The Chinese beer brewing under the Zhou dynasty (1045 to 256 BC)




Brewing techniques and the socio-economic role of beer brewing are better understood under the Zhou. Literary texts exist for the end of the period. The Shi Jing (Book of Odes), whose compilation spans 5 centuries between 1100-600, is full of references to beer in banquets, official ceremonies, pleasures, popular songs and poems. Other oracular texts have been discovered, as well as accounts. Finally, hundreds of ritual vases and the bronze beer services of the Zhou were found. Some of the bronzes bear inscriptions that reveal the identities and functions of their owners, all of whom were aristocrats.


Western Zhou StatesThe lengthy period known as the Zhou (1045-256 BC) is divided in two. The Western Zhou dominated western China between 1045 and 771 BC. The central power of the Zhou dynasty is mostly nominal. In fact, the king's vassals inherited the ancient territories and large agricultural domains of the Shang. They form clans and family alliances whose economic and military power dominates the royal clan of the Zhou. This period witnesses the coming-on of westerner peoples (Quanrong) and the northern semi-nomadic pastoralists (Mongolia, Manchuria).


Eastern Zhou States



In 770, the ancient capital Haojing on the Wei river is plundered by a coalition of rebel vassals and Quanrong peoples. What remains of the Zhou> clans moves the capital Chengzhou eastward to Luoyang. The period of the Eastern Zhou begins (771-256 BC).




According to the Zhou Li (Rites of the Zhou), 6 beverages are prepared and served for the royal family [1] :

Shui = raw water
Jiang = boiled grain cooking water
Li  醴 = a light beer drank after only a single day of fermentation
Liang = an infusion from roasted grains
I = a plum juice
I = a very light broth of rice (unfermented)

This list is restricted to the ceremonial uses during the rites conducted by the representatives of the dynasty. The Li Chi (Book of Rites), lists these same 6 beverages and adds the jiu 酒, a filtered or unfiltered beer already known at the time of the Shang  (Brewing under the Shang). Further on, it replaces in the list the plum juice by the jiu (Huang 97, note 131). Under the Zhou the technique of malt syrup yi developed, one of the principal sweeteners of ancient China. " Good manners are to people what malt (nie) is to beer-jiu " (Li Chi). The Guan-Zi (Book of Master Guan) adds around 400 BC that " Malt (nie) can be used for jiu-beer".

We should understand that malt beer (nie) embodies moderation, self-restraint ("decency"), while beer brewed with amylolytic fungi (qu), strong and tasty, leads to excess, the natural inclination of mankind. This means that at least two brewing methods coexisted in China at that time: grain malting and amylolytic fungi. The other brewing methods (insalivation, amylolytic plants, over-ripening of starchy fruits, acid hydrolysis) elude us because the ancient Chinese texts focus on the political centres of power. The brewing of domestic beers, in village communities or among neighbouring so-called 'barbarian' peoples, is of no interest to Han historiography.

The stronger beer-jiu, seems to have gradually replaced the beer-li in taste and habits, at least at court and official banquets. This evolution in the drinking habits of the elite responds to two major developments. One is technical and concerns the complex development of the amylolytic ferments (qu) evoked about the Shang. The invention of this "biotechnology" is part of the profusion of technological innovations of this second period of the Zhou rule. The other is social: schools of thought and new political models flourished from 700 BC onwards. China at the advent of the Zhou (1050 BC) is a mosaic of principalities enshrined in feudal ties. Less than a millennium later, powerful kingdoms, allies or enemies, asserted themselves in China, until the final unification of the Qin and the imperial organisation of the Han[2].

The magnitude of these political organisations favours the military and the bureaucracy. These two social categories celebrate banquets and festivities that attract the clientele of talented men and women and strengthen the coalitions of aristocratic families. Their tastes go towards more alcoholic beers, with stronger and more sophisticated flavours. The beer brewing and alcoholic fermentation techniques brought in by the beer-ferments qu meets their expectations.

Hu vase , bronze. Vth cent BC. Cernuschi p 174
Inlaid bronze vase of type hu to keep fermented beverages. H. 39,8cm. 5th century BC. Beginning of the Fighting Kingdoms Period (481-221). Cernuschi Museum. Paris.



The refinement of the bronze beer drinking sets of the Zhou testifies to the extraordinary development of techniques, the alliance of beer brewing and bronze metallurgy. The social stratification is accentuated under the western Zhou (1046-771) [3]. Zhou's bronze beer drinking sets are very sophisticated. They include about six to eight different vases, jars and cups for serving, drinking or storing beer. These beer services are also used for libations during religious ceremonies or funeral rituals. Bronze art and technique reached its peak during the Zhou dynasty. They bear witness to a luxury restricted to a very tiny segment of this society.



These sumptuary mores culminate at the king's court and palace. According to the Zhou Li  (Rites of the Zhou), among the 4000 or so people living in the royal palace, 2271 of them (56%) take care of food and fermented beverages. Food and the organisation of banquets are at the heart of political life. 27% of the food service is devoted to beverages, most of which are fermented beverages (jiu). Among these, beer holds a place of honour. A fermented beverage steward (jiu sheng) supervises the service and brewing facilities of the beer inside the palace (Table 1).


Titles / Duties Kitchen staff Brewery staff

Master dieticians of the king, queen and princes



Meat specialists



Royal family cooks indoors



Cooks for guests outdoors



Kitchen assistants



Specialists in grains, vegetables and fruit



Game specialists



Fish specialists



Turtle and shellfish specialists



Dried meat specialists



Fermented beverages officers (jiu ren)



Fermented beverages service (jiu)



« 6 beverages » specialists(see text)



Sorbet specialists



Waiters on bamboo trays



Waiters of meat trays



Specialists in brines and sauces



Salt specialists




1651 (73%)

620 (27%)

Table 1 : Zhou palatial staff assigned to food and beverages (Chang 1977, see note [4])


Food and beverages are not separated from rituals and cults. The essentially agrarian foundations of political power in ancient China legitimize the kingship if it warrants the abundance of the fruits of the earth. Agricultural prosperity is a sign of heaven's blessing. Fermented beverages, especially grain beverages such as beer, are overloaded with symbolic meanings.

Numerous oracular texts on turtle shells speak of beer offerings. The gods are asked about the opportunity to make such and such a "beer sacrifice" on such and such a day and for such and such a reason. The rites cover a wide range of sacrificial activities: propitiatory offerings to request abundant harvests, healing or longevity; prayers to the gods; funeral ceremonies; honours to the ancestors; divination. Each time, the deities receive beer, roasted grains and sacrificial meat. Beer in Chinese oracular texts will be the subject of specialized articles by Beer-Studies.

The Li Chi (Book of Rites) abounds with references to the various kinds of jiu, the way of preparing these beers for offerings and of making them flow as a libation to the gods. In the chapter of the Monthly Ordinances (Yue Liang), it is said for what corresponds to the 9th month of our calendar (October): "  In the second month of winter, orders are given to the Superintendent of Beer (jiu cheng) to control if the millet and rice are ready, the ferment and the seasonal malt, the soaking and heating conducted properly, the water scented, the earthenware jars in good condition, and the fire correctly regulated.  " This Superintendent manages the palace beer brewing, its logistics, technical means and its staff. Everything is there: the care of the grain and fuel stocks, the freshness of the water, the quality of the malt and the beer-ferments which must not be too old, i.e. preserved from the previous year. In October of each year, the harvests are made, new millet and rice are harvested, ready to by converted into beer.

We note the simultaneous presence of malt (nie) and beer ferment (qu).At the end of the Zhou dynasty, these two techniques of beer brewing coexisted perfectly at the service of the palace, the political centre of the country.

In the first summer month, the Monthly Ordinances provide that "the Son of Heaven entertains (ministers and princes) with beer-zhou 酧 ", therefore a very strong beer. According to the comments of the Han, the beer-zhou 酧 is brewed by saccharifying 3 successive batches of cooked grains in the saccharification-fermentation vat. This method makes it possible to increase the alcohol content, a result that can only be reached with amylolytic ferments (qu), whose fungi organisms tolerate a higher density of ethanol than the yeasts saccharomyces alone.

In the last month of spring, " the Son of Heaven presents yellow robes (ju i) like the leaves of the mulberry tree to the Divine Sovereign". The sign ju i denotes the yellow colour and would be a variant of the sign qu, the ferment for beer. The spores of Aspergillus oryzae are yellow. It's only a step to think that the old Zhou beer ferments are like today a culture of Aspergillus on cooked rice, a technology used to brew the sake-beer in Japan or the chang-beer in China. It should also be remembered that Aspergillus sporangia were found in beer jars from the Dingcun site, middle reaches of the Huang-He River (≈ 4500 BCE).

The royal ritual of the Zhou explores the symbolism of brewing long before. Each stage of the beer fermentation is named and is the subject of a specific step in the very precise and codified course of the ritual. Herewith the chart according to Wang Chin [5].


  Use Comments of the text by Han writers Modern brewing step
Yuan jiu Grand Ritual Water for the beer Raw material
The 5 qi      
Fa qi Ritual Bubbles and pieces float on the surface Start of the fermentation
Li qi Ritual Thick, bubbling liquor Full fermentation
Ang qi Ritual Bubbling liquor, reinforced fragrance Strong fermentation
Ti qi Ritual The liqueur bubbles and turns red Complete colouring by the red beer ferment
Chen qi Ritual The lees settle End of fermentation
The 3 jiu      
Shi jiu Beverage Filter when spent grains are put apart Beer filtration. Dregs
Xi jiu Beverage Beer to be stored Decanting in progress
Qing jiu Beverage Clarified beer Beer ready to be drunk

Table 2 : Ritual beers of the Zhou and their intermediary brewing states naming.


We note in the Shi Jing, a compendium of the popular traditions of the Zhou, that beer is traded on the local markets or made by craftmen or craftwomen specialised in beer brewing.

«  They fell down (the guests) the trees along the hill-side.
I have strained off 釃 my beers 酒 in abundance;
The dishes stand in rows,
And none of my brethren are absent.
The loss of kindly feeling among people,
May arise from faults in the matter of dry provisions.
If we have beer 酒, we strain it 湑, do I !
If we have no beer 酒, we buy it, do I !
I make the drums beat, do I !
I lead the dance, do I !
Whenever we have leisure,
Let us drink the sparkling beers 湑. »
(Shi Jing, 165 : 伐木 FA MU [6])


This complaint from an innkeeper used to receiving drunkards sheds light on the small beer trade in the China of Zhou. This tavern keeper (male or female) serves food and drink, and could also brew beer on site. But this poem could also depict one funeral or festive meal offered by an extended family in a private context. In that case, "guest" is not a customer but a true guest in a family meeting :

« When guests are drunk,
They shout and bawl,
Upset my baskets and dishes,
capers, dance and fall down.
For those who are drunk,
They know nothing of the misdeeds they commit.
 » (Shi Jing, 220 : 賓之初筵 BIN ZHI CHU YAN)

This woman tavern keeper is probably also a brewer. In Chinese antiquity, commercial brewing was a female as well as a male activity. This village tavern-brewery does not work like the palace brewery. The latter is at the service of the aristocracy, supervised by numerous stewards, brewers and staff, as shown in Table 1. The village tavern-brewery is a small facility serving beer and meals to travellers, passing guests and natives. It is the very source of the many beers, which vary greatly from region to region, brewed with local ingredients and according to traditional and often inventive brewing recipes handed down from mother to daughter.


At the end of the Zhou dynasty (around 256 BC), everything was in place for the economic and social role of beer to grow in the emerging Chinese empire. This is a pivotal period in the history of Chinese beer brewing.

Technically speaking, there are many types of beer brewing cereals. The north (cereal zone) and the south (rice, beans and tubers zone) of the country are progressively unified within the future Han Empire. Brewing techniques are manifold. The 2 main methods are the malting and the amylolytic ferments. They enable a very wide range of starchy raw materials to be brewed: cereals, but also rice, tubers (taro, yams) and beans. This technical core can now be developed within the immense Chinese territory.

Economically speaking, beer is drunk by all categories of the population.The richness of the brewing techniques makes it possible to produce several kinds of beer for each social category, to sell it everywhere and make the beer affordable for everyone in all circumstances.

On a symbolic and religious level, beer has come out of royal palaces and temples. It continues to be used as an offering and libation in agrarian rites. But the strong and centralised political powers now see beer as the secular beverage for all subjects of the empire, a fermented beverage submitted to the rules of economic life (including taxes), stripped of its sacred religious character or its exclusive princely character.



Confucianism, Legism and Taoism prepare a unified vision of mankind. These three philosophical and political approaches are all formulated by the great masters of Chinese thought between the 6th and the 2nd century BC.


For a Confucianist, beer is the beverage of the social seemliness, a beverage offered with respect to the ancestors, the beverage of the social bondings drunk in the symbolism of exchange. Sharing beer according to a protocol means reaffirming the rights and duties of each human being within a highly hierarchical society. Master Kong (Kǒng Fou Zǐ, known as Confucius in western world) says :

« Abroad, to serve the high ministers and nobles; at home, to serve one's father and elder brothers; in all duties to the dead, not to dare not to exert one's self; and not to be overcome with beer. Which one of these things is difficult for me ?» (Lunyu IX. 16. 225). Drink beer during funeral rites is a duty of filial piety, but control the effects of beer is another duty for oneself. During the year, the season for honoring ancestors opens also a period of great consumption of ritual beers from rice or millet, some of them stronger like the shang-beer.

Even in feastings - in ancient China, the social life multiplies parties, meetings and opportunities to drink beer offered by hosts (Master Kong (Confucius)) keeps self-control: « When he took part in a feast where there was an abundance of provisions set in front of him, he changed countenance and rise up.» (Lunyu X. 25)

About Confucius' habits, the Analects of Confucius (Lunyu) say :

« Even when there was plenty of meat, he avoided eating more meat than rice. Only in the case of beer ( 酒 = jiu ) did he not set himself a rigid limit. He simply never drank to the point of becoming confused. He did not consume beer or dried meat bought from a shop.[7] » (Lunyu X. 8. 248).


 Shang Yang, Chancellor of Qin State (361-338 BC) 

For a Legist concerned with social order and the Law ( Fa 法 ), beer is a dilemma. As a source of taxes, beer is opportune for a strong power eager to boost is finances. But the beer brewing uses much precious grain that a provident state has to store in case of famine or starvation. Should beer brewing be encouraged or banned? It would be better to strictly regulate its production, sale and consumption.

Herewith is a measure enacted by the legist reformer Gongsun Yang (390 to 338 BC) in the state of Qin : " If the price of beer (酒) and meats by taxing them costs ten times more than the basic necessities, this measure will reduce the number of merchants and bring the humble back to sobriety (酤), the great to frugality. As merchants are rare, the price of grain will no longer rise; the people will be sober (酤), and agriculture will not be neglected. Civil servants are no longer gluttonous, and state affairs will no longer be botched."[8]. Note in passing that this is indeed a policy to control grain, its price, circulation, and economic uses.When one makes the mistake of translating Chinese jiu (酒) as wine instead of beer, the intrinsic links between beer, beer brewing and the agrarian economy remain misunderstood or, worse, invisible.


Lao Tseu en dieu taoïste avec l’éventail en main


 For a Taoist, beer 酒 scrambles the mind and poisons the body. However, a mastered drunkenness also opens a small window through which a man's spirit  can perceive the Dao. This late conception was developed by taoist scholars, poets and painters under the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties (Dao and Quest for Immortality). Taoist conceptions under the Zhou are part of traditional religious ceremonies, beer offerings, and are not hostile to the political exercise within the circles of power at the time.


 As many views as many faces of beer brewing in ancient China.

In fact always the same drink. The multifaceted beer crosses every social strata of pre-imperial China. This fermented beverage meets the wishes of the pious man (Confucius), the deeds of the political strategist (so the legalist Shang Yang) and the desires of the wise man (Laozi).

The sophisticated and strong beer-jiu served at the royal banquets as well as the ordinary clarified beer sold in inns and village markets will be integrated in a new ideological framework that foresees a place and a role for each one. The imperial organisation of the Han will merge these multiplefaceted beer (Great Empire founded by the Han).


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[1] Huang H. T. 2000, Fermentation and Food Science in Science and Civilisation in China (Needham J. ed.) Vol. 6 Part. V, 97.

[2] Between the middle of 5th century and 221 BC., seven kingdoms compete during the period known as Warring States, until the domination of one of them, the kingdom of Qin leaning on the prosperous Sichuan Basin in southwest China at that time.

[3] Constance Cook 1997, Wealth and the Western Zhou, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 60 (2), 253-294.

[4] Chang K. C. 1977, Food in Chinese Culture. Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, p. 11.

[5] Wang Chin 1921, Chung-kua ku-tai chiu-ching fa-hsiao yeh chich i-pan, Kho Hsüeh 6(3), 270-282. And Huang H. T. 2000, 164.

[6] Text online of the Shi Jing  :

[7] The beer and meat might be corrupted. Similarly « He (Confucius) did not eat rice that had gone sour or fish and meat that had spoiled. He did not eat food that had gone off colour or food that had a bad smell. »

[8] Extract from chapter 2 "Order to Cultivate Waste Lands", Order no 10 in Shang Yang, Le Livre du Prince Shang, Présentation et traduction de Jean Lévi 2005, p. 59.
Chinese-english text online =>

14/11/2020  Christian Berger