Postcard from... Beijing

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In traditional Chinese medicine, snake wine is used to promote vitality, cure headaches and ease rheumatism.

However, one woman got more than she bargained for after she opened a bottle of the elixir and the snake, which had been coiled inside for three months, leapt out and bit her on the hand.

For a foreigner, it is one of the more unusual sights in a Chinese apothecary – that of a bottle or jar with a coiled snake inside, waiting to be dispensed.

A common method of making snake wine is to marinate a snake in a bottle of baijiu, or rice wine, over a period of several months. Most people use dried snakes, but some are more audacious and use live, often venomous serpents to make the elixir. According to a report in the Global Times, the victim in this case was a woman surnamed Liu, who hails from Shuangcheng in Heilongjiang province in the north of China. She was reportedly adding more alcohol to the elixir, which contained a venomous, pickled serpent in the bottom, when it leapt out and bit her.

Ms Liu, who drank snake wine to help her rheumatism, had to go to hospital to be treated for inflammation.

The snake has played a role in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and it is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. In this Year of the Snake, consuming snake is said to have auspicious qualities.

The newspaper said there have been similar cases before, including one in 2001, when a villager in Guangxi Zhuang died after being bitten by a snake in a bottle of wine.