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Uses of drunkenness by figures in Chinese history

Since ancient times, alcohol consumption has been an important part of Chinese culture. Alcohol always played an important role in different occasions, and there are numerous folk tales involving booze drinking.

Alcohol had great impact on artists than any other ones. Being drunk seemed to be one of the important tips Chinese artists resort to free their creativity. Many of them produced their best works after being drunk.  The story of Li Bai (李白), from the Tang dynasty, one of the most famous poets in Chinese history, has been told so many times. Du Fu (杜甫), another poet of Tang, who was as great as Li, described Li’s love for alcohol in his poem “Song On the Eight Immortals in Drinking,” saying “Li Bai can write a hundred poems during drinking a dou (a unit of volume roughly equal to 6000 ml). He just sleeps in taverns of Chang’an. Even the emperor summons him, he doesn’t go, claiming that he’s the immortal of alcohol.” (李白斗酒诗百篇,长安市上酒家眠,天子呼来不上船,自称臣是酒中仙。)

Not only poem, but also painting and calligraphy were raised to higher level by the aid of alcohol. Wang Xizhi (王羲之), Chinese famous calligrapher, who was called Calligraphy Saint, finished one of his most outstanding works “Lantingxu (Orchid Pavilion Prologue)” when he was drunk. It was said he retried a lot of times to overwhelm that masterpiece, but all failed. The original one was the best.

Alcohol could also help enhance friendship. It’s quite understandable. People who kindly buy you a drink are easier to become a friend. To Tao Qian (陶潜), a poet in the Jin dynasty, also known as Tao Yuanming, booze was definitely a token of great friendship. Tao loved alcohol so much, that he even wrote a series of 20 poems with the same title “Drinking.” Tao resigned from his official position and lived in seclusion because he couldn’t accept the dark side of his career. But it meant that he had to live a poor life. Once a year, the Chongyang Festival was approaching, but Tao even had no money to buy booze, which made him very upset. But when he was pacing unhappily in his yard, an envoy in white came around, with alcohol, telling Tao that it was a gift from his friend Wang Hong. Tao was very glad. To express his gratitude, he drank himself down immediately. Now this story has been summerized into a chengyu— “people in white sending alcohol (白衣送酒),” describing that a friend send you something when you just need it.

He Zhizhang (贺知章), poet and calligrapher in the Tang dynasty, was another subject of Du’s “Song on Eight Immortals in Drinking.” Different from Tao, He was remembered as the one who treated others with alcohol. He was a government official of that time. One day, when Li Bai visited Chang’an, the capital, He encountered with him in a tavern. Reading Li’s fascinating poems, He was very glad to meet such a talented new friend. So he decided to buy Li some drinks. It happened that He didn’t take any money with himself that day. But that couldn’t change his mind to treat Li. He took off his gold-turtle baldric, which was a token only for high-level officials, and gave it to the tavern in exchange for some booze. He and Li boozed happily until they both got drunk. And this story was then called “Gold turtle in exchange of alcohol (金龟换酒)”, which was widely spread as a proof of He’s generosity.

In other cases, alcohol liberated one’s nature. Liu Ling (刘伶), poet and scholar living in the Jin Dynasty, one of the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七贤),” was also known for his love for alcohol. His most famous work is a poem titled with “In Praise of the Virtue of Wine.” It was said when he was drunk, he would walk around in his house in the nude, which frightened many of his visitors. But Liu explained to them: “I see the earth and skies as my home and this room as my pants. What are you, gentlemen, doing in my pants?”

Liu’s wife worried that alcohol will affect his health, so she tried to persuade him to quit drinking. Liu pretended to be distressed about that too, said: “I can’t quit it by myself. I think we need the help of god. Why don’t you prepare some food and alcohol as sacrifice to pray to God?” His wife accepted his suggestion. And, as you could guess, when the offerings were served, Liu drank all the alcohol himself.

Another folktale about Liu Ling claims that he was followed at all times by a servant bearing a bottle of booze and a shovel, because he was equally prepared to offer him alcohol at a moment’s notice or bury him if he fell over dead.

Since alcohol was the only entertainment of the military in the time of cold weapons, it was used as stimulants and rewards for the soldiers. It can make cowards brave, cheer up the frustrated, and heighten the morale. When in some cases, the liquor was not enough for all the army men. So, some smart military leader figured out a solution. According to Historical Records, in the Warring States period, Emperor Qin Mugong of the Qing State once led his army to fight against Jin State. Before the battle began, he poured the insufficient liquor into the Yellow River, and drunk the river water with his soldiers. And all his men were stirred up and helped them win that battle. Obviously, compared with the strength of the alcohol, the gesture of the leader meant more to those soldiers.

Actually, in historical novels, alcohol and battles frequently cohabited. Such as in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu (关羽), the Chinese Ares, chopped off the head of Hua Xiong (华雄), the enemy general, while his wine was still warm; Zhang Fei (张飞), pretending drunk, captured his enemy’s fortress easily. But in those classic novels, the most representative character associated with alcohol should be Wu Song (武松) from Outlaws of the Marsh. As the household hero, Wu was said to have killed a tiger barehandly, after he drank eighteen bowls of baijiu, which of course gave him courage and strength. And in another case, Wu met a friend named Shi En, whose restaurant was forcibly ocucupied by a local hooligan named Jiang Zhong. So Wu decided to fight for Shi. He consumed an enormous amount of alcohol, and went to give Jiang a good beating and took Shi’s restaurant back. If you know someone like Wu, please be careful, because drinking may be just a warm-up for them before picking a fight.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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