Chapter 1: ‘Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.’ — Confucius
For over twenty years I have searched the world for lost, undiscovered and looted Chinese works of art to repatriate back to China.
The story of V.I.P Jiu 8 begins on my birthday, the 2nd of July 2014. It is a tale that begins with a wrongly attributed, chipped and cracked wine cup that hid an astonishing secret dating back to imperial China, a secret connected to its longest-reigning emperor, Kangxi, who ruled China from 1662 until 1722.
The Kangxi Emperor is credited for completing the conquest of China, stabilising the Qing dynasty and ushering in a long period of great prosperity and peace. He was the single most powerful person on earth at the time, ruling over a vast empire and over 100 million subjects.
The journey of V.I.P Jiu 8 starts in Northern England and unfolds across multiple continents, with amazing highs and life-threatening lows. It involves a series of events that have led to the re-birth of a 300-year-old imperial Chinese liquor that hails from within the walls of the Forbidden City.
On the morning of July 2nd, 2014, my birthday, I turned on my computer and prepared to bid for certain Chinese antiques I had viewed a few days earlier at an auction in Southern England. Lot 128 (take note of the number 8) had me excited as I was sure it was wrongly attributed in the auction catalogue. Despite being labelled as a tea bowl, I knew that it was a wine cup. I was prepared to bid up to several thousand pounds to win it, even though the auction estimate was only £200-£300. I had total faith in my intuition, which had rarely let me down in the past. Lot 128 was damaged, which made me slightly nervous, as I was not sure how much that would affect the appeal of the piece to collectors.
As you can see below, the original auction description of lot 128 described the piece as either 19th or 20th century, and also wrongly catalogued it as a tea bowl. I was positive it was a wine cup from the Kangxi period (the Kangxi Emperor reigned China from 1662 until 1722):
Original Auction Description: A CHINESE 19TH/20TH CENTURY BLUE & WHITE PORCELAIN TEABOWL, the sides finely painted with a Mandarin and boy attendants, the base with a six-character Kangxi mark, the teabowl contained in a fitted wood box with a sliding cover, the teabowl 2.7in diameter, the hardwood box 5.5in x 4.1in x 4in high.
Soon, I was staring at lot 128 on my computer screen. The bidding started at £200, but I waited patiently until it slowed. I actually suspected that there were no real bidders, and that the auctioneer was taking the cup up to its reserve price. The bidding stopped at £280, and just as the auctioneer was about to drop the hammer, I snuck in a bid of £300. Going, going, gone! Lot 128 was mine!
I could hardly believe I had acquired the piece for such a low price. Doubts immediately crept into my mind, and I began to wonder if I was wrong in my assumptions. After all, some of the biggest Chinese antique dealers in the world had viewed the very same lot. Maybe they knew something I did not. Was lot 128 a modern copy deliberately damaged to give a look of age, as so often happens with high-end fakes?
Worries aside, I owned lot 128 now, whether it was genuine or not.
Chapter 2: ‘I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there.’ — Confucius
A few days after the auction, lot 128 was paid for, collected and in my hands. The underside of the cup was painted in underglaze blue, with an imperial Kangxi six-character reign mark within double circles. There was one big question I needed answered: was the cup from the Kangxi period, as the mark suggested, or was it a later copy or modern fake?
Antique Chinese porcelain often bears marks from previous periods as a sign of respect to past emperors. They are not intended to deceive, but can make it difficult to date and attribute pieces correctly, especially to collectors just starting out. On top of this, the marketplace is flooded with modern high-end fakes which are so good that many auctioneers, collectors and dealers have been fooled by them.
With lot 128 in my possession, I could study it up close, and scrutinise its characteristics. After several months of intermittent research, I managed to find two very similar cups in the well-documented collections of T. Bushell and T.Y. Chao. I was also able to compare lot 128 with other genuine Kangxi period cups in old auction archives.
My research showed the cup would have originally been from a set of eight (another number 8 to note). The figures depicted on these eight cups are eminent men of letters from the eighth-century High Tang period (another number 8 to note) who shared a love of wine. They were even celebrated in a poem by Du Fu (712–770), ‘Song for the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup’, (another number 8).
The central figure depicted on my cup was Li Shizhi, the Duke of Qinghe. He served as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, who was born on the 8 September 685 AD (two more number 8s). Li Shizhi particularly enjoyed entertaining guests and could supposedly drink two litres of wine and remain sober.
I had the text on the reverse of the cup translated, and it turned out to be a poem dedicated to Li Shizhi by the acclaimed Tang poet Du Fu:
‘The Premier [Li Shi-zhi] spends ten thousand cash each day [on drink]; his imbibing matches the great whale’s gulping down of the hundred streams; holding the wine cup, joyous sage, he calls himself “avoider of the worthy”.’
I was now absolutely convinced that lot 128 was of the Kangxi period. I had found very similar wine cups in good condition selling for upwards of £150,000, but my wine cup was damaged, which I knew would affect the value significantly.
Asia Week is held twice yearly in London, and is an event that attracts collectors and dealers of Chinese antiques from around the world to view, buy and network. All the major dealers in Asian art hold exhibitions displaying their best items for sale. The big London auction houses produce thick glossy auction catalogues filled with coloured photographs of amazing Chinese antiques and works of art to be auctioned during the event.
It is a great opportunity for anyone to place a piece they wish to sell in front of the world’s top buyers. Due to lot 128 being damaged, I really did not want to offer it to any of my regular customers, so I decided to put it up for auction during London’s Asia Week. I arranged for an Asian art specialist I’d known for a number of years to re-offer lot 128 for sale now that my research was complete.
When I originally bought lot 128 it was housed in its original Zitan wooden case with a fitted embroidered interior (see pic).
(Zitan is a general term that includes numerous species of wood, however, it is commonly agreed that it belongs to the genus Pterocarpus. A purplish-black, fine-grained hardwood, zitan was considered the most prized hardwood by the Chinese. The wood’s scarcity was compounded by the fact that the trees themselves are slow-growing and require centuries to fully mature into usable material. Although local sources of zitan exist in the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangdong and Guangxi, much of the material was imported from Southeast Asia. As an imported commodity, its use was scrupulously monitored and carefully restricted at the Imperial workshops.)
Unfortunately, the back of the case was damaged, but thankfully, easily repairable. Before offering the cup up for auction I decided I would attempt to fix the case.
Chapter 3: ‘Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.’ ― Chuang Tzu
Carefully removing the cup from its embroidered stand within the case, I slid the stand forward and wiggled it free, leaving an orange velvet section perfectly formed as the shape of the now-removed cup and stand. I then removed the orange velvet section; all that was left of the interior was the plinth, which was decorated with a multi-coloured, embroidered panel.
My intention was to get my hand into the back of the case, so I could apply pressure from the outside while pushing the newly glued joint back into its mortise without risking further damage to the case.
As I gently pried the plinth from the case, a piece of folded paper fell to the floor, I stopped what I was doing and picked it up. I carefully unfolded it to be greeted by a very old looking hand-written note. I could not read the note but could decipher enough to determine it was definitely written in French. I studied it for a few minutes and held it up to the light. At this point, it never occurred to me how historically important and far-reaching this note could possibly be; at the time I remember thinking it was probably a poem.
It was interesting enough that I decided to have the note translated sooner rather than later, but for now I had more important matters to attend to.
I put the note into a small re-sealable plastic bag and put it in my wallet.
Only in time would the significance, pedigree and connection be made, but that’s another chapter.
Chapter 4: ‘Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.’ — Confucius
After showing lot 128 to the Asian art expert at Lyons & Turnbull’s auction house and supplying him with my research, it was agreed the small Kangxi wine cup would be offered for sale during their Asia Week auction. Due to the crack and a chip on the cup, it was decided by myself and the auction house to keep the auction estimate as low as possible. Remember, cups like this that were in perfect condition had sold in the past for sums over £150,000. We agreed upon an estimate of £15,000 to £25,000. The auction was being held in London on the 2nd of December 2014, exactly six months from the day I purchased it.
Lyon & Turnbull had the wine cup photographed for the auction, and generated a detailed description. My cup was now lot number 323 (see image below). Just before the auction started, the auctioneer told me that there had been a lot of inquiries from potential buyers about lot 323 and he was confident the cup would sell over the estimated price, despite being damaged. Bidding soon got underway, with an opening bid of £15,000. The bid price climbed slowly to £18,000 then £22,000. Eventually, it passed its estimated price of £25,000 and the hammer finally came down at £28,000 (another number 8).
As events played out, I didn’t notice how the number 8 seemed to be intentionally inserting itself into the story. That was something that would only become apparent much later.
(My father pointed out this to me: you can break down Lot 323 into the equation 3+2+3 = 8. I take that as another number 8 to note)
Chapter 5: ‘Study the past, if you would define the future.’ — Confucius.
Several months later, I found myself on one of my regular road trips, this time in and around London searching for Chinese antiques. I came across a stall selling antique Chinese hardwood stands that are used to better display Chinese porcelains, jades, and the like.
After striking up a conversation with the proprietor, George, I realised he was French. I managed to buy the stands from him at a fair price, and as we were talking, I remembered the French note I still had tucked away inside my wallet. On a whim, I asked George if he would take a look at it and possibly translate it for me.
George studied the note for a while and went on to tell me it seemed to be a recipe for some kind of tonic, and was mentioning someone named ‘Jean DeFontaney’. I was immediately intrigued by the name, and couldn’t help but wonder who this person was.
A few days later back at home, I did some research into Jean DeFontaney. As it turned out, he was a French Jesuit who was assigned by King Louis XIV to lead a mission to China in 1688. Although the purpose of the mission was to promote French interests and oppose the Portuguese, the group immediately made a good impression on the reigning Kangxi Emperor. Two of the four Jesuits were retained by him to serve in his court, although DeFontaney was not one of them. He remained in China as the leader of the French delegation for 14 years until 1702.
Of course, Kangxi is as important to the story as Jean DeFontaney. He was the second emperor of the Qing dynasty, credited with completing the conquest of China and presiding over one of China’s most glorious eras. He was the single most powerful person on earth at the time, ruling over a vast empire and over 100 million subjects.
He took the throne at age seven, on February 7, 1661, and unlike many previous emperors of China, was interested in both Chinese culture and Western thought. He could be considered one of the best-educated men of his time, and was also voraciously focused on bettering himself. Some accounts claim that he would vomit blood from exhaustion after intensive periods of study. As far as he was concerned, his main goal in life was to gain knowledge and wisdom that would help him lead his empire in peace and harmony.
Sadly, he suffered from health problems. The ill effects began as early as age 35, when his vision began to deteriorate. At around age 40, he contracted malaria, which led him to become very interested in medicine.
Unfortunately, traditional Chinese practices such as acupuncture, moxibustion, massage, and medicinal tonics had no effect. He reportedly disliked acupuncture, hated the smell of moxibustion formulas, thought medicinal massages were useless. He didn’t believe in Taoist longevity practices, and was sceptical of many other aspects of traditional medicine.
Considering all that, it is little surprise that he sought help from the Jesuits when it came to health matters. According to a later account, Jean DeFontaney cured Kangxi of a malignant fever in July 1693 by using quinquina, a quinine-based remedy that was a popular Jesuit treatment for malaria.
After that incident, Kangxi ordered the Jesuits to translate as many western medical texts into Manchu as possible, a fact mentioned in the reports of French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet.
For years, Kangxi would sing the praises of the Jesuits and their medical knowledge. In one notable account, he cited how they prescribed him brandy and cinnamon to stop his heart palpitations. Both alcohol and cinnamon are very common items in China, and are widely recognised as effective medicinal substances in certain conditions.
At this point I decided to have the note to Jean DeFontaney professionally translated. The results confirmed George’s earlier assumption that it was indeed a recipe, specifically, instructions for to Jean deFontaney to make a liquor-based tonic using only the nine roots and herbs listed, with exact amounts as selected by the emperor Kangxi himself.
By all accounts, the recipe was intriguing. But at this stage of my journey, it had nothing more than academic and historical value. I still did not see the significance of it at all! I am a dealer in Chinese antiques, and am used to only seeing value in a beautiful piece of Chinese porcelain, jade or bronze.
It was only when I got to China that the baijiu lightning bolt would strike me.
Chapter 6: ‘A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.’ — Lao Tzu
Time passed. I was due a well-earned break and eventually the opportunity arose. I had long yearned to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, so after looking into the practicalities I decided to go through with the idea.
I asked my 17-year-old son Dylan if he would like to join me on the adventure, and his answer was a resounding yes. The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world. The 5,772-mile route goes through eight time-zones, leaving Moscow and arriving in Beijing after seven days of travel.
I spent the next few weeks arranging train tickets, visas and itineraries, including a travel route through China after we arrived in Bejing. As the adventure drew closer our excitement levels rose. We couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for the two of us. What adventures lay ahead? Who would we meet? What would we see? I had always pictured China as a land of mystery and myth, filled with antiquated towns and villages, rice fields, rickshaws and people in traditional clothing. I bought several China travel guides, and by the time I finished reading them, I thought I knew it all. I would soon learn how wrong I was about that, and how little I knew.
The day had come. My backpack was packed as was Dylan’s. Passport check, cash check, keys check. Door locked, into a taxi and away.
From Newcastle Central station we headed to London King’s Cross, then St Pancras, and beyond, Paris. After that was a two-day sleeper train through France, Germany, Poland and Belarus, to Moscow.
We had two days to explore the city before catching the Trans-Siberian Express to Beijing. We found the Russian people to be a bit hard-faced, but after speaking with a few younger ones, they explained that it’s just the way many Russians are, especially the older generation who lived through the Cold War. To them, friendship is not something to be taken lightly, so niceties on the whole are reserved. Moscow was freezing, just as I had imagined, but the scenery in and around Red Square was well worth the shivers.
All in all, Russia was not like how it is usually portrayed. Like anywhere else in the world, I suppose, if you don’t understand the culture then it can be VERY easily misinterpreted.
Our journey from Moscow to Beijing would take seven days and six nights, and we would be travelling most of the journey through Siberia with many stops along the way.
After boarding and finding our compartments, we were China-bound. Final destination: Beijing. I found it hard to sleep because of the constant clickety-clack of the train; each morning I rose early, and as Dylan slept, I would sit, drink tea, and watch the sun rise.
The days were long and uneventful, mostly spent gazing out the window and praying for a small town to appear to break up the never-ending view of silver birch forests.
We stopped almost daily at small stations with names I couldn’t pronounce much less remember. We would usually have only a few minutes at each stop to run across the platform to small hut-like shops to buy whatever snacks and refreshments we could. Obviously, alcohol was a main priority on the long, tedious journey.
Each night saw us enjoying beers, cards and music with fellow travellers from neighbouring compartments. They were folks from around the world, all of whom had interesting stories to tell. Nobody mentioned it, but we all thought of ourselves as a band of true adventurers on a journey that armchair travellers only talk about. We were doing it. We were riding the Tran-Siberian Railway to Beijing, the longest train journey in the world.
There were French, British, Canadians, Germans, Russians and more who joined the nightly soirees in our compartment, which was the place to be, the party scene, the compartment where it was happening each night. Dylan and I were the life and soul of that train for seven days and six nights as we hosted and entertained all comers. Even the Chinese train guards joined us to ‘ganbei’, which means ‘bottoms up’ in Mandarin. We had vodka, beer, snacks, an iPad full of music, playing cards, and most importantly, our Northern (Geordie) humour. As we were told over and over by our newfound comrades, the journey would have been a painful bore without us.
We slowly made our way through Siberia to Irkutsk, then down the side of Lake Baikal, eventually reaching Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Our next stop was Beijing, but first we needed to traverse the Mongolian steppe, the Gobi Desert and the mountainous region of Chinese Inner Mongolia.
As we trundled along, we caught sight of Mongolian nomads on horseback, Bactrian camels, huge golden statues of Buddha and many Yurts. By now, the restaurant car had been swapped from the Russian restaurant carriage to a Mongolian carriage that served Mongolian dishes and had an elaborately carved wooden interior.
On the final morning of our Trans-Siberian train journey, we woke to the most amazing sunny views of the mountainous region of Chinese Inner Mongolia. We knew we were in China now, and our excitement was showing. It came at just the right time, as we were dog tired and all partied out. We badly wanted off the train, and craved the luxury of steamy showers, hot meals and quiet, comfortable beds. We were glued to the window for the next few hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Chinese town or temple. We craned our necks looking for any Chinese signage on the buildings, cars or trucks, just to confirm we were really in China.
Our first Chinese village eventually came into view, then a farm, a small market, shops, more towns, bigger towns, huge towns, huge cities and finally we were there, on the outskirts of Beijing itself. We had arrived, and we were excited as hell.
Chapter 7: ‘Thank you people of China – I owe you more than you will ever know’ — Irv Graham
The train doors opened, and we took our first step into China. The station was huge and ultramodern. Brand new state-of-the-art high-speed bullet trains were pulling in and setting off from numerous platforms. This place was colossal, and since we had no clue where to go next, we just followed the crowds.
Eventually, we caught sight of sunlight ahead, and then, just like that, we were out on the street. We just stood there for a minute amidst the masses of people, taking in our surroundings. To our left we saw a cafe, where we decided to sit down to get our bearings, grab a refreshment, and book a hotel.
To my disappointment, all the hotels on my phone app seemed to be the modern, luxury type, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted. It took me a bit of time, but I eventually found what I was looking for. It was a beautiful hotel built around an old Chinese stone courtyard. It had a central water feature surrounded by plants, and was lined on all sides with traditional wooden buildings, intricately carved, painted and gilded with classical Chinese motifs. The rooms were filled with antique furniture and paintings, and the whole scene satisfied the nostalgic image of China I had created for myself.
Fully refreshed, we decided to walk to the hotel, which was only a kilometer or so away. As we made our way down the street, our heads swung back and forth as we took in the sounds, sights and smells. The buildings were enormous, the boulevards six lanes wide; everything was clean, big and modern. It was not at all what we had anticipated.
We had only been walking a minute or two when we were approached by a middle-aged Chinese man, who introduced himself and asked where we were going. We told him the name of our hotel, which he said he knew well. He insisted on taking us there personally, and even said it was his duty to carry my bag as we were guests in his country. Dylan and I were worried it was some kind of scam, but in the end, he simply made small talk. Before we knew it, he had delivered us to the entrance of our hotel, where he shook our hands and bid us farewell. With that he was gone. When he first approached us he had been walking in the opposite direction, which meant he went out of his way to help us. This was the first of many acts of kindness I would encounter, acts of kindness that I was not accustomed to. It took some getting used to, as my Western upbringing was always looking for the negative or thinking the worst of people. I had real trouble believing that people like this still existed, which was pretty sad on my part, but I was simply a product of my environment.
Our hotel was amazing. We ate, showered, then slept for around fifteen hours. The next day we had breakfast and then headed out the door ready to start our adventure in China.
During our three days in Beijing, we visited the Forbidden City, a host of temples, and the Great Wall. We explored the whole city centre including antique malls and markets. Next, we jumped on the bullet train to the ancient town of Pingyao, which still retains its massive city walls. Pingyao is exactly how I pictured China, with narrow cobbled streets lined with antiquated wooden buildings, adorned with profusely carved exteriors. It was a place where time truly had stood still. We stayed in Pingyao for a couple of days until we had exhausted the sights and ourselves, and after a good night’s rest we caught a bullet train to Xi’an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. We ate on the famous Muslim food street, toured the hot spots and walked the streets for three days and two nights until our legs could walk no more. Our next stop was the mega-city of Chongqing, a huge metropolis that would take months to explore. We could feel the weather getting warmer the further south we went, so on leaving Chongqing we exhausted our list of interesting destinations, then headed for Nanning in Guangxi Province.
Nanning became my favourite Chinese city; I loved the weather, the relaxed atmosphere and the easy-going people. We arrived there late and managed to find a nice hotel close to the city centre. The general manager was a wonderful man who, upon sensing how hungry we were, invited us out for street food.
During our travels throughout China we encountered many, many acts of random kindness and generosity towards us.
A few days into our stay in Nanning, we found a great underground food court near the hotel. We were struck by two things: first, how far underground it seemed to be, and second, what appeared to be a pair of colossal nuclear blast doors at the bottom of the steep stairs leading inside. They must have been three feet thick. The sight of these doors and the fact that a food court was so far underground made us both feel a little uneasy. However, we put the matter to the back of our minds as we carried on exploring Nanning.
The hotel we were staying at was called the Wanxing Hotel Beining Branch and the general manager Sky became a friend that we stayed in contact with throughout our China adventure.
One morning when we were still sound asleep in bed, I heard a strange noise like a siren. As I was dragged out of sleep, the noise became clearer. It was an air raid siren, but I was convinced that it was a nuclear attack warning siren. And it was getting louder. The three-foot-thick blast doors we had seen earlier had left an eerie impression on me, and now this nuclear attack warning siren was going off all over the city.
I shouted at Dylan to ‘get up, get up’, and when I told him it was a nuclear warning siren, his face drained of colour. I jumped up and ran over to the window to see dozens of people running from the building and lining up in the hotel car park. I yelled at Dylan to come look, and the two of us stood gazing out of the window horrified, alarmed and totally confused about why the hotel was being evacuated and nuclear warning sirens were going off all across the city. We took one look at each other and without saying a word legged it. I was half-dressed with no socks or shoes on and Dylan was in his boxers, but nonetheless, we scrambled to the staircase and ran down the stairs, jumping five or six at a time. Upon reaching the hotel foyer, the manager was at his spot behind the desk, looking completely unfazed. However, when he saw the panic written on our faces, he quickly put two and two together. Running across the lobby towards us, he explained that we didn’t need to be worried. It was merely an annual event commemorating the invasion of China by the Japanese in World War II. Truth be told, I was too flustered to pay much attention to the story. There we stood in the foyer, Dylan in his boxers and me half–dressed. We looked a right pair, especially considering we were the only Westerners in the place. Once we knew we were not about to be incinerated by a nuclear attack, we made an embarrassing but relieved retreat back to our rooms, where we dressed and then headed out for breakfast.
We visited all the main attractions in Guangxi province, including the breath-taking Guilin. Then we left by bullet train for Nanchang, a journey of about four to five hours. The night before, Dylan had been complaining of pains in his stomach, which I put down to mild food poisoning or simple digestive trouble. We had both suffered from such problems at different points along the journey and had never thought much of it. However, during the train journey to Nanchang, Dylan was more or less in tears, and the pain got so bad he eventually doubled up on his seat, unable to move. We both thought the train journey was making the pain worse and that once we got to our hotel in Nanchang, he would feel better after a shower and a rest.
We arrived around 8 p.m., and unfortunately, had great difficulty checking in at the hotel as none of the staff spoke English.
Dylan was in a lot of pain and I was desperately trying to get the room sorted out so I could get him comfortable. On the night shift was a very young man who spoke a bit of English, who managed to sort everything out and take us to our room. Dylan went straight into the shower, but less than five minutes later, he was lying on the bed doubled up in agony. By this point, we realised that it was definitely not a simple case of food poisoning. The pain was radiating from his right side and was spreading to his groin and chest. This was obviously something very serious.
I called reception and eventually reached the young man who had helped us earlier, who agreed to come up. After he arrived, I explained the situation as best I could. Together, we put Dylan’s arms across our shoulders, and carried him downstairs. The young man explained that there was a hospital across the road, which was none other than the Nanchang Western and Chinese Medicine Hospital.
The hospital was virtually empty, so we were seen very quickly by a Chinese doctor and several junior doctors and nurses. It only took Doctor Zhou a few minutes to determine the problem. Thankfully, the young receptionist from the hotel was there to translate. Dylan’s appendix had burst, and infection had spread to his abdomen and required immediate surgery.
The doctors put Dylan on a trolley and rushed him through corridors to a set of double doors, beyond which was the operating theatre. I followed along, but was told to wait in the corridor. The doors slammed shut in my face. I was alone and no one spoke English. It was not as if I were in Shanghai or Beijing; this place was off the beaten track as far as tourists were concerned. It was dark outside and the floor I was on was desolate, so I just stood there not knowing what to do or think. It was almost like a scene from a movie as I paced the corridor for hours. No one came out with news, there were no noises or people, nothing. It must have been about two a.m. when a female doctor came out of the double doors. She spoke no English, so all she could do was point to her hand, which was gloved in white, and splattered with blood. There on her palm was Dylan’s burst appendix, which looked like a crushed finger. She gave me a thumbs up sign, and as she headed back through the double doors, I breathed a sigh of relief.
About thirty minutes later a janitor came around the corner with a stool in his hand, which he placed near my bag. He motioned for me to sit, which I did, and immediately nodded off. I was awoken at about 6:30 by the sounds of the same janitor sweeping the hall. Where was Dylan? That was what I asked myself as I slung my bag over my shoulder and set off down the corridors in search of my son.
I eventually found the reception desk. The staff must have been informed about me and Dylan, as, without saying a word, a matronly nurse led me to the ward where Dylan was. He was unconscious, with tubes leading from his surgery wounds to a bag down his side, and antibiotics drip tubes in his forearm.
I sat by his side, holding his hand in the hope of getting a response. Unfortunately, he was still under the influence of the anaesthetic. A few minutes later, Doctor Zhou arrived and we talked using WeChat’s translation feature. Most of what we said to each other got lost in translation, but I basically got the basic message. He said that Dylan was very lucky and was now doing fine, but would need to stay in hospital for ten days to finish the course of antibiotics and to make sure there were no complications.
Dylan woke a few hours later and we sat and talked. I could see that he was in pain, but otherwise doing well. I told him he had to stay in the hospital for ten days, but seeing the pretty young nurses on the ward he just winked and said ‘good’ and laughed. I can’t tell you the relief I felt in that moment. My emotions were all over the place and I was so physically and mentally drained that I fell asleep on the corner of his bed.
Dylan was going to be okay, and even better, since the ward was relatively empty, the hospital staff allowed me to stay there for the first few nights.
What happened over the next ten days blew me and Dylan away, and left us both truly humbled. In fact, it left a mix of positive memories and emotions that will last for a lifetime. Within two days of Dylan being in the hospital, I got a call on WeChat from a Chinese gentleman we had met on a train a week or so beforehand, who turned out to be a government official. Somehow, he had heard of our situation and was calling to check on Dylan and myself. He even offered to have food sent over on a daily basis for Dylan. I had never experienced kindness like this and was at a complete loss for words. I pleaded with him not to go out of his way, and eventually, he agreed. However, he did call every day to check in on Dylan and speak to the doctors to make sure that both of us were OK.
There was a middle-aged Chinese man in the bed next to Dylan, who had also had his appendix removed. His wife came in to visit him daily and brought him food, and soon she began adding meals for Dylan. Her husband also began to help Dylan get to the restroom every night after I returned to the hotel.
An elderly Chinese man moved into the bed on the opposite side who Dylan managed to chat with via WeChat translation.
Every day I went to a nearby supermarket to buy fruit, water and toiletries for myself and Dylan. About four days into Dylan’s hospital stay I was stopped on the stairs by a Chinese man in his early sixties, who spoke enough English to communicate passably. He was aware of our situation, and that I was staying in a hotel. He insisted on treating me to a meal, and I accepted his invitation. There was no way I could turn him down after the kindness the Chinese people had shown myself and Dylan.
Something we had noticed whilst travelling around China was how innocent the majority of the Chinese people seemed to be. Imagine travelling back in time to the 1940s in the West, back to when people were honourable and raised with good manners, a time of community and belonging. I found people in China were like that: simple and honest in a very refreshing way. Sadly, both Dylan and I could see Western culture creeping in, and knew it was just a matter of time before the Chinese people would adopt western ways. I personally hope China encourages the young generations to not lose sight of their history, customs and culture.
That night I ended up having dinner with the gentleman I had met on the stairs, who I will call David. We met outside a noodle café for a lovely, authentic Chinese meal. At a certain point, David asked if I would join him in a small drink to which I happily agreed. He poured two small glasses from a very Chinese-looking bottle and handed one to me. In retrospect, I realise I did everything you’re not supposed to do when accepting a drink in China. But at that time, I didn’t understand Chinese drinking etiquette. Being a polite host, David never let on that I was doing anything wrong. I took a sip from the glass and nearly coughed it out all over the floor. It was utterly disgusting! It burned going down, smelled bad, and tasted worse. I was certain there was no way on earth I could drink it. That was my first introduction to baijiu, not a good one but definitely a memorable one.
We chatted for some time, and somehow eventually, I found the baijiu easier going down. I told David about my antique dealing exploits and life in the UK, as well as the note I had found. However, I could see in his eyes he didn’t really understand what I was talking about. Something I discovered while in China is that many Chinese people know very little about their country’s history, and David was just such a person.
My baijiu journey was just starting in China, and Dylan was healing well. He was up and about, and due to leave hospital in a day or two. The doctors, especially Doctor Zhou, had done an amazing job fixing him up. The Chinese patients and their families had gathered around us in our time of despair, helping us through it in any way they could. Dylan and I will likely never again experience the hospitality, care and openness the Chinese people showed us during that time.
The day of Dylan’s release was quite emotional for us both as we said goodbye to all of our newfound friends. Dylan was well enough to continue traveling around China with me, but his mum had talked him into returning home. She and his siblings missed him too much, and I think he missed the comforts of home after what he had been through. We agreed that I would take him to Shanghai to catch the first flight home, but that I would stay in China alone. I wanted to visit the porcelain capital of the world, Jingdezhen, and immerse myself in its history. I had been dealing in Chinese porcelain for over twenty years; now I had the chance to visit the place where the majority of items I had handled over the years were originally made.
We caught a high-speed train to Shanghai and spent a day or two exploring the city. Dylan was hesitating about whether to stay in China with me, but he had promised family and friends that he was coming home. I took him to the airport and saw him through check in. Then, we shed some manly tears as we said goodbye. Dylan was homeward bound, but my adventure was not over yet.
Chapter 8: ‘V.I.P Jiu 8 – The baijiu lightning bolt strikes’
Dylan flew back to the UK and I stayed in Shanghai for the night. Having been introduced to baijiu back in Nanchang, I now realised that it was everywhere. There were baijiu ads on the TV in my hotel room, baijiu ads on the radio in the taxi, there were billboards and poster advertisements on the street. There were also shops filled with what seemed like endless varieties of the stuff.
Before catching the slow train to Jingdezhen, I decided to hunt down some baijiu for the overnight journey. Actually, there was little hunting involved. Considering that baijiu is available just about everywhere, I bought two bottles, one of them a really cheap bottle of Red Star Erguotou, and the other, a pricier type.
By the time I boarded the train and got myself settled, it was about 6 p.m., so I decided to open the baijiu and have a well-deserved drink. Within minutes of opening the bottles, I had company join me, and by about 9 p.m. there were four of us playing cards and drinking baijiu. The cheap Red Star was not to my liking, but the pricier bottle went down really well. A good night was had by all.
I have always enjoyed whiskey, particular aged single malts with their complex aromas and tastes. Baijiu is a completely different ball game, as I was quickly learning. If you’re unlucky enough to get a cheap, nasty brand for your first tasting, it can put you off for life. Get the right bottle and you will not look back; it has more complexities than whisky or any other spirit I have ever tried. My advice would be to stick with it until you find the brand that works for you.
I arrived in Jingdezhen alone, but as time went on, I made plenty of new friends. I spent most nights out socialising, either in the homes of my newfound friends, or at clubs and restaurants. Baijiu is the main alcohol consumed by all, and my new friends taught me a lot about Chinese drinking culture and how important baijiu is in Chinese society.
After four weeks in Jingdezhen, I knew it was time to go home, and not because I was homesick or fed up. I loved being in China, I loved Chinese culture, and I loved the people. But I was now a man on a mission. After coming to understand the importance of baijiu in Chinese society, the lightning bolt struck: I had to revive the Kangxi recipe. I fully realised how important it was, and I knew that it could not be ignored. Furthermore, I had developed a love for baijiu and was curious to see what the Kangxi recipe would taste like if recreated successfully. During my four weeks in Jingdezhen, I had tried many different baijiu brands, some that I couldn’t stomach, others that were wonderful.
Upon returning from my epic China adventure, I did further research into the nine ingredients listed in Kangxi’s recipe. It was no coincidence that nine ingredients were used, as nine is regarded as a particularly auspicious number, and is closely associated with the emperor. In fact, the number nine often pops up in imperial designs. For instance, the metal studs on the gates at the Forbidden City are usually arranged in nine rows of nine. The number is also associated with dragons, which were believed to have one hundred and seventeen scales, eighty-one of which were male (9×9) and thirty-six of which were female (9×4). The ‘nine sons of the dragon’ are also a key element of Chinese mythology. Do some research into Chinese numerology, and you will find many other complex and intriguing aspects of the number.
In my twenties I did gain a little experience in the brewing industry, but soon realised I needed help, so I recruited friends of friends for advice and guidance as well as some amazing academics and specialists in Chinese traditional medicine. After much research, it was identified what role each ingredient was expected to play. The consensus was that the nine specific ingredients used in the recipe were specifically selected to complement one another. The tonic was designed to benefit the stomach, spleen, lungs, kidney and heart, and to resolve dampness and qi stagnation. It was supposed to strengthen the yang and tone the blood, induce tranquillity, nourish the liver, and expel cold.
The truth is that alcohol has been used medicinally for more than five millennia. For instance, it is mentioned in one of the first medical books in China, the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Canon, which was penned in 300 B.C. There is even modern clinical data that indicates that moderate consumption of baijiu may speed up blood circulation and improve cardiovascular and circulatory function. Other studies found that certain components in baijiu have antioxidant effects, can enhance the immune system, and reduce triglycerides. Other health benefits have been suggested, such as benefits to the digestive system and reduced likelihood of blood clots.
Eventually the time had come to actually try and reproduce Kangxi’s recipe. It was fairly straightforward enough to recreate using the exact weights and ingredients in the recipe. I wrongly assumed I could simply upscale the recipe by simply multiplying the weight of the ingredients; I soon realised this was not the case. It was not until our fifth attempt and after a host of trials, failures and frustrations, we finally worked out the magic formula to upscale the recipe in small batches while keeping its originality intact. From that moment on, things started to turn around. Perhaps I could have made thing easier by taking shortcuts here and there, but that was not what I wanted. I hoped to remain true to Kangxi’s original recipe, and thus was forever mindful and respectful of its imperial pedigree, throughout all stages of its resurrection.
The recipe was now fully restored, and I needed a fitting brand name, something to portray recognition, respect and gratitude towards Kangxi. I also wanted something that connected the whole story.
The ‘V.I.P’ aspect is a tip of the hat to Kangxi. After all, what more important person could there be than an emperor? ‘Jiu’ means ‘liquor’ in Chinese, and if you’ve read the full story, you’ll know all about the number ‘8’ and how it wrote its self into the equation.
V.I.P Jiu 8 is historically, enjoyably and restoratively the imperial baijiu. We request you sample other well-known baijiu brands first, before sampling V.I.P Jiu 8.
Further reading: V.I.P Jiu 8 – Vs – Kweichow Moutai (Scientific Analysis).
Memories of Jingdezhen