The Ancient Chinese Way of Making Rice Wine… with CATS!

I’ve been researching on ancient Chinese food and drink. In the process, I’ve found an interesting fact about the ancient Chinese method of producing rice wine!

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Here’s a line from the journal article that I read:

The author, of course, was not acquainted with the spores of molds, with the cells of yeast, or even with the existence of microorganisms and with the means by which they are propagated and multiplied. He knew only that somehow, in the course of his process,the preparations acquired the marvelous property of inducing a fermentation. Indeed they probably acquired it, and the organisms, from the random infections which existed in the huts where the ferment cakes were allowed to season, where images were set up to which sacrifices of ham and wine were offered. The author apparently suspected that the marvelous efficacy of the ferment was in some way derived from these huts, but he seems to have doubtedthe power of the sacrifices. He says, ” It has been found that there is not much difference whether the sacrifice with ham and wine is offered or not, therefore the practice is diminishing.” He appears to have thought it more important that a cat should be kept in the ferment hut for several days before it was used. Practically, as an experimentalist, he was probably right.

Chia Ssu-hsieh, Huang Tzu-ch’ing, Chao Yun-ts’ung and Tenney L. Davis, “The Preparation of Ferments and Wine”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Sep., 1945), p.29

What follows after the introduction by the authors is a translation of the actual manual on making rice wine. Here’s a translation of what the manual’s author wrote about cats. It says:

A cat is kept in the ferment hut several days beforehand; all of the rat-holes plugged up; and the ferment cakes are arranged on this earth in rows without pushing them together too closely. Two footpaths crossing each other and passing through the central part of the hut are reserved so that a man can walk through easily. Five ferment images are erected to be the kings of the ferment on the four sides [of the hut] and at the center. The one image at the center has its face facing south ward; those on the four sides are placed facing the center of the hut. It has been found that there is not much difference whether a sacrifice with ham and wine is offered or not, therefore the practice is diminishing. After the ferment cakes have been arranged,the door is closed and sealed tightly with mud to allow no leakage of air.

(Ibid., p.37)

Personally, I find it very very interesting that they have observed an empirical correlation on the necessity of having a cat in the hut with the success of producing rice wine; and on the other hand, they’ve noticed that sacrifices to the gods make absolutely no difference to the success of production.

I hope they fed the cats well.