments.

[4] The teachings and thought of Mozi have been compiled and transmitted by his students and followers. His thoughts regarding the excesses of beer and meat, two luxuries reserved for the ruling aristocracy, are found in Chapter 5 of Book I, about the Complacency in Excesses of all kinds. Mozi shows that disorders and abuses at the top of the social pyramid inevitably spread to the whole hierarchy to the point of corrupting everything and causing the worst social troubles: "Before the art of cooking was known, primitive people ate only vegetables and lived in separation. Thereupon the sage taught the men to attend to farming and to plant trees to supply the people with food. And the sole purpose of securing food is to increase energy, satisfy hunger, strengthen the body and appease the stomach. He was frugal in spending wealth and simple in habits of living, and so the people became rich and the country orderly. With the present rulers all is different. They would heavily tax the people in order to enjoy elaborately the different meats and fish and turtle cooked in various wavs. (The lord of) a large state is served with a hundred courses and (that of) a small state, with tens of courses, which will cover a table space of ten square feet. The eyes cannot see all the dishes, the hands cannot handle them all, and the mouth cannot taste them all. In winter they will freeze, and in summer they sour. As the ruler serves himself thus, naturally his assistants imitate him. And so the rich and high in rank are wasteful and extravagant, while the solitary and miserable are hungry and cold. It is impossible to keep such a state out of disorder. If the rulers sincerely desire the empire to have order and hate to see it in disorder, they must not indulge in excessive eating and drinking." Moisme.

14/11/2020  Christian Berger