December 5, 2023

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Opinion | Kweichow Moutai’s saucy latte a good example of Chinese culture adapting to stay relevant

4 min read
This week, one of the most discussed topics on Chinese social media was a “sauce-flavoured latte”. It is a coffee product infused with Mao-tai, being offered by Kweichow Moutai – a well-known producer of the fiery Chinese spirit – and Luckin Coffee, a Chinese coffee brand.
Despite its long history and reputation as the national liquor of China, Mao-tai is losing its appeal to China’s younger population. To rejuvenate its brand, Kweichow Moutai has been looking for ways to, as Reuters put it, “pull in a new generation of users”.
From a marketing point of view, this baijiu-infused latte is a sales promotion from an ageing brand. But from a cultural point of view, given Mao-tai’s place in Chinese tradition, it could be interpreted as part of an overall effort to start a cultural renewal that China badly needs.
Just as Kweichow Moutai must have looked at its sales data and seen it needed to reinvent itself to attract new customers, China is also realising it cannot rely on its traditional culture to win over the rest of the world.

In July, a Pew Research Centre report showed most Asian-Americans viewed their ancestral homelands favourably, but just 41 per cent of Chinese-Americans held favourable views of China – well below other groups’ views of their homeland – while 35 per cent had unfavourable views. In fact, the findings show that Chinese-Americans view the US, Japan and South Korea more favourably than they do China.

China’s economy has been more successful than many other countries’ – this is something Chinese should be proud of. Why then do they view the place to which they trace their heritage less positively than others?


Liquor-laced latte becomes new drink sensation in China

Liquor-laced latte becomes new drink sensation in China

I believe the poll results reflect in part China’s fading appeal as a cultural giant.

China’s Confucius Institutes have suffered years of setbacks, with many being closed. They appear to have largely failed in their mission to promote Chinese culture to the outside world. Their failure can be attributed to a variety of reasons, one of them being the perception that Chinese culture is limited to a cluster of traditional cultural practices, such as paper cutting, martial arts or Chinese festivities.

It is nice that people still engage in these traditions. However, solely relying on customs and traditions misses the true spirit of culture.

China’s cultural deterioration didn’t happen overnight. The rampant corruption of the late Qing government and the opium epidemic in the 19th century saw the erosion of moral values and contributed to China’s devastating defeats at the hands of foreign powers.
Efforts were made to westernise various aspects of Chinese culture and governance. However, thousands of years of tradition could not be replaced within a span of a hundred years, not to mention some incompatibilities between the two. The result is that Chinese culture today is an incomplete fusion of its own traditions and Western-influenced beliefs. The former could be perceived as backward and the latter as not Western enough. Neither can be relied on solely to promote China’s soft power or to tell its stories to the world.

Closely guarded secrets: inside distillery that brews China’s top Mao-tai

Although China has lifted up its people in an economic sense in recent decades, it has not done so culturally. Chinese culture must go through a renewal process to enable China to be attractive to both its own people and the outside world. This process is best served by starting from within, starting small and being self-initiated.

There are two ways to do it. One is to absorb elements from other cultures to enrich Chinese culture, and the other is to have a fresh understanding of China’s own traditions. When Kweichow Moutai tries to give itself new meaning through partnering with a coffee brand, which itself reflects a Western influence, it is doing the right thing.


China’s liquor brand Moutai launches ‘baijiu’-infused ice cream to attract sceptical millennials

China’s liquor brand Moutai launches ‘baijiu’-infused ice cream to attract sceptical millennials

The problem is that this kind of combination could just be regarded as a sales gimmick without any lasting impact. After the initial stir, Kweichow Moutai will be forced back to the drawing board.

It has happened before. Last year, the company launched a Mao-tai-infused ice cream, which would have been completely forgotten if not for the new Mao-tai latte.

Nevertheless, Kweichow Moutai has made its move. Other brands could follow and create favourable conditions for substantial Chinese cultural renewal that has roots in both Chinese traditions and modern times, and which resonates with people.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series


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