By Elizabeth Smithrosser
If you, like many at this time of year, have resolved to give up alcohol, then it might be a comfort to remember you are not the first in history to have attempted this. As Song dynasty writer Liu Xueji found, then as today, peer pressure and social obligations can test one’s resolve to cut back on wine.
While there wasn’t really a “Dry January” as such in pre-modern China, there were several reasons someone might temporarily give up one’s wine habits. A major reason for quitting alcohol was Buddhism, which discouraged its adherents from the consumption of alcohol. People typically refrained from drinking while unwell, and alcohol was also forbidden during the designated period for mourning the passing of one’s parents.
Even emperors could find themselves under scrutiny at court on account of their drinking. A good ruler was supposed to keep his revelry in check to ensure he had enough time to see to matters of governance.
But this could be a two-way street – we also find instances of rulers intervening in the wine habits of their subjects. For example, Emperor Taizong of Song (r.976–997) was reportedly so concerned by the excessive drinking of a talented young scholar-official at court that he composed two poems entitled “Two Poems on Abstinence from Wine to Bestow to Su Yijian” for him. And just in case two poems in the imperial hand weren’t enough, Taizong made the additional order that the poems be read aloud to Yijian by his own mother.
But that is not to say giving up alcohol was easy. In the end, Emperor Taizong’s poems did not succeed in getting his favorite to cut back, and he died young.
Just like today, certain social obligations and peer pressure could create difficulties for those trying to abstain from drinking, as one man would discover a century or so later. Just after the turn of the 13th century, writer Liu Xueji resolved to quit wine at the behest of his good friend.
In the third year of Jiading (1209), I was lodging at Nanxu (in present-day Jiangsu province), traveling together with Chen Weiding of Sanshan. Whenever we happened to be staying at en-route lodgings, or at the temples across the mountains and rivers, or at public houses and inns in the towns, we would discuss poetry together. And whenever we discussed poetry together, we would get drunk without fail.
But I was reaching my “sunset” years, and was about to return home to Fujian. For several nights in a row he paced back and forth miserably, unable to bear that the day of our parting would soon arrive. His countenance had something beleaguered and melancholy about it, as if there was an awkward matter that he wished to speak to me about.
When Liu eventually persuaded Chen Weiding to say what had been weighing on him, it turned out that he had been worried about Liu continuing to drink so much, and had been trying to find the right words to suggest that he cut back a little.
Chen’s approach here is mild one. There are other stories from the Song dynasty which pose the idea of putting pig intestines in the heavy drinker’s vomit for him to find upon waking up. The idea was to trick him that his overindulgence had dislodged his internal organs and thereby frighten him into quitting wine.
But his advice was nonetheless effective. Liu goes on to describe how deeply moved he was by his friend’s concern, and resolved to reduce his intake going forward: “The warning of a friend with my best interests at heart was just the medicine I needed. From here on out, I will endeavor at this out of my sincere respect and esteem for him.”
And the two friends went their separate ways. But this is not the last we hear from Liu Xueji on the topic. He also left writings which lament the struggles he faced in the subsequent attempts to cut back on alcohol:
Not long after I composed an ode in order to quit wine, some old friends came to visit. I could not just let them go back after just drinking tea, and therefore had to get out the wine goblets. Each time, my guest would clutch his wine glass, drinking by himself, while I would decline on account of my abstinence. The guests seemed very reluctant to drink.
But by then they were already tipsy, and unable to fully comprehend my intentions at that moment in time, simply supposed me snobby and unsociable for not drinking together with them.
When his turn came to visit friends and relatives, sometimes Liu would take his leave without drinking, an awkward situation which he felt was creating a rift between him and his friends. Other times, he would make an exception and drink one cup, but end up drinking another and another, ending up completely drunk as if he had never quit to begin with. On those occasions, Liu was left feeling terrible about not sticking to his pledge, while his friends simply thought him incapable of quitting or figured his pledge had just been “empty words” to begin with.
After several such encounters, the issue was clearly taking its toll on Liu, to the extent that he considered parting ways with even more friends on account of these uncomfortable social situations. But he eventually decided against this, reasoning with himself as follows:
In quitting wine I might incur their censure, but in severing our relations all the more so! That pledge of abstinence is not something to break off relations over. Truth be told, both “quitting” and “breaking off” are snobby and unsociable things to do, and I shouldn’t be like that. Who said I should get to indulge in my eccentric ways, anyway?
Upon reaching that conclusion, a compromise was clearly in order. In the end, he settled upon a new resolve to drink no more than three cups of wine at a given social gathering. Through this “middle path”, as he terms it, he could avoid causing offense to his friends and relatives, while not completely abandoning his pledge.
Liu Xueji did not touch upon the wine saga in his later writings, so unfortunately we will never know the new pledge went. But perhaps it can be inferred from his silence that things were going well.
You can watch Chinese internet superstar Li Ziqi make rice wine according to traditional methods, with lotus flower for added flavor here:
Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.