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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

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Wine was first made in China by Yi Di in about 2070 BC. He presented his invention to the first Chinese Emperor, Yu. Yu drank it, liked it, but, being a Wise Emperor, realized that it would cause dreadful disasters and calamities. So he banned it, and exiled Yi Di for good measure.

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Ancient Chinese Wine Cup.

Unfortunately, that story isn’t at all true. Early Chinese history is a bunch of very pretty myths with very little evidence. Writing wasn’t properly invented in China until about 1200 BC. Before that you have to rely on archaeology. Oddly enough, the earliest known wine, indeed the earliest alcohol that we know about for absolute certain, was found in Jiahu in China and dated to about 7000 BC.

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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

There was almost certainly no Emperor Yu and no Yi Di. But they’re worth talking about because they are legends that illustrate the Ancient Chinese attitude to booze*, which was, roughly, ‘This is rather nice, but also rather dangerous, and it should probably be illegal.’

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The last emperor of the dynasty founded by Yu was a funny chap called Jie (1728–1675 BC, allegedly). Jie was a Bad Emperor because he was much too fond of booze. He loved the stuff, but he had a peculiar habit. He insisted that when he was drinking he had to be riding on somebody else’s back like a horse. We all have our eccentri-cities, but Jie’s became problematic because he drank all the time, and it became tiring for the people beneath him. One day, for example, he was happily drinking and riding his Chancellor around like a horse when his Chancellor became exhausted and collapsed, so Jie had him executed.

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Lake Of Wine №1.

Jie had a favourite courtesan called Mo Xi, who was also an alcoholic. She had the fantastic idea of constructing a whole lake of wine. One was duly dug and she and Jie paddled around it in a canoe while lots of naked girls and boys swam around having an orgy. But Mo Xi got bored and ordered 3,000 men to try to drink the whole lake dry. She then laughed uproariously when they all drowned.

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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

Then there was a series of natural disasters and a chap called Tang of Shang rose up, defeated the evil Emperor and established the Shang Dynasty.

Lake Of Wine №2.

The last Shang Emperor was Di Xin, who was a Bad Emperor because he was much too fond of booze. He had another wine lake dug, filled with wine (he was under the influence of his evil wife), and he was fond of orgies etc., etc., until a good chap rose up and overthrew him. The only significant difference between Di Xin and Jie is that Di Xin’s lake had an island in the middle with artificial trees that were hung with cooked meat, so he could paddle around, drink wine and pick bacon. This is called Progress.

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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

Grape wine is the type favoured in most Western countries and archeological evidence has suggested that grape wine in China originated some 4600 years ago, longer than the known history of rice wine. However, Yellow Liquor (Huang Jiu) and White Liquor (Bai Jiu) have dominated Chinese wine culture for thousands of years.

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There’s a document from the early first millennium BC called the Proclamation Concerning Drunkenness. It’s interesting because it says that Di Xin was a drunkard, and that the Shang Dynasty fell because everyone was drinking. The Proclamation bans drinking anywhere other than at rituals. It doesn’t seem to have worked. There are an awful lot of ancient Chinese edicts banning drinking, so many that you can be sure that they were ineffectual. As is has mentioned before, things are only banned when people are doing them. So a lot of bans implies a lot of booze. But, importantly, there remained an absolute opposition between social order and political stability on the one side and anarchic alcohol on the other.

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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

The Chinese solution to this was, basically, Confucian. Confucius (551–479 BC) died just before the Warring States period of Chinese history, which did exactly what it said on the tin. There was chaos and bloodshed and everybody wanted to know how to make people calm down. Confucius reckoned that the way to do it was ritual and ceremony. The basic idea is that if you spend all day bowing to your superiors, you’ll get so used to it that it will seem perfectly natural that they are your superiors. The same goes for any part of social life. And the result will be peace and plenty.

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Confucius.

It’s therefore rather surprising that Confucius drank as much as he liked, but, like Socrates, he never got drunk.

But for others there were limits. Nobody should drink until their parents had been fed. Order and self-control were paramount. And in the more general movement that Confucius represented, the control of alcohol was vital. So drink, if not banned, was largely restricted to ceremonial occasions.

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There were complaints about people who went from funeral to funeral trying to get as much alcohol down their throats as they possibly could, presumably while shedding a single, polite tear for the deceased.

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Legend has it that at one point in far-off antiquity anybody who had more than five drinks would be executed. It’s certain that when China was united under the Han Dynasty, a law was passed making it illegal for more than three people to drink together for ‘no reason’. The punishment, though, was a fine, rather than an execution; and the law never stipulates exactly what a good reason would be. Anyhow, it didn’t work very well. There was a Han chancellor called Cao Shen who never did any work. Whenever anyone came to complain to him about it, he would offer them a drink, which out of politeness they would have to accept. Then another. Then another. And then they would forget what they had come to say. Then Cao Shen would return to his clerks (who were all pifflicated too) and he would sing to them.

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The Alcohol Culture. Ancient China.

More recently China’s wine production has seen significant growth. In the last fifteen years the country’s wine industry has seen a massive boom, though it’s mainly the European-style red wines (made from grapes) that are fueling this explosion. In fact, in the last few years China has become the world’s largest consumer of red wine.

*booze — выпивка, алкоголь.

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