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Ancient amphorae, China. Source: lotusjeremy / Adobe stock

4,000 Years Ago, Chinese Advances Were Fueled By Mass Beer Production!


What were the important forces and factors that led to notable evolutionary leaps in Chinese culture more than 4,000 years ago? New research identifies one major cultural development that helped initiate high-level civilizational change, and it is an eye-opener. These researchers claim that a significant innovation in brewing technology, which created the possibility for mass beer production, had a profound impact on ancient Chinese peoples, who truly enjoyed the chance to consume this fermented beverage at large-scale public events.

Red rice beer would have been considered desirable for its flavor, its mind-altering effects, and its “sacred” red tint. A team of scientists from China and the United States published their study in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences and it revealed that mass beer production technology led to vigorous trading activity and knowledge exchanges between Neolithic peoples in ancient China, the scientists write in their journal article, and it was this shared excitement about a fermented alcohol product that ultimately helped trigger the birth of dynastic Chinese civilization.

New social linkages produced by certain cultural practices are the seeds from which larger, more advanced, and more ambitious civilizations can emerge. And mass beer production in China thousands of years ago provided a key ingredient for big gatherings and thus bigger social networks. The ancient Chinese civilization began to grow more cohesive and united starting around the fourth millennium BC, as previous divisions were countered by various centralizing forces and factors.

These circumstances set the stage for the ascension of China’s first ruling dynasty, the Xia Dynasty founded by Yu the Great around 2070 BC. Xia Dynasty leaders were able to rule effectively in a country that was now sharing a stronger sense of unified purpose and identity. And mass beer production was instrumental in this evolutionary leap forward in China about 4,000 years ago.

Dakougang vessels examined in the study, which led to the conclusion that mass beer production capabilities had a profound effect on Chinese development starting about 4,000 years ago. (Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences)

Dakougang vessels examined in the study, which led to the conclusion that mass beer production capabilities had a profound effect on Chinese development starting about 4,000 years ago. (Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences)

From Mass Beer Production to Unifying New Feast Networks

Alcohol fermentation as a science was discovered in China at least 9,000 years ago. A Dartmouth College study published in 2021 showed that ceremonial drinking vessels excavated from an ancient burial site at Qiaotou in China’s Zhejiang province contained the preserved traces of red rice beer, confirming that this drink in particular had been consumed for a very long time.

It took a few thousand years for the knowledge of how to make alcohol to spread more widely. The influence of mass beer production and consumption in ancient China created the conditions for meaningful “mass” cultural exchange and knowledge transfer to evolve rapidly.

The Chinese Dawenkou culture, which was built by settlers in the area of modern-day Shandong province in eastern China between 4,600 and 6,700 years ago, created the fermentation recipe and methodology that facilitated mass beer production. They made their distinctive red rice beer in large clay basins known as dakougangs, which represented a major leap forward in alcohol-making technology. It was this technology that was the focus of the new study, which attempted to learn exactly how the dakougangs had been used and for how long.

“Dakougangs were not made in every settlement but were mainly found in large elite burials,” study co-author Li Liu, a professor in Chinese archaeology at Stanford University, told the South China Morning Post. “It is not clear exactly where dakougangs were made, how they were distributed or if they were traded as commercial items.”

At that time, elites competed for recognition in part by throwing gigantic community feasts. Red rice beer, a specialized product believed to have sacred qualities, would have been highly coveted at such feasts, And consequently dakougang-style fermentation technology would have been in high demand as knowledge of it spread rapidly westward along growing trade networks.  

“Individuals who could provide large quantities of such beverages would have been more competitive for status and prestige in the community,” the authors wrote in their Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences article. “Particularly if the drinks were of an exotic type.”

The dakougangs would have been placed out in the open during feasts and other public events. They would have been filled with enough red rice beer to keep the good spirits flowing all day long.

“Feasts could have fostered an element of solidarity among participants, signaled various kinds of information to participants and the broader community, and enhanced prestige of the hosts,” Professor Liu wrote in a separate article on the subject in 2021.

These vessels found at the Yuchisi site, Anhui province, China were analyzed in the mass beer production technology study. (Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences)

These vessels found at the Yuchisi site, Anhui province, China were analyzed in the mass beer production technology study. (Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences)

New Study Proves Chinese Dakougangs Held Fermented Elixir

Chinese civilization six thousand years ago was altered by the development of what scholars refer to as an “interaction sphere.” The term was coined by archaeology professor Kwang—chih Chang in the 1980s, and it described a unique period where formerly separate societies were becoming more complex, layered, and interactive as they began to gradually form a more collective mindset.

In their Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences study, the scientists identify the interaction sphere as a period starting in the fourth millennium BC when Neolithic cultures in China “experienced increased transregional interactions, characterized by artifacts with striking similarities being distributed over an unprecedentedly large area, including certain forms of ceramic vessels.” These vessels were the dakougangs, which had been unearthed during excavations of elite burials in all parts of the country.

Previous to this new study, the actual purpose of the 16-28-inch (40-70-centimeter) tall dakougangs had eluded scholars. To determine how they were actually used, the scientists analyzed microfossil remains of fungi, starch, and phytoliths found in recovered dakougangs and from jars and cups removed during excavations at the late Dawenkou culture site of Yuchisi in Anhui province.

These tests revealed the large basins and the drinking vessels had in fact contained a fermented beverage. This beverage was eventually identified as red rice beer, which would have been manufactured from an eclectic mixture of rice, millet, Job’s tears, Triticeae and snake’s gourd root. A fermentation starter named qu would have been created from a mold known as monascus, and this substance is still used to make this type of drink today.

It was the monascus that gave the potent alcoholic beverage its red tint. This tint was seen as metaphysically important because of its resemblance to the color of blood.

“The symbolic implication of red color associated with the seemingly magical transformation from cereal to alcohol, as well as the psychoactive effect of the beverage, may have contributed to the importance of red rice beer, which probably was regarded as a sacred substance,” the paper co-authors wrote.

This would have been yet another reason why status-conscious elites across the country would have been interested in learning the secrets of mass beer production.

China’s Elite-Centered Culture Was Strengthened by Beer!

Ultimately, a shared interest in this beverage helped forge culturally unifying links between different peoples. But within the context of these broader alliances social stratification remained a very real thing, as the privilege of making this sacred drink was reserved by the elites.

The community could enjoy mass produced alcohol during feasts. But common citizens wouldn’t have been granted the right to brew it on their own. People would have enjoyed attending the celebratory feasts of local elites, but they would not have been in a position to sponsor such feasts themselves.

Mass beer production would have been useful as a way to increase power among the already powerful, and as a result monopolies over its mass production would have been zealously sought by the wealthy and the status-conscious in every region of the country.

Top image: Ancient amphorae, China. Source: lotusjeremy / Adobe stock

By Nathan Falde

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Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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