One night several months ago, facing apparently irreconcilable visa problems that were about to culminate in my getting booted from the Middle Kingdom, I slumped into my favorite restaurant to buy some fried rice and sulk the night away in my empty apartment alone. Coincidentally, it turned out to be the owner's birthday. As she was a friend of mine, she insisted I stay and eat dinner with her 20 relatives. Depressed, I wanted to stay as far from people as possible, but then it dawned on me that it might be one of my last nights in China for a long time.
That night, I sat around with the owner's male relatives learning how to swear in their dialect and getting completely wasted—on Penis Liquor (duobianjiu 多鞭酒). Actually, a more rigid translation of the Chinese term would be "Many Penis Liquor." Made by steeping the penises of several different animals, including dogs, reindeer, and tigers, with other medicinal herbs in baijiu, the spirit is said to increase the male sexual powers of those who drink it.
Despite all the things I'd ingested during my long stay in China, I'd always been wary of Many Penis Liquor. That night, however, I figured, If I'm going down, I might as well go down shooting fireballs from my wang. My host poured me a glass of the brownish liquid, and four of us at the table drank it down while eating a lavish, 15-course Sichuanese meal.
Many Penis Liquor is just one of many medicinal tonics (yaojiu 药酒) commonly found in restaurants—usually stored in large glass jars by the cashier's desk or bar area—or in people's homes. There are thousands of varieties, with brews such as Green Plum Liquor, Qi Replenishing Liquor, Internal Warming Liquor, Cough and Asthma Liquor. Ingredients commonly used are wolfberries (gouqi 枸杞), ginseng (renshen 人参or yangshen 洋参), red jujube (hongzao 红枣), reindeer antler (lurong 鹿茸), seahorse (haima 海马), cow penis (niubian 牛鞭), gecko (gejie 蛤蚧), and snake (xiaoshe 小蛇). In addition to their medicinal qualities, many plants and animals added to yaojiu, such as wolfberries and red jujubes, also seep flavor into the liquor and improve the taste.
Novelty and the connotation that drinking hard liquor traditionally has with manliness and vigor partially explain the prevalence of yaojiu aimed at enhancing sexual ability. Seahorse, reindeer antler, snake, and tiger penis are all used as an antidote to impotence or as a male aphrodisiac.
In theory, ingredients for a particular yaojiu are chosen based on their medicinal properties. For instance, wolfberries (those little red berries often found in soup, tea, or floating at the bottom of a vat of liquor) replenish liver qi and clear vision as well as benefit the kidneys and blood. Reindeer antler replenishes vital yang and kidney qi and can be used to cure hearing loss, impotence, and leukorrhea (abnormal vaginal discharge). The liquor base, which is generally a strong baijiu or grain alcohol, serves as a medium for distilling certain medicinal properties of the ingredients. Ethanol itself also has medicinal properties, such as warming the heart and blood and accelerating qi, and can enhance or alter the medicinal properties of other ingredients.
In practice, however, because it is usually drunk recreationally, yaojiu is more of a novelty than curative tonic. Just as with any other medicine, clinical diagnosis and proper dosage are essential for achieving the desired medicinal effect. Complementing a plate of twice-cooked pork with a glass of Gecko Tonic is a far cry from having a trained physician making a medical evaluation and prescription.
Yaojiu has been used in China for thousands of years, and its effectiveness when properly used has been verified through countless clinical experience. The Huangdi Neijing, the seminal TCM reference book published during the second or third century B.C., lists numerous examples of steeping medicines in alcohol. Fortunately, the effects of these modern medicinal tonics are generally not nearly as pronounced as their names imply. They are frequently used for baojian, or general health maintenance—having a shot of Penis Liquor every now and then probably won't turn you into a bedroom stud, but it won't hurt you either, and it'll definitely get you drunk. On the other hand, drinking Penis Liquor every day could either hurt you or help you—depending on your physiological condition.
Whether it was the history, the company, or the yaojiu coursing through my veins I can't be too sure, but the night I lost my virginity to Many Penis Liquor, I was feeling higher than Chang'e-1. I went home content. I'd made new friends and opened myself to yet another experience. Two days later I got my visa.
Kits for making yaojiu at home are often sold at touristy locations and markets specializing in traditional Chinese medicines, such as the Lotus Market (hēhuāchí 荷花池) near the North train station in Chengdu. Many books explaining the process of making yaojiu and its different medicinal effects can be found at local bookstores, and English versions are sometimes available at the medical bookstore near Chengdu TCM University (成都中医大学) at Shi'er Qiao or the foreign-language bookstores listed in the back of the magazine.
Those who drink in China will quickly become acquainted with the country's infamous spirit—baijiu. Boasting an alcohol content of between 40 and 60 percent, baijiu is usually distilled from sorghum, but can also be made with other grains including glutinous rice.
Unlike its fermented counterpart, huangjiu ("yellow wine," whose translation as "wine" is accurate), baijiu, a liquor, is classified according to its fragrance and is made in both unflavored and flavored varieties. Ingredients used to flavor the drink include flowers, sugar, medicinal herbs, tea, and even pork fat. Each variety is associated with a particular region; some of the well-known producing areas include Guizhou and Shanxi provinces, and Sichuan's own Luzhou (which produces Daqujiu) and Yibin (which produces Wuliangye).
While high-grade baijiu is aged for years and can run tens of thousands of RMB per bottle, 112-proof Hongxing-brand Erguotou from Beijing is available at any corner store for several yuan for a small flask.