Drinking with Mo Yan

 

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The Chinese writer Mo Yan (莫言 1955-) is often categorised as belonging to the new historicist trend in fiction (新历史主义小说). This literary current, which evolved in China in the 1980s and 1990s, viewed fiction and history as related subjects and merged them into a genre characterised by subjective realism, as a reaction to the official and idealised macro-narratives of the Cultural Revolution.

Mo Yan often uses food symbolism to exemplify the material connectedness of humans to society, while exposing the cultural web of meaning attached to certain foods and certain situations. In his 1992 novel Liquorland (酒国) he writes both symbolically and directly about the function of alcohol in Chinese society.

 

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I was in Beijing in 2012, when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize

In this study I have limited my field of research to the role of alcohol in Chinese literary history, with fictional, poetic and philosophical writings as my main sources. Inspired by Roland Barthes I have discovered three separate alcohol ‘institutions’ relevant to the analysis of Liquorland: 1) The commensal drinking culture, 2) The poetic drinking culture and 3) The heroic drinking culture. Through my analysis I will show how the characters’relationship to the alcohol institutions can be read as a critique, not only of the same institutions, but as part of a broader critique of idealism.

 

9780857857361This is an excerpt from my chapter ‘Dissolved in Liquor and Life: Drinkers and Drinking Cultures in Mo Yan’s Novel ‘Liquorland’,’ written more than five years ago – before he won the Nobel Prize. Bloomsbury has now kindly permitted me to share the chapter (Published in Kerner, Chou, Warmind (eds.): Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast. Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou, Morten Warmind (Eds.). London: Bloomsbury, 2015) full-text via academia.edu.

Re-reading stuff you’ve written years ago is always a perilous task (I’ve already discovered tons of things I want to change), but there it is, and still quite interesting I think. Cheers!

Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast – New publication with Bloomsbury

My first book chapter is now officially out there, and I just got my copy! I must confess myself fittingly proud and excited.

The book Commensality: From Everyday Food to Feast was published by Bloomsbury in February and is based on the conference ‘Commensality and Social Organisation‘ held at University of Copenhagen in 2011.

The volume is edited by Susanne Kerner, Cynthia Chou and Morten Warmind and include a wide range of fields and topics, ranging from bronze age feasts over the culinary triangle in antiquity to contemporary Vegan activism.

My chapter is about alcohol and drinking cultures in Mo Yan‘s novel Liquorland (Jiuguo 酒国, translated by Howard Goldblatt as The Republic of Wine in 2000) from 1992, with references to historical social and artistic uses of alcohol in China. It investigates how established Chinese drinking norms – such as the hierarchical toast ritual, the poetical connotations of drinking alone and the heroic feat of drinking without getting drunk – are described and subverted in the novel.

Immortal drinkers

The popular Daoist stories of the Eight Immortals (baxian 八仙) are believed to have developed sometime between the Tang (618-906 CE) and Sung dynasty (960- c. 1260 CE). These folk tales often depict poor but righteous people aided in their struggle against corrupt earthly and heavenly officials by the wise yet unpredictable immortals.

Text in painting: Mr. Iron Crutch (Tieguai Xiansheng)

With regards to alcohol the most interesting of the immortals is Li Tie Guai (Iron Crutch Li). Forced by accident to assume an ugly old beggar’s body, eccentric and prone to drink, this Daoist saint is a complex character. According to legend he has attained immortality by continuously resisting Laozi’s (the deified founder of Daoism) attempts to lure him away from the study of the Way (Dao) with money and women in order to try his determination. Yet in most of the other stories he is the more impulsive and even aggressive of the eight, boldly defying even the Jade Emperor.

In several of the stories water in wells and streams is turned to wine for the benefit of righteous people. In one such account Li Tie Guai befriends a farmer at Nine Crooked Stream, who makes the most fragrant and delicate wine. The farmer’s wine is so good, that when Li is later invited to a feast in heaven he refuses to drink the ‘inferior’ wine served there. He raises the host’s anger by his drunken deprecations, but in the end farmer’s wine is send for and everyone agrees that it is superior.

After the feast, when Li scavenge the grounds for one last sip, he accidentally cracks a jar full of the fragrant liquid. The jar falls to earth, turns into a hill from the crevices of which the remains of the wine slowly trickles down into the Nine Crooked Stream, henceforth making it fragrant with the smell of sweet wine.

[Wine has inspired Chinese poets and philosophers since ancient time. I am currently doing research on the role of alcohol in Chinese literature, trailing the line of famous imbibers from literati-poets like Tao Qian 陶潛 – also known as Tao Yuanming (365-427) and Li Bai李白(701-762) through wine gods and celestial drinkers to the drunken protagonists of contemporary fiction]

A Hammet and a drink before breakfast

Just found Dashiel Hammet‘s The thin man on a summer flea market. After the first chapter it is already becoming my new favourite because of dialogues such as this one:

“She lived with him?” “Yes. I want a drink, please. That is, it was like that when I knew them.” “Why don’t you have some breakfast first? Was she in love with him or was it just business?” “I don’t know. It’s too early for breakfast.”

Sitting reading with a small glass of red wine in one hand, I feel embarrassingly sober, when the narrator has had five whisky and sodas in as many pages.

Though Hammet was born in the United States in 1894 his attitude toward drink reminds me of the poet 阮籍 Ruan Ji, who lived in China in the 3. century CE:

Fleet worldly matters: I laugh at the strain. Quiet, sad feelings are wasted pain.
How to cure sadness: call for wine! When drunk all day bad manners are fine.
Each day of my whole life through, I should drink great pots of brew.
It is such bliss, to cruise the Land of Booze;
Sober, then drunk; drunk and wild as I choose.
Once in the hills I forget big news.”

(Coulombe, Charles A. (ed.): The Muse in the Bottle. New York: Citadel Press, 2000)