Taprooms and Temples: Beer, Buddhism and Tourism in China

Taprooms and Temples: Beer, Buddhism and Tourism in China

Looking to unconventional sources to explain the complexities of U.S.-China relations.

Sipping a beer at the Tsingtao Brewery, two facts came to mind: China produces twice as much beer as the second-place United States, and it is home to twice as many Buddhists as the next country, Thailand. Neither beer nor Buddhism is native to China, but both have thrived and become essential aspects of the Chinese identity. A closer look at both also shows why Americans and Chinese so often misunderstand one another.

A research trip to temples and monasteries in China and Hong Kong brought to mind this juxtaposition of beer and Buddhism. It took me to Qingdao (Tsingtao by an older spelling), and I was on a break from research at the city’s municipal archive and Zhanshan Temple for some sightseeing.

According to hotel-rack brochures, the obvious tourist destination was the city’s brewery, which retains the old Tsingtao spelling. Founded by German and British colonists in 1903, the original building is now a museum, complete with taproom. Perfect, I thought: a little history, local color and a fresh beer waiting at the end.

So on a rainy summer day, I made my way to the Tsingtao Brewery and Museum. A taxi dropped me two blocks from the entrance because the street was torn up for construction. After dodging sewer trenches, puddles and building equipment, I arrived, muddy and wet, at the glass entryway to the visitors’ center and joined a Japanese tour group. Several security guards and docents were quick to share with me their feelings about the visitors from Tokyo: Japan, in their view, had been unjustly rewarded for its mid-twentieth century brutality and aggression by becoming rich. Worse, they considered Japanese tourists to be unapologetic and condescending.

The Tsingtao Brewery reflects a complex story of foreign influence: founded by colonizing Europeans, it fell into Japanese hands during the First World War. The city was reoccupied by Japan in the 1930s, then by American marines in 1945. The brewery survived the communist victory of 1949 despite its awkward history as a foreign product made to satisfy colonial tastes and owned for decades by occupying, imperial powers. In 1954, then state owned, Tsingtao began exporting. As China’s best-selling beer, it has become ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants in more than sixty countries. Today, as a local resident proclaimed to the China Daily, one “cannot be a real Qingdao person without beer.”

Both the brewery’s complex history and the staff’s anti-Japanese sentiments were buried beneath a more urgent message of consumerism. Copper brewing vessels and vintage advertisements celebrated the beer’s cosmopolitan past with little reference to, and no judgment on, the foreigners who had founded and sustained it. That fits the ruling party’s promotion of economic growth, hoping a contented people will never challenge its political domination.

Across town, however, I found a different perspective on the local German role. At the site of WWI German fortifications, a separate museum told a story of oppression: strident anti-imperialist rhetoric accompanied caricatured mannequins of German soldiers. These weren’t at all like the Germans depicted back at the brewery in subdued, life-sized paintings, rubbing elbows with amiable European neighbors. Rather, they were the “foreign devils” the regime blames so often for China’s troubles during the past century or two.

By the time my brewery tour ended at the combination gift shop and taproom, the weather had turned for the worse. Encouraged by torrential rain, I took a seat in the bierstube to sample its products. (I particularly recommend the dark lager, produced only for local consumption.)

Most other visitors were Japanese. The bartender said this was typical—Japanese bus tours were the lifeblood of the museum, though the number of Chinese visitors was increasing. As each tour group emerged into the bierstube, a ritual recurred: groups of travelers marked their tables with camera bags, raincoats and umbrellas. A member or two collected their vouchers, redeemed them for glasses of beer and distributed them to cheers, giggles or nervous smiles. About half the beer went unconsumed.

There also were a few Australian, American and European tourists, and with them the pattern changed. Other groups stopped and stared, carefully observing how these (presumably knowledgeable) beer drinkers approached their brew. It didn’t matter if the drinkers were college-age backpackers from Sydney or middle-aged Brits on a package tour; they were presumed to have authentic knowledge about beer. When a young German couple sat down, word spread quickly, and they held court for nearly an hour, sharing opinions on Tsingtao, both the city and its beer. I guessed they wouldn’t get a similar welcome at the bunker museum across town.

Also different at the bunker museum was my conversation with the ticket-taker, an older woman dressed in drab clothing of the late Mao era. She described those early Germans in stock phrases about foreign devils, feudalism and the “carving of the melon”—a euphemism for how European imperialists divided up China in the nineteenth century. At the brewery, in contrast, the bartender was a stylish young woman who spoke excellent English and would not revert to her native language though I stayed with Chinese.

The beer and the brewery, she said, made Qingdao unlike other places in China. Japanese tourists came—she felt—for this very reason: Tsingtao represented a link to a lost colonial past. Chinese tourists, on the other hand, were eager to claim a beer culture as their own but weren’t sure how to do it (thus the fawning over the Germans). They wanted Qingdao to be what China was becoming: a cosmopolitan place with global reach. Foreigners were no longer an imperial threat and there was no risk that Tsingtao would be recolonized (even though Anheuser-Busch purchased a minority share in the 1990s, since sold). Instead, the Germans offered knowledge and maybe reassurance that something uniquely Chinese—with Anglo-German roots and a complex colonial history—was in place on the north China coast.

The nationalism that bubbled awkwardly at the brewery brought me to Qingdao’s Zhanshan Buddhist temple. Founded in the 1920s by local authorities eager to make the city seem more Chinese after years of foreign administration, the temple was one of Qingdao’s first Chinese-style buildings and symbolized the relationship between Buddhism and nationalism early in the twentieth century. It more or less does the same today. Buddhism, imported from India long ago, is the largest of China’s five officially approved religions, and the Chinese Buddhist Association claims 180 million members. With popular support for the once-unifying communist ideology mostly gone, the regime hopes closely monitored religions will help fill a vacuum of belief and lead to a “harmonious society”—one in which people don’t challenge party rule.

There were many similarities among visitors to both places. The beer museum was a purpose-built tourist attraction. Yet its crowds resembled those at the temple—a structure devoted, in theory at least, to antimaterialism. At both, visitors enthusiastically, if awkwardly, approached cultures perceived as exotic, if somewhat alien, parts of China’s past that were finding new utility (and profitability) in the present. Money changed hands readily as visitors bought souvenirs to authenticate their visits: incense and prayer beads for Buddha, commemorative bottle openers for beer.

Unlike temples in, say, Hong Kong, the Zhanshan temple charges admission, and its grounds were crowded with snack carts and souvenir shops selling incense to burn in trough-like censers. Older visitors—usually women—approached this task with reverence, bowing gently before placing a smoking stick in the censer. Younger people more often seemed embarrassed or amused. Many purchased enormous packs of incense sticks, lighting them all simultaneously while making exaggerated bows. Then, laughing and posing for photos, they tossed the smoking bunch into the ash-catcher. This earned derisive glares from the faithful, succinctly capturing the differing attitudes toward Buddhism in modern China.

All of China offers such contradictions and transitions. I have wondered if its relations with the United States are often tense because both nations share so much: nearsighted self-confidence, belief that their own country must play a unique role in the world and a conviction that almost any cost may be paid for the sake of economic growth. China’s experiment with state capitalism suggests that tropes like “capitalism cannot function without democracy” are no longer true, if ever they were. Like Buddhism and beer, China has taken economic and political ideologies and shaped them into something that is uniquely Chinese but still highly functional.

Likewise, the people I met defied easy classification. Did the bartender at the brewery, with her excellent English, represent the internationalism of coastal China or merely its hunger for tourist dollars? If Qingdao people cannot be authentic without beer in their lives (as the China Daily suggested), why were foreigners asked to pass judgment on the brew and its culture? Perhaps the incense-burning tourists were dealing with the same questions, if unconsciously, at the Zhanshan Temple: what is China, and what does it mean to be Chinese? Those are questions the Chinese people appear to be grappling with. In the meantime, a dark lager on a rainy day is highly recommended.