Drinking in the Tang Dynasty

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Perhaps one of the most evocative images of Tang Dynasty China is that of the wine-drinking party, conducted by the light of moon and stars, at which guests compete with each other to compose appropriate couplets of poetry spontaneously. Within the guests might be a beautiful (as was conventional to describe her) courtesan whose allure was greatly enhanced by her ability to join the poetry competition. She would also be expected to hold her own in the drinking bouts. Indeed, drinking was a central feature in Tang Dynasty society as it has been in so many others. As Charles Benn notes in his excellent book China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty, almost every place and every occasion was suitable for drinking in one form or another.

In part, this resulted from the connection with the animism of the earliest days of society. Animism involves paying respect to the spirits of the natural world, such as streams, storms, rocks and hills, as well as more abstract but vital concepts as the harvest and disease. Since alcoholic drinks were principally brewed from rice or other grains, they were considered to be close to nature for their composition as well as for their mood enhancing effects. On ritual occasions, therefore, such as to recognise the phases of the moon or the collection of the harvest or the birth, death or marriage of a related person, it would be customary to mark the occasion with the words of a shaman, the sacrifice of an animal for food and the use of drinking. Some occasions would se the state provide drink and food to demonstrate that the emperor maintained the Mandate of Heaven and was able to provide for his subjects. Alas, this generosity faded away after the ruinous Rebellion of An Lushan.

Of course, it would not be China without some kind of technological advance to demonstrate the superiority of the Middle Kingdom. On one occasion, the Emperor demonstrated a mechanical contraption which was able to dispense drink automatically to the pitchers and goblets of the waiting guests. It was more common, though, for waiting staff to be on hand to dispense the refreshments. The nature of the waiting staff varied but in the chic or at least expensive restaurants it was often considered fashionable to have waiting girls dressed in Central Asian styles and to dance according to those traditions. Exoticism and taste is regularly expressed, around the world, by the way that young women are dressed and how they entertain guests.