Opinion / From the Readers

Moutai in the eyes of foreign presidents

By François de la Chevalerie ( Updated: 2016-05-20 16:28

It's like the beating of China’s heart, a tradition, a part of its lifestyle, a gift that comes from heaven.

Old as the nation, moutai has been a witness of nearly all episodes of Chinese history, from time immemorial until now.

Beyond the political changes, disorders, tears and heartaches, moutai has remained the reliable anchorage point to revitalize the faith in friendship. Among other virtues, it has played a big part in China's international relations.

The national liquor (guo jiu), which has become country’s second skin, sometimes creates misunderstanding among foreigners. Here is a question: Why is moutaiso relevant?

- Yes it is! answered Zhou Enlai to the then-French president Georges Pompidou during a Beijing welcoming gala in 1973. “In this very tiny and small glass, you will taste a subtle balance of strength and smoothness, the salt of the earth. That is why we must drink it in a one big gulp.”

As Pompidou showed some difficulties in finishing it in one gulp, Zhou Enlai added with a smiling face.

- Sure the alcohol level is high but it serves as a resounding reminder of the road that has been travelled over the centuries.

That same year, then-Mexican president Luis Echeverria Alvarez visited China, a year after the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. During dinner, a somewhat same scene occurred.

Yet again, a foreign president found it difficult to drink moutai.

- I usually drink tequila or mezcal, he apologized.

- Take your time! Drink slowly, suggested Zhou Enlai . “I guess you will enjoy it at the end. As the tequila is for the Mexicans, moutaiis for Chinese.

A few years later, in 1986, the then-Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, apparently told how to drink moutai by the former president, finished it one gulp in front of the surprised Li Xiannian (李先念), the then-president of China.

- Next time, take all your time, and drink slowly. It takes time to train oneself to the Chinese millinery culture.

And then in 1993, the newly elected Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, warned by both predecessors, took on the challenge.

To ease the drinking, he recited at the same time the well-known poem of Li Bai, Jing ye si.

Of course, he had a poor Chinese accent, almost incomprehensible, but when he came to the last verse di tou si gu xiang (低頭思故鄉), then-president Jiang Zemin congratulated him. Then Gortari drank the moutaiall of a sudden.

- Poetry and alcohol are some of the brightest resources of the Chinese culture, said Jiang Zemin.There is also an anecdote of another Mexican president who boasted at an official luncheon that he was a very successful heavy drinker. Just then fish was served to him, with its head pointing toward him. According to old Hunan province tradition, the person must drink three cups of moutai instantly if the fish head is pointing toward him. No talks. The Mexican president asked for forgiveness.

- I actually haven't been feeling that well lately, he said failing back on the defensive.

That’s when his wife said with a mischievous smile.

- Darling, if you don’t drink it, you will never be a “real man”, as Sir Charlie Chaplin used to say.

- Don't worry about it, said a Chinese official, make yourself comfortable. Do as best you can! But, all the same, dive into the real world of Chinese legends and fall under the spell of eternal tales.

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