CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


After Wine | China Heritage Quarterly

After Wine

Huang Miaozi 黃苗子
Translated by Duncan M Campbell
Australian National University

The noted calligrapher and art historian Huang Miaozi was a member of The Layabouts Lodge (Erliu Tang 二流堂) and over decades he exchanged comic doggerel poems with Yang Xianyi. Here, in his contribution to Wu Zuguang's collection Essays on Dispelling Despondency (Jieyou Ji 解憂集), for which he did the calligraphic inscription, masterfully translated by Duncan Campbell, Miaozi reflects on the history of wine in Chinese letters, politics and friendship. It is an essay that in its tone, style and array of historical references (as well as mild political humour) reflects the particular temper of the Erliu Tang and the last generation of China's litterateurs who were versed in the tradition.—The Editor

Master Miaozi said: My esteemed friend Yang Xianyi is something of a sot, addicted as he is to whiskey, a tipple that he glorifies with the circumlocution 'Scottish Tea', in avoidance of the word 'wine'. As a friend I am duty bound to counsel him to cease and desist, but, daring not to do so directly, I chose rather to rally the most ridiculous anecdotes about drinking that I can, and to offer them as 'After Wine'. Needless to say, when my friend Xianyi reads the following he will chuckle as he recognises himself, but declare nonetheless: 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks'.

Fig.1 'Yu' 禹, at the Tomb of the Great Yu 大禹陵, the 'hairy caterpillar' (maomao chong 毛毛虫). (Photograph: GRB, March 2009)

In my youth I developed a boundless admiration for the Great Yu 大禹, having read somewhere that he 'hated sweet wine but was fond of good advice' [Yu e zhi jiu er hao shan yan 禹惡旨酒而好善言].[1] His self-restraint, I believed at the time, along with his openness to the benefits of public opinion, were such as only to be expected of a sagely and enlightened ruler, even if [the modern historian] Gu Jiegang's 顧頡剛 researches had led him to conclude that the Great Yu was actually just a 'hairy caterpillar' [maomao chong 毛毛虫].[Fig.1] Much older now, and given by force of years and nature to a finer analysis of the life around me, I realise that in my salad days I had fallen prey to something of a Confucian hoax. The Great Yu lived around 2100 BCE, more than 4000 years ago, not long removed from the clan society of the New Stone Age; at the time, whatever wine was available was little more than an infusion of rotten wild fruit or leaves, somewhat akin to the mead of our own times; its low alcohol content certainly not the equivalent of spirits such as Maotai or Essence of Five Grains [Wuliang Ye 五粮液]… libations of no sweetness whatsoever. Fruit wine doesn't make one drunk—no wonder it didn't please the Great Yu all that much.

The Etymological Explanation of Characters Complex and Simple [Shuowen jiezi 說文解字] claims that: 'In ancient times, Yi Di 儀狄 brewed some wine which the Great Yu found most sweet, whereupon he sent Yi Di away from him.' This anecdote illustrates the extent of the Great Yu's hypocrisy. 'Yu the Great would bow deeply on hearing good advice', the Mencius 孟子 tells us; the bow of those days being somewhat akin to the formulation 'I've noted your advice—most valuable', in bureaucratese nowadays: both forms of approbation actually being a form of elegant dismissal. Moreover, were the wine that Yi Di had brewed to have been at all sweet, it could well have been exported, earning the country a considerable sum of foreign currency, whilst also increasing the state's income from alcohol excise. Judged from the perspective of his economic utility, therefore, Master Yi Di was something of a pioneer of scientific or technological production, and if the Great Yu had not exiled him, both the foreign reserves necessary for the purchase of the makings of whiskey, brandy and the like could have been saved, and even the foreign-owned factories set up to manufacture non-alcoholic soft drinks such as Coca-Cola would not have been necessary. Serving both to increase foreign currency earnings and reduce their outlay, how possibly could 'sweet wine' be thought of as at all hateful? Having finally figured this all out, my former admiration for the Great Yu is now much diminished.

Anyone who has read Lu Xun's 鲁迅 'The Worthies of the Wei and Jin dynasties and Medicine and Wine' [Wei Jin zhu xian yu yao ji jiu 魏晉諸賢輿藥及酒] will have an inkling of the extent to which for the worthies or sages of yore drinking alcohol and taking medicine was a manner of avoiding the world, although not entirely so. The two great drinkers of the age were Ji Kang 嵇康 and Ruan Ji 阮籍. Ji Kang was related by marriage to the descendents of Cao Cao 曹操 and was, therefore, appointed a Grand Master of Palace Leisure. Later on, once the Caos had been replaced by the Simas 司馬, having lost his backers Ji Kang had no choice but to retire and take up metalwork, in the hope that by becoming a humble member of the working class he might avoid any political difficulties. It was all in vain for he couldn't escape the clutches of the evil Zhong Hui 鍾會:

During the summer months, Ji Kang could often be found forging metal beneath a tall willow tree, and on one occasion Zhong Hui happened by. Not ceasing his labours, Ji Kang inquired:

'What is it that brings you here; what is it that will send you hence?'

'Something brought me here, just as something will send me hence'.

This verbal duel, the History of the Jin Dynasty [Jin Shu 晉書] tells us, was followed by Zhong Hui finding a pretext to have Ji Kang executed. As he went to his fate, Ji Kang's declared that his only regret was that he never taught anyone the tune 'Guangling Melody' 廣陵散.

Ruan Ji, by contrast, proved to be an altogether more devious character. When Ji Kang drank he just drank, never making a great song and dance of it. Not Ruan Ji:

When Sima Zhao 司馬昭, Prince Wen of the Jin, sought the hand of Ruan Ji's daughter for his son Yan 炎, Ruan remained drunk for sixty days in a row, and the prince was forced to drop the matter.

Whenever Zhong Hui sought to have him convicted of a crime, Ruan Ji would escape punishment by becoming drunk.

Novels often speak of the strategy of 'Escaping by Water' [shuidun 水遁]; Ruan Ji, it seems, invented the technique of 'Escaping through Wine' [jiudun 酒遁].[Fig.2] Not wishing to let his daughter marry a 'princeling' (a man who was later to take a post akin to President when he became Emperor Wen of the Jin) he retreated into drunkenness. Likewise, in the face of the self-servingly ambitious, he evaded trouble by becoming inebriated. Sima Zhao appointed him General and Palace Attendant but, not wanting to become too close to those in power and to avoid the tragic fate of the Second Month of the Monkey Year and lose his head, Ruan Ji requested a sinecure as Commandant of the Infantry, in the full knowledge that the commissary contained over 300 hu of freshly brewed wine. 'The post was a prominent one but required no real effort, the temple accommodation provided was spacious and comfortable, the robes and chariots bright and luxurious, ideal therefore for a man of ingenuity'—not a bad post for a man intent on only holding a nominal position. In the final analysis, then, Ruan Ji wasn't as stupid as Ji Kang, a man who ended up as Zhong Hui's victim.

Fig.2 'Bottoms Up!', by Ding Cong 丁聰. (Source: Wu Zuguang, ed., Essays on Dispelling Despondency)

In the Song dynasty, Ye Mengde 葉夢得 wrote about people such as Ruan Ji in his book Shilin's Discussions of Poetry [Shilin Shihua 石林詩話]: 'Men of the Jin dynasty often spoke about drinking and of those who would drink until they became drunk, it can be said that their minds were not really completely occupied by wine: times were difficult and everyone lived in constant fear of disaster. Becoming drunk, then, became something of a pretext, a form of escape.' The technique had been in use continuously since the time of Chen Ping 陳平 and Cao Shen 曹參 of the Han dynasty. The History of the Han 漢書 records that before he had decided whom to support as emperor—Liu Bang 劉邦 or Xiang Yu 項羽—Chen Ping would 'by day indulge himself in wine and women, but was this in fact because he liked wine? Cao Shen took a somewhat different tact, but he too, in order to evade the onerous laws of Qin, sought peace and quiet by using wine to fool people, which is of course yet another version of the same technique.' I suspect that real drinkers will not be able to identify with such expediency, one in which there is no thought for the wine itself. On the other hand, I hear that our neighbours to the north recently experienced an incident in which a large number of drunkards made use of wine to fool the people, the pity being that once drunk they would often go home to beat up their wives. For a moment then domestic contradictions out-weighed political ones.

As for that rascal Zhong Hui, his particular brand of wantonness had been on display since he was a young boy. One day, taking advantage of the fact that his father had fallen asleep, he and his brother Yu 毓 stole some wine. But their father, Zhong You 鐘繇, had only been pretending to be asleep in order to observe his sons' behaviour. Before he drank, Yu would bow deeply, whereas Hui would drink it up the moment it was poured it out into his cup. Rising from his bed, You asked his son why he had bowed before drinking it. 'Wine is a vital component of the rites,' Yu responded, 'that is why I bowed to it.' When You asked Hui in turn about why he hadn't bowed to the wine before drinking, he simply replied: 'Stealing is itself an action not in accord with the rites, that's why I didn't bow to it' (Brief Account of the Kingdom of Wei Wei Lüe 魏略). Indeed, where those amongst us who are in the habit of stealing from the public purse for their own purposes to take to bowing in the direction of the Treasury, we would think them idiots of the highest order.

In the end, Zhong Hui rose up in rebellion against Sima Zhao and was done to death by mutinous troops.

Another of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove [ 竹林七賢], Liu Ling 劉伶 was also a great drinker. In this regard he is our grand ancestor. People of the time didn't pay all that much attention to 'spiritual civilisation' and when Liu Ling was drunk, we are told that 'he would take off his clothes and sit naked in his chamber.' Magazines like Playboy were not in circulation in those days, of course, but old Liu Ling really can be considered the progenitor of today's nudists or pornography stars. When visitors upbraided him for his wanton behaviour, his response would be: 'Heaven and Earth are my chamber; my house is my trousers. You've barged your way into my trousers—and you blame me!?'

In the eyes of philosophers of a practical bent, such anecdotes, as found in the Record of the Jin Dynasty [Jin Ji 晉紀], represent the quintessentially ridiculous views of the subjective idealist; the man-of-letters however appreciates the romantic notions implied here, believing that literature would be impossible without them—even if, in this case, the man in question 'never took up a brush', having in his lifetime only ever written the single piece, 'Hymn to the Virtue of Wine'. But, after all, to each according to his own lights. Mankind esteems both physical beauty and moral courage, whereas the history books tell us that that Liu Ling was 'unprepossessing in the extreme'. And when an argument with someone else seemed about to result in fisticuffs, can you guess his response? He would slowly pull himself to his feet to say, with something of a drawl: 'How possibly could a chicken-ribbed creature such as myself fight with someone as Honourable as you!' Thinking it indeed not worth his while to beat such a 'rascal', the man in question walked away, and the opportunity for a really grand and superior martial arts battle was lost. Don't ever think that every drinker is hero of the ilk of Wu Dalang from the novel Water Margin [Shuihu Zhuan 水滸傳], however, for even Liu Ling, who considered the 'universe far too confining, and who took the myriad things to be but part of his heart', can be regarded, in the light of present circumstances, the progenitor of Ah Q 阿Q, who himself recognised that he was a mere pig or insect.

Fig.3 A manhua 漫畫 by Fang Cheng 方成. (Source: Wu Zuguang, ed., Essays on Dispelling Despondency)

Liu Ling once served as Adjutant of Jianwei, a middling sort of post. 'He would get about in his deer-drawn cart, with a jar of wine in hand, followed by a servant with a hoe on his shoulder. "If I die, then just bury me where I am", he would say' (History of the Jin Dynasty), as if life could be lived just as it came. But, judging by his fearless manner when confronted by a clenched fist, one suspects that if he happened to encounter the slightest bad weather when out and about on his deer-drawn cart, he would scurry home to administer himself a dose of Coldrex or some such remedy. And Liu Ling's injunction was nowhere near as enlightened as that of Zheng Quan 鄭泉 of the Three Kingdoms period. Just before he died, this particular piss-head is reported as having said to a friend: 'Be sure to bury me besides a potter's house—in a few hundred years I'll turn into mud and with a bit of luck will be turned into a wine jar. Now, that would be my heart's desire!' (Record of the Kingdom of Wu Wu Zhi 吳志). Now here's a real drinker! If one of the pots turned by my good friend Han Meilin 韓美林 makes use of some of Zheng Quan's ashes, then I must get hold of it and pass it on to Brother Yang Xianyi. Often things don't turn out exactly as one hopes they would, however; after a hundred or so years Zheng Quan's ashes may well have been turned into a pisspot.[Fig.3]

The Idle Gleanings from Yu Studio [Yu Zhai Xianlan 遇齋閑覽] records the following anecdote: 'Guo Kufei 郭苦朏 was a man possessed of both a scholarly talent and a flippant attitude to life. One evening, he went out and was falsely incriminated by a drunkard. When questioned by the Magistrate, Fei replied, with a laugh: "When Master Zhang drinks, Master Li is the one accused of becoming drunk [Zhang Gong chi jiu Li Gong zui 張公吃酒李公醉]—that's me". The Magistrate ordered Fei to write a rhapsody to that title, whereupon Fei took up his pen and wrote:

Life is entirely unpredictable,
We must all take precautions.
To the literati of Qinghe,
The delights of dish and cup.
For the rich young men of Longxi,
The fault of suddenly encountering a fiery liquor….

With a laugh, the Magistrate had Fei released'. Over time, the expression 'when Master Zhang drinks, Master Li is the one accused of becoming drunk' became a common saying. So, here we have a case of someone getting in trouble because someone else couldn't hold his drink. Fortunately, on this occasion the magistrate happened to be something of a bookworm and he ordered Guo Kufei to write a poem on the topic of wrongful incrimination before letting him go. Many were those wrongfully incriminated during the Cultural Revolution and, by contrast, the better read you happened to be and the more you used the Canon to defend yourself, the more trouble you created for yourself. In the end, all too few are those who treat politics in the manner of this magistrate. Those first two couplets of Guo Kufei's poem, however, provide much food for thought.

From time immemorial, it seems, the relationship between poetry and wine has been an intimate one, the number of poems on wine defy statistics. Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 was an early wine poet, not to mention Li Bo 李白. According to Guo Moruo's 郭沫若 research, Du Fu 杜甫 too was something of a drunkard (even if not surprisingly his 'Song of the Eight Immortal Drinkers' does not include himself). My own favourite is Bo Juyi 白居易, however, and his poem 'Drink Up' [Quan jiu shi 勸酒詩]:

Another glass—do not refuse
And yet another, do not desist.
And by the third you will understand.
And if today's face looks older than yesterday's,
Better then stay drunk than sober up.
Eternal is this universe of ours,
As the White Rabbit chases the Crimson Bird.
Once one's gone the Metal Star is hitched to the Northern Dipper,
Far better then to drink up whilst still here.

The earth spins eternally; our lives are both short and hectic. Why then waste that short span in the service of mammon when, after all, 'Once one's gone the Metal Star is hitched to the Northern Dipper'?! And so, although I have not myself touched a drop of wine in recent years, nonetheless I still appreciate the tippler's sentiment that:

And if today's face looks older than yesterday's,
Better then stay drunk than sober up.

Here, finally, perhaps I may relate the story of a man who, like Xianyi, had the surname Yang to serve as my conclusion. During the early years of the Song dynasty [960-1279] there lived an old codger called Yang Bu 楊樸 [921-1003]—I hear that in recent years some man-of-letters or other has derived considerable pleasure by claiming that this man was his distant ancestor but I have not done any research to determine the nature of Yang Xianyi's relationship with this ancient poet, nor do I know whether Yang Xianyi regards him as a forbear.

Something of an eccentric, Yang Bu would spend his days riding around the countryside on a donkey, before returning to rest in his thatch den so he could compose a poem or two. Whenever he happened upon a line that pleased him, he would leap out of his den, frightening the living daylights out of passers-bye. Both the Taizong 太宗 and Zhenzong 真宗 emperors sought to summon him to court. The Record of Delicacies [Houjing Lu 侯鲭錄] by the Song dynasty poet Zhao Lingzhi 趙令畤 contains the following note:

Emperor Zhenzong had the recluse Yang Bu summoned to court, and inquired of him: 'Did anyone present you with a farewell poem?', to which Yang Bu replied: 'My wife came up with a poem, as follows:

Give up wine,
Give up poetry.
But if you grasp for office,
You're sure to lose your head.'

In the past, intellectuals proved reluctant to become cadres, in fear that regardless of the campaign they might happen to be embroiled in they'd end up with a chop to the neck. Having enjoyed the benefits of thirty-odd years of revolutionary education, these days intellectuals now understand the truth of the fact that taking office is to 'Serve the People'; quite a number of them have proven susceptible to the glory of grasping for office. But when it comes to matters related to giving up alcohol or forswearing poetry, they all still seem to retain have some fair degree of individual freedom.

Click here for the original.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


On this occasion as in the past, the translator is most grateful for the unerring eye and ear of the editor.

[1] The Chinese word translated as 'wine' here, jiu 酒, is difficult, encompassing as in does a range of alcoholic Chinese drinks made from cooked grains but not the product of the fermentation of the juice of the grape. Here—largely—I am convinced by the gastronomic, religious, and aesthetic considerations advanced by H.T. Huang for persisting with the 'linguistically less than satisfactory' translation of 'wine', for which, see his definitive treatment of the topic in Joseph Needham, ed., Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology: Part V: Fermentations and Food Science , Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp.149-291.