Life enriched by a sip of Moutai
When he gets drunk on Moutai, farmer Xiao Guangfu often recalls the sleepless nights he had more than a decade ago when he was so poor he considered taking his daughter out of school.
"Life is much easier now," says Xiao's 80-year-old father. "See, we can even drink Moutai."
Moutai, a distilled Chinese liquor produced in southwest China's Guizhou Province, has long been known as a luxury, a symbol of status.
Xiao, 46, lives in Pipa village of Maotai township in Zunyi, Guizhou, hometown of the liquor, where even the air is permeated with the aroma from the brewery. But he had never dreamed of having a sip of Moutai ten years ago.
Back then Xiao was growing rice. Villagers in Pipa had been growing rice for generations. They fed cows with straw, and used cows for farming.
His wife worked in a shoe factory in Guangdong Province. The total income of the family for the year was just a few thousand yuan, and they used the money to raise two children and fund their schooling. In 2002, Xiao wanted to build a house. After he finished the ground floor his money ran out, and the project was suspended.
In 2006, farmland in Pipa village became the sorghum base for Kweichow Moutai Group when the company asked them to grow sorghum for the brewery.
"I didn't want to change to sorghum," Xiao says. "The water level in my rice field was at my waist. It was difficult to change it to dry farmland. And without the rice straw, I could no longer feed my cattle."
Reluctantly, he sold his cow for 4,000 yuan, using the money to buy a rotary cultivator.
"In the first year, we could not drain the water and the yield per mu (about 1/15 hectares) was 300 kilograms," he says.
He sold the grain to Moutai group, earning 3,000 yuan, doubling the income that he earned growing rice.
Moutai group provides farmers with the fertilizer made from distillers' grains, with farmers only paying half of the cost. It also gives farmers a subsidy for biological pesticides.
The yield of Xiao's farmland grows every year. Last year, the yield per mu was 400 kilograms; this year it reached 450 kilograms. Purchase prices are rising as well. Moutai group offers 7.2 yuan to buy one kilogram of sorghum, twice the market price.
The second year after Xiao began growing sorghum, he asked his wife to return from Guangdong, and in 2009 he finally completed his two-story building. The next year he replaced his black-and-white television and bought a liquid crystal television.
During the Spring Festival of 2012, he bought his first bottle of Moutai. Now he often visits the pubs in the township with friends.
"I tried some foreign wines as well, but nothing can compare with Moutai," he says.
Like Xiao, more than 1,000 households in the village saw their lives changed by Moutai. About 90 percent of the villagers have pulled down their dried brick houses and moved into new buildings.
In China, Moutai has become synonymous of liquor. Moutai, or Maotai in Chinese, literally means straw stage. Hundreds of years ago, ancestors of the Gelo ethnic group set up stages of straws by the Chishui River, giving name to the township.
Moutai liquor is made with water from Chishui River, and the drink won a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo.
In 1935, the Red Army crossed the Chishui River at Maotai township. Soldiers who suffered from diarrhea and rheumatism happily used the liquor as a cure. It has been named China's national liquor and is used on many important official occasions.
Sun Chen, a guide in the Kweichow Moutai Group's liquor museum, told Xinhua that logo of the liquor used to be five stars.
"The highly political logo was later replaced by flying apsaras from the frescoes of the Dunhuang Caves, for the purpose of export," he says. "There were tales that fairies brought the wine to the world."
Moutai has always been popular in China, the price of which once soared to more than 2,000 yuan per bottle.
Population of the township exceeds 20,000, with one-third of the people involved in professions related to the liquor, including Xiao Guangfu.
Moutai group has more than 20,000 workers. Chen Yong, a civil servant with the township government, said his uncle and aunt are both retired from the group.
"Their children are now working in the liquor factory," he says. "Their work is hard. In summer they work in heat as high as 40 degrees Celsius, but the money is good."
Annual income of his cousins can reach 120,000 yuan, three to four times Chen's salary.
In the town there are also more than 300 small liquor factories. Each year they collect distillers' grains from Moutai to make liquor.
"The tax from Moutai accounts for more than two-thirds of the total for the town," Chen says.
To accelerate local development, more villages were incorporated into Maotai township. Xiong Dengfa is from the Baiyang village, which once belonged to Erhe town.
"The road was bad here," he says. "After the village became part of Maotai, construction sped up. With better roads, it is easier for us to send out our products."
However, the development of Moutai has been anything but smooth.
Four years ago, China's government released the "Eight-point Rules" to curb extravagance and improve officials' work style, ordering austerity at official meals. Officials were no longer frequently getting drunk on the liquor, and sales of Moutai liquor were heavily affected, with the price of a bottle falling to 900 yuan.
"Once a luxury, Moutai saw its price become more sensible, so even ordinary people can afford it now," Chen says.
Meanwhile, Maotai township is transforming.
The market near the Moutai factory is now full of ancient-style streets and buildings selling liquor and souvenirs. The museum opened to the public in 1997, and the township receives as many as 100,000 visitors during the week-long May Day holiday, five times its population.
While people across China flood to Maotai town, Xiao Guangfu wants to get out.
His daughter graduated from a university in Chongqing and is the headmistress of a school now. She booked a tour to the Thailand earlier this year.
"I planned to go with her, but it was the harvest season and I had to stay for farming," he says. "Some of the villagers have been to Singapore. I wish to go there as well. Now that I have no more demands from life here, it is time to go farther."