December 4th, 2013 at 1:45 pm
In the chapter “Heavenly Dew” from The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, Thomas Hollmann examines the history of drink and alcohol in China. In the following excerpt he considers the popularity of drinking games and the symbolic role drinking has in various rites of passage, including weddings:
Drinking contests were very popular, particularly in the late imperial age. “Wine clubs,” societies that existed around the mid-nineteenth century, were described by the missionary Justus Doolittle, who worked in Fujian from 1849 to 1864; and there were also informal gatherings. Historical records going even further back describe types of drinking contests in which the players might have to fulfill tasks requiring a respectable level of mental proficiency as well. They included reciting impromptu poems based on set quotations or ideographs, sometimes with specific rhyme schemes.
This apparent continuity over the centuries may well be explained by the historical sources’ exclusive focus on elite culture. In fact, there were probably also simpler game variations in ancient times for heavy gambling was already widespread then. Today’s drinkers mostly play games like charades, which involve guessing about given mimed terms, or they draw cards, or throw dice. Other familiar games, such as reciting tongue twisters, rearranging phrases to a set pattern, and answering general knowledge questions, can also be used to determine who, if anyone, should take the drinking cup. Another frequently described game involves two people seated facing each other, waving their hands around in quick succession. To Westerners this often looks like tossing coins, but it is more complicated because the goal is to say the correct number of outstretched fingers at the moment your opponent opens his or her hand.
Alcohol consumption is heavy during all the traditional festivals and holidays throughout the year, and for the various rites of passage through life. At weddings says the bride and bridegroom take turns sipping at two cups tied together with a red string, to demonstrate that their relationship is indissoluble. In addition, the bridal couple is supposed to toast each guest in turn, which can obviously challenge their alcohol tolerance very quickly, making them drunk on something other than happiness. Incidentally, “draining the drink of happiness” is more than a minor element in the complex process of contracting a marriage. In fact, the drinking is regarded as the symbolic implementation of the whole act, and the term used for it is almost a synonym for wedding celebrations. According to legend (Liaoshi, chapter 7), there was once a time when drinking alcohol was directly associated with female fertility. At the Liao court in the tenth and eleventh centuries it was supposed to be common practice during the imperial wedding ceremony for the emperor’s bride to offer a jug of beer to a woman who was regarded as particularly fecund, to win a share in her fertility.
The “happiness drink” at the wedding corresponds to the “sadness drink” at the funeral. There are numerous opportunities for serving this. Aside from the fixed feasts in the calendar for general remembrance of the dead, individual ceremonies for dead persons have to be held at specific intervals. The mourning period ends on the third anniversary of the death, when grief is allowed to give way to positive assurance, which means that the remembrance ceremony is often hard to distinguish from a wedding celebration, or from a birth, when alcohol is supposed to be drunk three times in a particular sequence.