Beer-brewing in the Han Empire (202 BC to 220 AD)


Han map


The empire set up by the Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) is divided into commanderies directly controlled by the imperial administration, and into more or less autonomous kingdoms. The period experience a relative economic prosperity. The technical boom, commercial exchanges, the imperial currency and one authoritarian government are seen as positive factors. The imperial structure disrupts the economic position of the Chinese brewery, while retaining most of its technical traditions.

The main consequences for the Chinese brewery are :

  • The brewery is seen by the imperial government as an general economic activity, a financial resource for the treasury, and a possible imperial monopoly, under the leadership of the legists, an economic sector subject to control. A general classification of beers is implemented, on the criterion of their quality / density, to serve as a basis of taxation for the imperial and provincial administrations.
  • Some standardization of local and regional beers ensues.
  • The method of the amylolytic ferments is widespread. This complex brewing method is mature under the Han. The manufacture of ferments called "qu" becomes a technical specialty and one economic activity affiliated with the brewery.
  • This technical development meets social stratification, more and more pronounced. Under the Han dynasty, the imperial aristocracy, the gentry and officials accentuate a lifestyle different from popular manners. Confucius himself does not buy his beer to the market. Implying that a brewer or female brewer works for him and his group of followers, and provides a daily healthy beer (Brewery under the Zhou dynasty).
  • The regionalization fades between the northern beers from millet and the southern rice beer.


Three main cereals contribute to banquets under the Han dynasty : 2 kinds of millet of whom one is glutinous and called liang (Setaria italica), the rice (ordinary or glutinous), and the wheat. The fermented beverages (jiu) of Han's times follow the same declension : beer ​​from millet, beer from wheat, beer made of rice.

The cleavage between the two usual sorts of beer is firm, regardless the nature of the used cereals.

The li-beer : under the Han dynasty, Chinese people still use malt (nie) to brew beer. The beer-li is made with nie jiu (litterally germinated grains for jiu-beer; here jiu is to be read with the general meaning "fermented beverage"). But the brewing ferment qu can also be used to make the beer-li. The beer-li made from wheat is mentioned in a letter written by Tai Yong to Yuan Shao (3rd century).

The jiu-beer : brewed with the amylolytic ferment qu. It is a strongly fermented and very alcoholic beer. Like with the previous beer-li, the beer-jiu is made with any kind of Chinese grains and even starch from tubers.

The li-beer tastes sweet : « li-beer is made with less starter (qu) and more rice than than jiu-beer » (Han shu 36:26, cited in K. C.Chang 1977, 68).

Although the nature and technique of jiu-beer was not debated during the Han period, there was still disagreement over the ingredients of the li-beer, the way it was brewed, its taste and appearance: made from malt alone or a mixture of malt (nie) and amylolytic ferment (qu)? The ancient history of brewing offers many examples of cooperation between two different and seemingly exclusive saccharification methods.  At the beginning of our era, northern China was a place where several techniques coexisted and cooperated, but where they began to specialise in the making of one type of beer or another. A piece of literature written by the emperor Wendi (r. 220-226) is very telling. It concerns grapes, which the Han were familiar with whilst ignoring wine, except at court as a rarity. Wendi compares the qualities of wine to those of the traditional beers he knew:

"It [the grape] dispels gloom and quenches thirst. It can also be fermented to make an alcoholic drink sweeter and more palatable than (those made with) ferment or malt" (quoted by E. Trombert, La vigne et le vin en Chine, Journal Asiatique 289, 309). The diversity of Chinese beers and the coexistence of several saccharification techniques are clearly illustrated here for northern China under the Han dysnasty.

The Chi Bian Cao (Doctrine of Ferment Cultures, around 985) said that (beer)-li is light color and (beer)-jiu is dark, but this is a late document.


Dining scene and beer service from Eastern Han (25-220). Tomb no 2 at Liaoyang, Liaoning. After Weng Tseng-Hsin 1960, fig. 6 (H. T. Huang 2000, p. 114 fig. 38b).
Dining scene in Eastern Han Tomb 2 at Liaoyang


At the court of Prince Yuan of Ch’u (Early Han dynasty), a Confucian sholar named Mu did not like the beer-jiu. Some beer-li was prepared for him when he took part in ceremonials[1]. Since antiquity, beer-li and beer-jiu are placed in separate tsun goblets to perform the rites and ceremonial (Yi Xiang-li, section jiu yin-li). A song dating from the Han dynasty also clearly states the difference between these two kinds of beer :

« [For] entertaining guests in the north hall … there are two zun-containers, one for clear (jiu), and the other for white (li) » (Ying-shih Yü, p. 68).

On the 33 jars of beer, discovered in 1968 inside the earlier Han's tombs at Man-ch'eng (Hopei Province), these inscriptions were engraved : "Jiu Shu" (glutinous millet beer), "sweet lao", "tao jiu "(rice beer), "Shu jiu shang-zun"(millet beer of quality shang-zun).

Here, the quality shang-zun refers to a type of beer. The same zun concept resurfaced in a law of the Han dynasty (Ying-shih Yü, p. 69) :

·The rice beer (tao-jiu) is classified as shang-zun (higher quality).

·The beer from millet chi (chi-jiu) is classified as chung-zun (medium quality).

·The beer form millet shu (shu-jiu) is classified as hsia-zun (inferior quality).

This classification seems to be based on the origin of the grain. We note that the beer from barley or wheat (mai jiu) are not included in the list.


A rubbing of a Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) pictorial stone (i.e. the Yinan stone carving of Shandong province, China) showing an ancestral worship hall (citang 祠堂) with closed doors, a person outside making a sacrificial offering including beer and meat to his ancestors. Horses and trees are shown in the background.
Rubbing of a Han Citang


The inscription on the walls of tombs of Prince Liu Shen and his wife in Chang-shan « Shu jiu of shang-zun (quality) » casts doubt on the reality of a classification of beers based solely on the origin of the grains. Applied to beer, the zun concept refers to the density of beers, not to their compositions. The 3 zun qualities denote 3 different densities of beer, whatever the nature of the grains brewed. The classification is based on a quasi-taxation logic thought by the imperial governement. The Han Dynasty established a number of monopolies (salt, iron) and implemented a grid of taxes on beer, that is to say, on the production and sale of beer throughout the main provinces inside the empire.

Like any imperial structure, the Han Empire managed its economy from the standpoint of financial returns. The imperial policy of expansion and territorial control, especially on the northern and southern borders, commits the Han dynasty and its vassals to costly military campaigns. Brewing and selling various kinds of beer became a source of income. The Han Dynasty may have been inspired by policies experimented with by the Warring Kingdoms unified by itself.

Moreover, facing the Xiongnu peoples in the north, the strength of the Han armies fails. Han then rush out into a matrimonial diplomacy. The Jian Han Shu (History of the Former Han, -206 to 26) says that sprouted grains (mi nie) and silk are sent as gifts (or hidden tribute) to pastoralists Xiongnu who live their nomadic existence in northern China. These nomadic warriors are a constant threat to the empire and its sedentary communities. On the occasion of a marriage with a Han princess, the Xiongnu chief calls for, among other gifts from the Han court, an annual dowry of 10,000 piculs of sprouted grains for brewing beer (jiu nie), that is 600 tons of malt per year !

We note that the nomads prefer beer-li, which historians now consider a beer made from malt (nie), and not a beer prepared with amylolytic ferments, the other major family of traditional Chinese beers in these times. Obvious practical reasons are guiding this choice. The dry malt is easily transported and is the best brewing ingredients ready for use. But the taste of pastors for fermented milk like koumiss suggests that beer-li should have the acidity and a light alcohol content that suited them.

A Han counselor, Jia Yi (201 ~ 169), proposed to the Emperor Wen (202 ~ 157) an alternative tactic to war or marriage. To attract the Xiongnu nomads, he imagined the set up of hostels serving rice, roasted meat and beer on the northern border:

« When the Xiongnu have developed a craving for our cooked rice, keng stew, roasted meats, and beer [jiu], this will be their fatal weakness. » (Ying-shih Yü, p. 66).


The poems of Chang Heng indicate some layout during parties organized by the aristocratic communities : a) first, play music and enjoy entertainment b) then serve and drink different fermented beverages c) when the intoxication of guests is visible, girls are dancing (Ying-shih Yü, p. 67). Such devices were probably part of the Han court's hope to weaken the warlike manners of the uncontrollable Xiongnu.

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After the collapse of the Han dynasty, scholars who question the birth of fermented beverages in China have all taken as a primeval technique the brewing ferment qu. While ancient Western texts emphasize the spontaneous germination of cereal grains (the supposed origin of the malt), the Chinese sources focus on spontaneous molds. They find that cooked seeds (fan), regardless the grain and the kind of cooking (boiled / steamed), become moldy after a longer or shorter time. Dried afterward, these moldy lumps keep well. Rehydrated and soaked into a mash of cooked grain, they cause both its transformation into a sweet juice and the simultaneous alcoholic fermentation of the latter. For them, this "natural" mechanism proves to be the historical or "spontaneous" birth of the qu  beer-ferment. Around 300 AD, Tong Jiang explains this theory in the Jiu Gao (Rules of Beer) :

« Beer-jiu was developed at the command of ancient kings. Legend says it was through the effort of princess I Di or prince Du Kang. But most likely, left-over cooked grain (fan) was left in the open. Soon is was covered with a verdant (moldy) growth, and upon further storage a fragrant liquor ensued. » [2].

As time goes by, centuries after centuries, the remembrance of the traditional beer from malt (jiu-li) fades in the memory of the Chinese literati. In 1117, Zhu Gong writes in his Bei Shan Jiu Jing (Beer Canon of Mount North) :

« According to the ancients, when contaminated cooked grain (fan) was fermented with [cooked] millet or wheat, a rich liquor (lao) would result. This is the beginning of beer (jiu). The Shuo Wen says "muddy beer (jiu pai) is called sou". Sou means bad fan [i.e. contaminated with molds]; it also means old. When fan is old it becomes bad (moldy). If the fan is not bad, beer would not be sweet (alcoholic).»[Huang, p. 161].


After the Han dynasty, Jia Sixie writes around 544 the Chi Min Yao Shu (Essential Techniques for Wellness of the Beings), the first practical and comprehensive treatise on all technical and practical knowledges of his time, from agriculture to the household economy. On a total of 92 chapters, the brewing techniques account for 4 chapters dedicated to the fermented beverages, mostly beer, the manufacture of various kinds of ferments qu, the conduct of brewing and the beer storage. Brewing the clear jiu is described as a complex process, introduced by the technique of brewing ferments. The treaty gives also a place to the malting which preceeds the preparation of malt syrups, not of malted beer which are even mentionned[3].

The Chi Min Yao Shu deserves a separate study that acknowledges its exceptional documentary richness as regards the Chinese brewing technique.


Meal and drinking scene of Eastern Han (25-220).
Tomb at Chengtzu, Szechuan.
After W. Fairbank 1972.
Dining scene from eastern Han brick painting


Thus, beer holds a central place at the imperial or provincial courts, and among the circles of military and senior administrators of the imperial provinces. What about the simple literati ? Meal with guests during the Han Dynasty is described in Dong Yue (Slave Contract) written by Wang Pao in 59 BC. Among the many tasks assigned by Pao Wang to his slave named Bian-Liao :

« When there are guests in the house, he [the slave] shall carry a kettle and go after beer; draw water and prepare the evening meal; wash bowls and arrange food trays; pluck garlinc from the garden; chop vegetables and mince meat; pound meat and make stew of tubers; slice fish and roast turtle; boil tea and fill the ustensils » (Ying-shih Yü, p. 70)

The relative luxury of this meal belongs to a minority of scholars, not to few 50-60 million Chinese living under the Han. They content themselves with a crude diet from grain (6 or 8 grains including vegetables such as beans or soybeans), and rarely eat meat. As for the quite sophisticated beer made with qu ferments, it's a luxury. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the unfiltered beer from malt was not popular.

It is also conceivable that in southern China, peoples newly subjected to the Han empire have brewed beer made ​​from starchy roots and tubers (yams, taro, plantain). This tradition still exists in South-East Asia, and along the southern border of China today.

It is also likely that the two brewing techniques (beer-ferments and malting), clearly separated by texts emanating from the aristocracy, were complementary and used indiscriminately by the commercial (inn, tavern) or domestic brewery at that time. This is a fascinating question for the overall history of brewing. If the China of the Hans and subsequent dynasties used and improved two very different brewing methods, what about the western brewing tradition? Is there any trace of beer brewing using amylolythic ferments in Europe at the same time, alongside the malting technique that is usually depicted as the one and only way for brewing beer? 


[1] Ying-shih Yü 1977, "Han" in Food in Chinese Culture, ed by K. C. Chang, 68-69.

[2] Huang H. T. 2000, Fermentation and Food Science in Science and Civilisation in China (Needham J. ed.) Vol. 6 Part. V, 161.

[3] Chia Ssu-hsieh, Huang Tzu-ch'ing, Chao Yun-ts'ung, Davis T. 1945, The Preparation of Ferments and Wines, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Society 9, 25-29.

02/05/2012  Christian Berger