The Global Significance of Sorghum – China

A leading sorghum producer, China also is the largest importer and consumer. Baijiu, the most consumed spirit in the world, is made from sorghum and remains a mainstay in Chinese culture.

Article By Cason Lutrick

A celebration in America often calls for a toast of champagne. Business meetings are approached with a serious demeanor, and guests at dinner parties gently sip glasses of whis-key or wine. These events are treated much differently across the globe, and in China, banquets, dinner meetings, and certain events are a celebration of comradery typically including toasts with the most consumed liquor in the world—baijiu.

Baijiu production has occurred for over 1,000 years in China. Baiju translates to “white liquor” and is primarily made from sorghum, but it can also be made from wheat, rice and corn. The Chinese drink baijiu in a variety of situations for everything from seasonal holiday festivities to business dinners with important guests. U.S. sorghum contributes to baijiu production in China, and the spirit has and continues to play an important role in Chinese culture.

A Toast to Friendship

It is not uncommon for a traditional business meeting to be followed by a meal where participants toast each other, their businesses and a hopeful future. Soyya Liu, a commodity trading manager for Hang Tung Resources Holding Limited, said a toast of baijiu can relax the situation and bring more transparency from those who are drinking it.

“When Chinese drink baijiu together, they will be easy to talk to,” Liu said. “This is why some important business meetings will be followed by a dinner with baijiu.”

Baijiu in Chinese culture can also signify respect the host has for his col-leagues. Jerry Wang, an agricultural commodity trader at Axia Trading LLC said being offered baijiu has a deeper meaning.

“I am being treated as one in their intimate circle,” Wang said. “The Chinese want to show we can be very hospitable, and baijiu is an incentive in our culture.”

Gifting the spirit represents a similar sign of respect, especially if you know the consumer enjoys drinking baijiu. People will typically give baijiu as a gift on holidays, for festivals and other celebrations—and if they are trying to make a good first impression.

Soyya Liu explained that when a boyfriend goes to see his girlfriend’s father, it is very traditional to bring baijiu as a gift.

Pop Culture Prominence

The first time baijiu truly entered American pop culture was former President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Nixon attended a banquet with Chinese Premier Zhou in which they toasted the liquor throughout the evening. Since then, knowledge of the history and production of baijiu has spread to the West-ern Hemisphere, but it still does not hold the same cultural significance as the spirit does in China.

Baijiu distilled from sorghum also made its way into Chinese pop culture with the internationally acclaimed 1987 film, “Red Sorghum.” Based on a novel, this film follows the life of a young Chinese woman in a sorghum liquor distillery. Soyya Liu explained how this famous film emphasizes the importance of sorghum baijiu.

“Due to maotai, a type of baijiu, being made from sorghum and the famous movie ‘Red Sorghum,’” she said, “when thinking of sorghum baijiu, to me, it means it is very valuable and pure.”

The Chinese are starting to see the younger generation shift away from baijiu. The high alcohol content and strong taste can make it difficult for some to drink throughout the evening. They are taking up wine, whiskey and other cocktails instead. Even so, this has not removed the importance of baijiu from Chinese culture, and it is still the drink of choice for billions of people


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.