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A liquor-laden tradition: The Chinese picnic

Get out this spring and enjoy qu shui liu shang, the ancient Chinese art of composing poetry, embracing nature and getting sozzled in the process

04·18·2012

A liquor-laden tradition: The Chinese picnic

Get out this spring and enjoy qu shui liu shang, the ancient Chinese art of composing poetry, embracing nature and getting sozzled in the process

04·18·2012

As the poet and architect Lin Huiyin (1904-1955) wrote in one of her most famous poems: “In all the world, April days are the most beautiful” (人间最美四月天  Rénjiān zuìměi sì yuè tiān).

With March’s lingering chill finally banished and before the scorching summer truly begins, April’s spring awakening offers the perfect opportunity to reconnect with nature by venturing out for a picnic.

(It’s also the perfect excuse to roll out another dubious China invention claim, among which the assertions that pizza and soccer originated within these fair shores are personal favorites – Ed)

Though the origins of modern picnicking are firmly rooted in 19th century Europe, the Chinese enjoyed a markedly similar pastime more than 1,500 years ago called qu shui liu shang (曲水流觞, literally “liquor cups floating on the winding brook”). In April of 353 (Jin Dynasty), the well-known calligrapher Wang Xizhi (王羲之) sat with other scholars and poets by the Orchid Pavilion, surrounded by towering peaks and verdant undergrowth, sharing cups of liquor and (somewhat wastefully perhaps) allowing the full cups to drift downstream.

However, if the cups swirled and stopped in front of one of the group before escaping to the wider river, that person was supposed to spontaneously create a poem and knock back the cup. The result was the infamous Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, which was also the original source of the expression qu shui liu shang.

Wang Xizhi’s composition of this line and others like it had a huge impact on future generations. The potent combination of liquor, nature and poetic inspiration became deeply ingrained in ancient Chinese literary culture, and qu shui liushang flourished right through until the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911). Moreover, in Shaoxing City, where the orchid pavilion of the “Preface” is located, the practice of qu shui liushang continues to this day, and the spot is regularly visited by tourists intent on emulating the literary greats.

Even less literary minded people have been heading out to embrace the spring for at least 1,700 years. The expression ta qing (踏青, “walking on the green”) was first recorded in the Jin Dynasty (265-420) text the “Jin Shu” (晋书) and describes the common practice of going out to embrace the joys of spring with a group of companions.

So why not try it yourself? Get out there, find a brook complete with whirling eddies, get the cups out and get composing. Below, we translate some of the foremost lines composed as a result of this marvelous melding of drunken buffoonery and literary art. See if you can match them!

群贤毕至,少长咸集。
Qún xián bì zhì, shào zhǎng xián jí.
It was a grand gathering of talents, young and old.

此地有崇山峻岭,茂林修竹,又有清流激湍,映带左右.
Cǐdì yǒu chóngshān jùnlǐng, mào lín xiūzhú, yòu yǒu qīngliú jī tuān, yìng dài zuǒyòu.
The place was surrounded by high mountains, thick woods and slender bamboos, with a clear stream winding through.

引以为流觴曲水,列坐其次;
Yǐn yǐ wéi liúshāng qū shuǐ, liè zuò qícì
The people are seated along the stream and playing liu shang qu shui

虽无丝竹管弦之盛,一觞一咏,亦足以畅叙幽情。
Suī wú sīzhú guǎnxián zhī shèng yīshāng yīyǒng, yì zúyǐ chàngxù yōuqíng.
Although there were no instruments, the wine and the poems were delightful enough.

是日也,天朗气清,惠风和畅, 仰观宇宙之大, 俯察品类之盛。
Shì rì yě, tiān lǎng qì qīng, huìfēng hé chàng, yǎng guān yǔzhòu zhī dà, fǔchá pǐnlèi zhī shèng。
On that day, the sky was sunny and the air was fresh, and a gentle breeze blew freely. Looking up, we can see the vastness of the universe; when looking down, we can observe nature’s abundance.

 

Everyone loves a good drink, but what is China’s favorite alcohol beverage? 

And while you’re at it, learn some Chinese drinking games.