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Wine and Chinese Culture

Although wine drinking is a common cultural heritage enjoyed by various peoples world-wide, the wine drinking culture of each people is different. The origins of fermenting and drinking wine in China go far back in time. Our Chinese ancestors either used wine as a libation to their forefathers to express reverence, or to enjoy by themselves while writing poetry or prose, or to toast their relatives and friends during a feast. Without a doubt, wine occupies an important place in the culture and life of the Chinese people.Wine was intimately connected with most Chinese men of letters. It was also an inseparable part of the life of ordinary Chinese people. The banquets of ancient emperors and kings could not take place without it. Every sort of wine vessel thus became an important kind of sacrificial object.

For the most part, grains were used to ferment wine throughout China in ancient times. Thus, whether or not the grain harvest was bountiful became a criterion by which successive governments decided whether to lift their ban on wine making or how heavy a wine tax to levy. Over the ages, wine gradually became directly linked to the daily life and tax burden of the people.

But drinking too much wine and engaging in merriment could lead to debauchery or loss of composure, harming oneself and others. Thus, some with an ethical frame of mind spoke of the virtues of wine drinking and devised certain teachings on self-restraint, advising people from drinking too much. Others with a medical frame of mind were particular about the medicinal properties of wine, and produced medicinal wines or used wine as a tonic. Furthermore, China's territory was vast and its resources, abundant. There were some differences in the sorts of crops, quality of water, and brewing techniques of each area, hence an abundance of all manner of outstanding wines with regional features. Chinese men of letters, after tasting a wine, might record its brewing technique or write all sorts of wine poems or monographs. Wine thus enriched the colorful life of the Chinese people.

There are various accounts regarding the origin of wine in ancient Chinese books, but most of them are not believable history. The story of "Tu Kang Makes Wine," for example, is probably not credible in a historical sense. Although folk legend regards Tu Kang as the man to first make wine, as the God of Wine, such legends nevertheless possess a folkloric significance and should not be ignored.

As early as in the Shang dynasty of the 18th through 11th centuries B.C., the use of grain to make wine had become widespread. Inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells as well as bronze inscriptions preserve many records of Shang-era people worshiping their ancestors with wine, and of fact that wine drinking was very popular at the time. For example, a Shang-era winery site was discovered among recent archaeological unearthings. The development of Chinese wine-making techniques accelerated after the 3rd century A.D. Each part of the nation used different grains to produce yeast. This not only led to an increase in the varieties of wine, it also indicated progress in the technology of yeast production. Such a tradition of grain-fermented wine is a particular feature of Chinese wine.

There are many Chinese historical accounts of literati, poets, and knights of the medieval Wei, Chin, and Tang dynasties who were hearty drinkersone of the various connections between wine and Chinese culture worthy of note. We may also infer an intimate connection between the academic thinking and social practices of the time. Although this relationship between Chinese intellectuals and wine did not originate in the Wei and Chin dynasties, we can not ignore the fact that wine occupied a prominent place in, or even; accounted for almost all of, the lives of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of well-known literati of the Chin dynasty. There are many amusing anecdotes from Chinese wine-drinking culture. For example, the Chinese of ancient times were very particular about first having a zest for wine while drinking before one could drink to the full. Tao Yuan-ming, the prominent Chin-era poet, had the greatest zest for wine. He could drink alone, brew his own wine, and partake of the leisurely enjoyment of meticulous wine tasting. His zest for wine was quite different from that of most Wei or Chin literati who enjoyed "doing nothing and drinking to their hearts' content." He successfully combined wine with literary creation, thus "his poems are imbued with wine, and there was poetry from his wine."

In addition to a zest for wine, drinkers had to have stamina in order to drink to the full. Even if they had the requisite stamina, they had to be able to hold their liquor: Examples of celebrated literati of the Han and Wei dynasties who could drink five tou, or one tan at a time are too many to mention. During a feast, playing finger-guessing games with excited shouts much like battle cries was called a wine battle. The opposing guests, competing like two armies facing each other on the battlefield, played finger-guessing and other drinking games, such as thinking up new songs at the table, composing impromptu poems, singing in unison, dancing, and the like. All of these became amusements that added excitement to banquets

From wine making techniques we can glimpse a bit of the wisdom of ancient Chinese; from the relationship between wine and literati or knights, as well as various writings relating to wine, we can spot a trace of the accomplishments of intellectuals in ancient times; from policy measures prohibiting wine making and measures levying wine taxes, we can ferret certain links between wine and national taxes; and from such concepts as the virtues of wine drinking and such customs as playing various games during wine drinking, we can ascertain the cultural concepts and ideology of tradition a I Chinese people. Wine is an important segment of dietary culture, and its significance in Chinese culture should not be overlooked.

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