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Alcohol in the East: a Culture but not Unlimited Drinking

The use of alcohol in the East has been accompanied by intellectual contests and literary improvisations since ancient times up to the present time. In traditional culture of China, Korea and Japan "wine orders" – a kind of game rituals with playful tasks and penalties cups – were part of the cult of knowledge and intelligence triumph for hundreds of years. The "cultural drink" of such type also had taken place in Russia in ancient times, but was transformed in the period of the Mongol conquest and, for various reasons, has been superseded by the cult of unrestrained drunken feast later. The cult of "regulated feast" has still been preserved in many respects in East Asian countries. Details are in the story of Professor Elena Voitishek, a specialist in the field of game culture of the Far East, the head of the Department of Oriental Studies of NSU.


– The basis of many Eastern intelligent entertainments was a variety of games built on the knowledge of philosophical treatises and canons, famous poetry anthologies and literary works. The origins of these games have been associated with the ancient sacred cleansing ritual, followed by a symbolic drinking of wine. Over time they have become almost a social life, known as "after-dinner" or "wine orders." In these cases the use of wine was strictly linked to the ritual prescriptions, creating an obstacle to the development of alcoholic excesses. Games and rituals of "table order", existed in China for more than two thousand years, meant cultural leisure of very democratic nature, for example, skill games with dice, cubs, chips, as well as exclusive one, requiring a deep knowledge of literature and philosophy. Such gaming practices had become a prerequisite for cultural socialization in China and then spread to the countries of the entire region (especially in Korea and Japan), – the researcher says.


One of these special wine entertainment were tournaments for composing poetry improvisations during the seasonal ceremonies of admiring blooming or withering plants – with the obligatory recitation of poetic lines and wining. "Feasts near the curved water", for which the magnificent gardens with ponds and winding channels were created, where the poetic recitations accompanied by wine drinking took place, were widespread among the aristocracy. Such feasts "near the running waters" were initiated in south-eastern China in the middle of the IV century (it was connected with the activities of Wang Xizhi, the famous writer and calligrapher, and other "cultural people"). Over time, such entertainments have been spread all over the China – many rulers wanted to arrange such pavilions in their gardens and parks, it was prestigious to gather scientists and poets there, to conduct unhurried conversations about culture and art. At present, the remains of such buildings in the form of pavilions with stone bases, in which channels for flowing water are dug, along which poets sailed cups of wine, can be found in Beijing, Chengdu, Shaoxing and some cities in the south of China.


– As soon as the neighboring countries of China mastered its rich cultural heritage, this tradition was also shaped there: such gardens and parks appeared, gazebos with running water were built, and poetic ceremonies accompanied by wine libations were arranged in Korea and Japan. Secret garden with a curved channel ending with the elegant miniature waterfall, where such ceremonies were performed in the Middle Ages, has been retained in one of the parks of modern Seoul. Poseokjeong-chih, a famous pavilion in the city of Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Silla (I century BC – X century AD), is one of the evidences of existence of such practices in the medieval Korea. A curved channel of about 10 meters in length consisting of 63 low stones and blocks of different sizes forming a narrow loop of 35 cm in width has been retained there. Poetic competitions "near the curved water" were held there for many times in the period of Silla. Aristocrats presented at the ceremony sailed there cups of wine along this channel, reciting their poetic works, and drank the content, when the cups looped back. There are just the ruins at this point now, with the help of which it is possible to reconstruct the ritual just in general, – Elena Voitishek says.


Comparative studies confirm: that what disappeared on the mainland, has been preserved in the island culture at the Japanese archipelago. This entertainment is mentioned there for the first time in the "Annals of Japan" medieval chronicles in the record of the VI century. Later this tradition was interrupted at times, but has survived to the present day. Highly refined tournaments have been held in Japan in ten places in different prefectures in the parks at the temples twice a year – in the spring, at the time of cherry trees flowering, and in the autumn, in the season of admiring the scarlet maple leaves, –until now. The gamers should make a patisserie on a given topic while the cup with the sacred wine floats along a winding path. A poet, who has managed to compose a poem by the time of cup approaching, must remove it from the water with the help of servants and drink the content.



With apparently similar idea of ??the competitions, followed by the use of intoxicating beverages, they had their own national characteristics everywhere. For example, in Japan, we can see the description of outdoor resting of male company, when it was required to climb the nearest hill after abundant libations and write a patisserie in the spirit of the traditional tank there, in the diaries of the XII century aristocrats. It was also spread among the Japanese aristocrats to contest in guessing of a closed part of rhyme forming hieroglyph in Chinese poems. Under the terms of the game, the loser hosted a banquet for the winners.

Dice, with the "wine orders" written on the edges of which and obligatory for participants of feast, were widely used in China and Korea in ancient times – for example, to sing a song, to recite a poem, to drink a glass with a neighbor on the right. Such entertainments had been widespread until the XX century. Unlike Korea, such blocks have still been in use in today China – as well as special cards for the feasts, on which quotations from the poetic masterpieces of China's literary heritage and a number of humorous tasks for participants of feast are written.

Another interesting sign of the modern table business etiquette in China is the custom to invite special people to banquet – both men and women who, instead of corporate executives, for various reasons unable to drink alcohol, take all the brunt.

Photos: photos of Elena Voitishek.

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