If beer could talk!

If you have ever had a glass of China’s most famous beer, Tsingtao, you may have wondered how it is that such an accomplished beer has been brewed in China for over a century. The answer is intriguing, and, recalling the history of Qingdao (Tsingtao), after which the brew is named, you may find your next glass will provide both liquid refreshment and food for thought!

Qingdao lies in Chinas northeastern Shandong Province and is slightly larger than England and Wales combined. Shandong holds a special place within Chinese culture, not only the home of Confucius, but also of the most sacred sites of both Daoism and Chinese Buddhism; it has sometimes been referred to as China’s Holy Land.

At the end of the Nineteenth Century, China was known as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’, Western powers and Japan vied for control over ever larger areas of China’s huge land mass; the smallest incidents would be used to force China to sign what became known as ‘Unequal Treaties’, through which these powers gained control of about 80% of China; as well as demanding huge reparations. It was a perfect scam, China could not make the payments, she had to take out loans – from Western powers and Japan! Britain not only controlled the largest area within China, but controlled the Chinese Customs Service, income from which went to repaying, with interest, those loans. Foreign powers even set China’s import duty rates, all suitably set to give advantage to the respective foreign power who held the most influence. Similar economic control was exerted by the foreign powers (chief of which was Britain), over key strategic infrastructure including railways and waterways. The prognosis for the Sick Man of Europe was not a good one.

The land grab by Germany in China resulted in the control of Shandong in 1898 (Qingdao is its capital). Even today, the German influence on the old part of Qingdao is quite remarkable, with buildings such as government offices, residences and commercial buildings all displaying the distinctive Germanic architectural style. One such building (at least its original core), is the Qingdao Brewery, built, equipped, and made operational by Germans. The brewery, under its original name, Germania-Brauerei, was founded on August 15, 1903.

China was in chaos at the outbreak of the Great War. Over 2,000 years of Dynastic rule had been overthrown by a revolution just three years previously and a replacement system remained elusive. Despite declaring its neutrality, China was dragged into the war when Britain’s ally, Japan, invaded and took control of German-controlled Shandong Province.

It’s a curious fact that in January 1915 China had a change of policy and decided to side with the Allies (although retaining her neutrality), despite there being significant opinion among the Chinese that Germany would win the war. But the decision was a calculated one. If the allies won, Britain and France promised the return of Shandong to Chinese sovereignty. The Chinese sided with the Allies and offered Britain and France non-combatant labourers to assist in the war effort.

The French signed an agreement with the Chinese for 50,000 labourers. 10,000 of these were later to be lent to the Americans. The British had an open-ended agreement, but final records show that 134,353 Chinese volunteer labourers were recruited and transported to France.

On 24 February 1917 543 Chinese labourers were killed when the SS Athos, en route to the Western Front, was torpedoed by the German submarine U-62. This act lead to China declaring war against Germany on 24th August, 1917.

Meanwhile, back in Qingdao the brewery is now under Japanese management after Japan, using her status as an ally of Britian, invaded and took control of Shandong.

By the end of the war, China was to be be bitterly disappointed when The US, Britain and France (the main victors) awarded Shandong to Japan for her support in the War. It’s not likely many glasses of Tsingtao were raised in celebration in China on that day! China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles and attitudes among Chinese intellectuals swung away from looking to the West to cure China’s problems.

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