Drinking with Li Bo: Tang Dynasty Wine

Welcome back to the Inn. I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the most famous traits of the poet Li Bo, who is the protagonist in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool. Li Bo’s acquaintance (the “other” greatest Chinese poet), Du Fu (712-770 CE) wrote in reference to Li Bo, “Give him one dou (2.6 gallons) of wine and he will spout forth a hundred poems.” Du Fu also claimed that from his friend, “a thousand poems float from one cup of wine.” I would first like to take a brief look at the role of wine in Li Bo’s poetry and then broaden the subject to the nature of “wine” in the Tang dynasty.

Facing Wine

I urge you not to refuse a cup, For the spring wind has come to laugh at us. Peach and plum trees are like old friends, Tipping forth their blossoms to open toward me. Swirling warblers call from emerald trees, Bright moon peers into the golden wine cup. The rose-cheeked lad of yesterday. Today, the white hairs grow apace. Brambles grew beneath Shi Hu’s halls, Deer wandered on Gu Su Pavilion. The dwellings of emperors since times of old, Their walls and gates shut in yellow dust. If you do not drink the wine, Then where are the men of yesteryear?

Li Bo

Translation by Paula M. Varsano, Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception,University of Hawaii Press,Honolulu, 2003. p.283.

Li Bo’s use of wine was not simply as an imbiber. His legendary drinking prowess might well have been just that, “legendary,” a persona carefully crafted to achieve the sought after effect on his readers and his posterity. Professor Varsano writes of the relationship of wine and poetry in Chinese culture:

Wine-drinking, as a practice as well as a poetic gesture, is closely related to the values of immediacy and authentic expression, and it is a gesture well entrenched in the Chinese poetic tradition. In the work of Li Bo, who is so adept at marshaling a wide array of traditionally familiar tropes and motifs to establish an authentic latter-day poet’s immediacy, the “stuff of the goblet” proves a pliable and expressive medium; in the hands of critics and biographers, it became the stuff of his legend. (p.282)

In Dream of the Dragon Pool, it is the stuff of legend that I am pursuing. Yet, it is interesting to understand how Li Bo used wine drinking in his poetry. Varsano points out:

In writing about wine as a way of sustaining the past, and in choosing terms that, except for their allusive quality, verge on being non sequiturs, Li Bo expresses both the obligation to the past and its intrinsic absurdity. One drinks and, guided in part by tradition, uses the desire to forget as a pretext; but, actually, one is obliged to drink and, in the very action, to acknowledge the tradition. (p.284)

And if this weren’t enough, there is even more involved in the “simple” act of tipping a wine cup in the culture of Chinese poetry:

 It dismantles the boundaries between allusion and illusion, between what is remembered and what is seen, and between what is imagined and what is perceived. In a gesture that is as much challenge as an invitation, Li Bo enjoins his readers to share in this vision. (p.285)

As Varsano writes, “Wine combines easily with a view from on high, blurring the lines separating perception, imagination, and memory.” (p.279) That Li Bo was a master at “blurring” the lines “from on high” has been verified by over a thousand years of critical acclaim. And while Varsano and other scholars point out that Li Bo was also very much aware of the usefulness of “self-marketing,” and in that sense a “modern” literary figure, it is also interesting to look at one of his most potent “marketing tools,” wine.

Alcoholic beverages have a very long history in China. Chemical analysis made on the residues in pottery jars from the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province, northern China revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit was being produced as early as 9,000 years ago. Further discoveries have uncovered lidded bronze vessels dating from the Shang and Western Zhou periods (ca. 1250-1000 BCE) that contained rice and millet “wines.”

By Li Bo’s Tang dynasty, beverages had become much more sophisticated. But first we have to quickly deal with the technical definitions. In the West, “wines” are defined as fermented fruit juices, while beers and ales are brewed from cereals. According to these definitions, the ancient Chinese were drinking a lot of beers/ales since they used rice, millet, and wheat to create their jiu – mostly translated as “wine,” but some scholars are following the Western definition and translating jiu as “beer” or “ale.” I prefer to translate jiu as “wine.”

Dr. H.T. Huang, the former Director of the Needham Research Institute, and author of Volume 6: Biology and Biological Technology, Part V: Fermentations and Food Science of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China series (ISBN: 0521652707, Cambridge University Press) writes:

 In fact, chiu actually resembles wine more than beer in terms of its alcohol content (greater than 10 per cent) and its overall organoleptic character. (p.149)

Dr. Huang acknowledges the translation issue, but decides in favor of “wine” as the translation for the Chinese “alcoholic drink” known as jiu/chiu. He points out three reasons:

The first is gastronomic. Chiu is used widely in Chinese cooking and dining in a manner analogous to wine in European cuisines. While beer or ale may also be served at meals, it is rarely seen at formal dinners and banquets.

The second is religious and ceremonial. Chiu was the drink presented to the gods and ancestors at ritual offerings that we read about so often in the Shih Ching (Book of Odes), the Chou I (Rites of the Chou) and the Li Chi (Record of Rites). Wine played a similar role in ancient Greece and Rome…And for toasts on formal occasions chiu is the preferred drink inChina, just as wine is in the West.

The last is aesthetic and sensual. Chiu or rather the drinking of it had become so embedded into the aesthetic and sensual experiences of the Chinese that it was often noted in their arts and literature, particularly in their poetry. (pp.149-150)

And this brings us back to Li Bo and the Tang dynasty. One of the best accounts of Tang alcoholic beverages appears in the chapter on Tang food by the late, great Edward H. Schafer in Food in Chinese Culture, ed. K.C. Chang, Yale University Press,New Haven, 1977. In his section on Tang beverages Schafer discusses the basics of the Chinese grain based wines which:

…came from a cereal mash altered by the vigorous working of ferment cakes, which provided mold and yeasts for the mixture. They in turn created the essential alcohol for the final product. (p.119)

Schafer points out that the millet based wines were a product of the north, while the rice based wines (usually glutinous millet or glutinous rice) were from the south; the latter would be similar to Japanese sake. The ferments were usually started in the sixth or seventh lunar month and the wine itself in the ninth month; this was called “winter” wine. Schafer continues:

But in T’ang times a more popular wine, celebrated in poetry, was “spring” wine, which was fully mature and most palatable when the first flowers of the cherry and peach trees were appearing. This wine played an important part in the many festivities – some solemn some casual – that signalized the beginning of the life cycle in the new year – that is, usually late in January or early in February.  (p.120)


Wine-making techniques were not exclusively concerned with the manipulation of materials. Not only did the herbs added to Chinese wines sometimes have magical purpose (hardly to be distinguished from a medical one), but the process of preparing the ferment – a delicate and critical matter – was accompanied by the recitation of spells and the employment of other modes of obtaining supernatural aid. (p.120)

There were many subvarieties of wine:

An example was the amber-colored unfiltered wine (p’ei), frequently identifiable by the bits of husk floating in it. These enjoyed the popular name of “floating ants” (fou i). They are frequently alluded to in the poetry of the whole period from Han to T’ang. (p.120)

In a note to my readers, see what Li Bo and company are drinking in Dream of the Dragon Pool when they are aboard the gorge-runner traveling up the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.

And while millet and rice were the standard wines:

 …the T’ang bon vivant had many other types of wine to choose from. There were wines flavored with pepper or fagara, chrysanthemum wine, pomegranate wine, ginger wine, “Persian” myrobalan wine (available in the taverns of Changan), and bamboo leaf wine (so named for its color)…There was even a highly favored wine brewed in a liquid taken from limestone caves. This grotto water could certainly have a high alkaline content and, in addition, would offer the magical advantages that accrued from long association with mysterious places – the underground residences of supernatural beings. (pp.120-121)

Then there were the exotic wines from south of the Tropic of Cancer, the palm toddies and fruit extracts - and here check out Listening to Rain to see what Li Wei is drinking! And into the west, there was grape wine, western grapes produced in Central Asia. One of the most famous grape wines during the Tang was “mare teat” wine from the grapes of the elongated, purple variety grown in the Turfan region conquered by the Tang in 640 CE. In the northern pastoral regions, there was also koumiss, a fermented mare’s milk drink that was also popular in the capital, Chang’an (Xian).

If this wasn’t enough, there was also shao jiu or “burnt wine” which is believed to be distilled liquor. Recent archaeological discoveries have uncovered ancient Chinese distilling equipment that still works! These wines were probably similar to the fiery maotai wines that were made famous in the West with Mao’s toasts to Nixon in 1972.

And, of course, a Dragon Gate Inn specialty, tea; it was during the Tang that tea became a popular Chinese drink. Speaking of tea, I need a drink!