The Art of Drinking: Part 1 of 2

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The Art of Drinking

An expose on the role of drinking in historical Chinese art

Updated: November 09, 2015

The history of drinking is one which, needless to say, goes back thousands of years in hundreds of places around the world. Yet, the individual relationships and rituals of each places involving the act of imbibing alcohol… those are different stories altogether.

Some drink to forget their woes, others to drown in them. Some drink to celebrate, while others drink to be one with Christ. The Chinese of the Tang and Song dynasties, however, painted to drink art. It was a curious relationship of inebriated creativity and unbridled drunkenness.

Although alcohol dates deep into antiquity, it wasn’t made a ritual in Modern-day China until the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. – 1046 B.C.) Spectacular bronzes attest to the seriousness of the drinking ritual during this time, its solemn purpose being to revere ancestors and such.

Some many hundreds of years later, in the Tang Dynasty, aristocratic China began enjoying spirits and wines for leisure. It wasn’t long after that the beverage was used in scholarly circles, a practice which continued for many years into the Song and later dynasties.

When poets and painters discovered that alcohol can significantly lower one’s inhibitions, they drank religiously, adamantly upholding the seemingly magical ability of the drink to loosen one’s tongue and release their deepest creative whims.

Arguably the most highly praised poet in Chinese literature, Li Bai too was a notorious painting drinker—or drinking painter/poet. In a haunting moment of solitude, he penned in the poem, “月下獨酌” the following:

Alas, the poor moon knows not wine's delight.
My shadow follows like a living thing.
At last with moon and shadow I unite
In joyful bond, to seize the last of spring.

As such, the fickle imagination of poets, painters and all artists alike often persists in places of utter intoxication. Like all artistic talent, it is simply waiting to be unleashed.

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