70: Drinking along the Silk Road: Wine in China

Chinese ceramic figurine of a horse
Horse, China, Tang dynasty (618–907 A.D.), first half of 8th century, Art Institute of Chicago, 1981.1212.

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Hello friend! Welcome! I’m Lucas Livingston, your barkeep at this roadside inn called the Ancient Art Podcast. Why don’t you pull up a stool and get comfortable while I weave a tale of great adventures from a long lost age.

This is Ancient Worlds, a segment of the Ancient Art Podcast where we choose a single work of art as a launchpad for inspiration. Here we unpack the stories, history, myths, and culture from antiquity through a modern lens and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. If you’re listening to the audio episode, you can see the works of art we’re talking about at ancientartpodcast.org/70.

Picture it: China, mid-9th century AD, although no one around us reckons time that way, but we’ve heard stories of people in a far off land to the west where “AD” might mean something. To us, though, it’s the tenth year of Dazhong during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, known also as Li Chen of the Tang dynasty. The dynasty is in its twilight years, only we don’t quite know it yet.

Last time in episode 69 we took the “On Ramp to the Silk Road.” We ran across some pilgrims making a devotional journey to Dunhuang and learned a little bit about a faith called Buddhism making its way into China. Then we hitched a ride with a merchant caravan heading east, let’s say from the Persian province of Sogdiana to Chang’an, the capital of China’s mighty Tang dynasty. Heavily ladened with bolts of cotton, animal hides, delicate spices, and fragrant fruits, I’m sure our caravan will make a pretty penny once it reaches its destination. So here we find ourselves. While doing our best to stay upwind of the Bactrian camels, we admire the magnificent horses of the caravan’s inventory. These are the famous horses of the Fergana valley, highly prized as extreme luxury steeds at the Tang court in China, dubbed the “Horses of Heaven” or the “blood-sweating horses.” When worked at a frenzied pace, the breed of horse was said to literally sweat blood.

As popular as the Fergana horses are in life in China’s Tang dynasty, so too are they in death. It’s practically requisite that noble tombs would contain a ceramic figurine of a lavishly colored Fergana horse. You find these horses in museum collections around the world and even among the stars of the Milky Way.

Captain Picard presents a Tang dynasty ceramic horse sculpture

(audio clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 1, episode 3, “Code of Honor”)

I’m sorry, Captain Picard, but for all your archaeological expertise, you have disappointed me. Tang, not Song.

Looking closely at the horses in our caravan, we see some lovely decorations dripping off them. Along with the usual horse tack, we have some charming garlands festooning our horses from chest to rump and even decorating their muzzles. This isn’t my first merchant caravan and I’ve come across such horses before. The garlands usually dangle decorative plaques or floral medallions, but our horses are different. That brilliant white steed up in front has a beautiful vine leaf motif and the fiery red charger at the rear sports what appear to be clusters of mouthwatering purple grapes. I think our horses are not only commodities themselves, but our Central Asian merchant friends are cleverly capitalizing on the free real estate of their horses to advertise the grape wine that they bring for sale. Ah, yes, friends, grape wine is making a big splash in Tang dynasty China.

The last time we saw a fermented beverage with grapes in China was around 7000 BC in the prehistoric Neolithic era and that was the indigenous Chinese wild grape. That beverage seems not to have made it into the historic era, being popularly supplanted in the first few millennia BC by grain alcohol from millet and rice. Conventionally, scholars call this millet and rice beverage “wine,” but I just as soon call this a “beer.” The distinction is often blurred in antiquity. If you wonder what it tasted like, mix a cocktail of gluten-free sorghum beer and saké rice wine. That’ll taste nothing like China’s early beer, but after a few of those cocktails, you won’t care.

Archaeological discoveries have only recently revealed to us the secrets of China’s Neolithic wine. There are some helpful references in the footnotes to this episode at ancientartpodcast.org/70. Famously within the craft beer scene, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery teamed up with University of Pennsylvania biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Pat McGovern to brew a modern fermentation inspired by the 9000 year old recipe. Brewed with grapes, hawthorne berries, honey, and rice, the ancient ale Chateau Jiahu is commercially available, although hard to come by.

Chinese literati and poets have long pondered the origin of wine. Once you get past the idea that it was a gift from the gods, folk wisdom around the world conventionally holds that beer, wine, or mead was an accidental discovery. A text from the 2nd century tells us that:

“The origin of wine began with the Ancient Kings. Some say it was (made by) I Ti, others say it was Tu K’ang. In fact, it began when discarded rice was fermented and it accumulated a rich fragrance after a long period of time in a trunk. It was because of this, rather than any secret method (the wine that was produced.)”

Whereas a text from the 11th century called the “Treatise on Wine” simply cuts to the chase, admitting that “as for who was the first one who invented wine, I can only say that it was a certain wise person.” [1]

Our caravan is making camp for the night at a simple fortified enclosure somewhere in the wilds of China along the northern route of the Silk Road. It’s important to provide protection from bandits to ensure the safe travel of goods along the network. I see the leader of our caravan making a handoff to the soldiers at the outpost. A little baksheesh never hurts. Some of the caravan’s precious cargo to help warm their bones during this chilly desert night. A small skin of grape wine. The cheap stuff, I bet. The merchants are being so generous as to share a little with us too, so let’s accept their hospitality.

The Fergana Valley, the source of our prestigious horses, is also famous for its grape cultivation and wine production. A Chinese encyclopedia from some time between the Han and Tang dynasties records that:

“The Western regions possess a grape wine which is not spoiled by the accumulation of years. A popular tradition among them states that it is drinkable up to ten years, but if you drink it then, you will be drunk for the fullness of a month, and only then be relieved of it.” [2]

Admiration for wine of the Fergana Valley, also romantically dubbed the Grape Valley of the Flaming Mountains, came from both directions. The Roman historian Strabo praised the enormous production and superior quality of wine from this region, saying it’s so good that you don’t even need to add any resin to it! High praise, I’m sure. [3]

Perhaps China’s earliest recorded introduction to the grapes of this region comes from the late 2nd century BC when the emperor sent a diplomat and officer named Zhang Qian as an emissary to establish treaties and explore the lands to the western fringes of the world. After numerous trials on multiple journeys over a span of 25 years, Zhang Qian returned from distant lands with enlightening accounts and exotic goods. Among the souvenirs he brought home to his emperor was were cuttings of the domesticated Eurasian grapevine, which were planted and cultivated in the imperial palace so the emperor could enjoy this delicacy locally sourced. [4]

You don’t get much of an industrial scale level of grape and wine production, though, until the Tang dynasty. With the expansion of Tang China to Iranian and Turkish lands to the west, we see a sudden explosion of grapes and wine for the privileged. With the conquest of Gaochang along the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert around the year 640, Chang’an began to demand royal tribute of grapes, raisins, syrup, and wine. [5] A much mentioned and peculiarly distinct type of Central Asian grape was known as the “mare’s teat.” I’m not a big fan of the name, but apparently it was a fittingly descriptive sobriquet of the oblong and deeply brownish-purple grape lauded as much as a delicacy in its own right as for the quality of wine it produced, to the extent that the emperor in Chang’an himself enjoyed mare’s teat grapes in his “Grape Gardens” of the Tabooed Park. I guess that was kind of like the early Forbidden City. Emperor Mu Tsung in early 9th C once said of a cup of this wine, “When I drink this, I am instantly conscious of harmony suffusing my four limbs—it is the true ‘Princeling of Grand Tranquility!'” [6]

For all the popularity of Central Asian wine in our Tang China, there’s a cultural undercurrent of resentment of the aims taken to acquire it, especially among the soldiers stationed far from home at China’s remote outposts and on distant military campaigns. Ostensibly, their mission is to protect the borders from ravenous hordes and uphold the sovereignty of the emperor, yet the reality of the situation is not lost on them. The Tang poet Li Qi, who lived from 690 to 751, captured the sentiment of these soldiers, composing, “Every year we bury our war dead in the sharp grass, / But all we guard are grape vines on their way to China.” [7]

And now it’s halftime. I want to thank those who have helped keep the podcast afloat:

Shirlee H., Susan C., Faye A., Susan H., Lawrence S., Rosemary H., initials C. B. aka “retired,” Paul C., Carolina K., Phyllis B., Luella A., and certainly not least Sue E.

Thank you for supporting the Ancient Art Podcast. If you want to help the podcast pay for web hosting, bandwidth, and keepin’ it real, visit ancientartpodcast.org and click on the big “Donate” button. Whether it’s a dollar or more, every bit helps. You can also help by writing a nice iTunes review. Just search iTunes for Ancient Art Podcast.

So, we were reading some poetry. There’s no shortage of poetry about wine in Tang China. The two often go hand-in-hand. In the artistic and intellectual community, intoxication often serves as a lubricant for inspiration and creativity, bringing one into contact with a more profound aspect of being. Getting tipsy is also a means of political protest. Tales of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove from a few centuries earlier resonate in Tang China. These wizened intellectuals represent a turning point in social liberty. Stories and paintings of the Seven Sages place them gathered in the Bamboo Grove discussing metaphysics and philosophy, playing music, writing poetry, and getting tipsy on wine. This form of recreation — namely excessive drinking — was a civil protest attacking the moderation urged by Confucianism and the social rigors demanded of their political station. Through intoxication they were dismissed from the obligations of chaotic political life and intrigues. [8]

One of China’s greatest poets is Li Bo. He lived from 701 to 762 in the Tang dynasty. We have about 1000 poems by him today, thanks to some very helpful Chinese anthologies of great poetry. In addition to his fame as a poet, he is equally notorious as a profound drinker. He is the most famous member of a scholarly group in Chang’an nicknamed the “Eight Immortals with the Wine Cup.” A member of the Chang’an court once wrote of him:

“I have as my guest probably the greatest poet that ever lived. I have not dared to recommend him to your Majesty because of his one flaw … he drinks, often too much.” [9]

One of Li Bo’s most famous poems is entitled “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day” and it goes something like this:

Life in the world is but a big dream;
I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
So saying, I was drunk all the day,
lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.

When I awoke, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
a lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.

Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
and, as wine was there, I filled my own cup.
Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
when my song was over, all my senses had gone.


Perhaps suiting a man who sought the meaning of life in a wine cup, Li Bo drowned drunk face-down in a river trying to embrace the moon’s reflection. He wrote a nice little poem that in hindsight almost seems to foreshadow his end:

Among the flowers, a winepot.
I pour alone, friendless.
So, raising my cup, I turn to the moon
And face my shadow, making us three.


The moon is looming bright tonight illuminating our friendly traders huddled around a small fire for warmth, although the wine helps too. The light of the moon is almost bright enough to read by, but an oil lamp helps me as I fish out some literature that I picked up in the last episode back out west near Dunhuang, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site and crossroads of the Silk Road.

Ah, here it is. Yes, I think our friends will get a chuckle out of this. This is an edition of sample letters published by the Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette. The ink is practically still wet on our copy, dated to the eleventh day of the ninth month of the tenth year of Dazhong, which to you and mean is called October 13, 856 AD. These sample letters of etiquette include such hits as: “Communications of a Complimentary Nature between Fellow Officials,” and “Letters of Greetings on Various Occasions,” and our favorite, “A Letter of Apology for Getting Drunk,” and it goes like this: “Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was so intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject, I realized what had happened, whereupon was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame. It was due to a vessel of small capacity being filled for the nonce too full. I humbly trust that you in your wise benevolence will not condemn me for my transgression. Soon I will come to apologize in person, but meanwhile beg to send this written communication for your kind inspection. Leaving much unsaid, I am yours respectfully.”

Well, after those ingratiating words, how could you not forgive your crazy uncle for breaking the lampshade?

Oh, and here’s a kicker I found on a separate scrap. The great beverages Wine and Tea hold a debate to determine which is the noblest. Tea begins:

“Chief of the hundred plants, Flower of the myriad trees, Esteemed for its buds that are picked, Prized for its shoots that are culled, lauded as a famous shrub – Its name is called Tea! Brought as tribute to the land of the princes, Introduced into the home of the monarchs, Once presented as a novelty, its fame has spread over the wide world.”

Hmm … pretty convincing, but I don’t know. What do you think?

Okay, let’s let Wine have a go:

“Give men wine with their meat, and never shall they have an evil thought. Where wine is, there will also be benevolence and righteousness, propriety and wisdom, clearly it deserves the highest honor, for what other beverage can compare with it?”

My friends, I think we have a win… Wait! What’s this? We have a late entry. It’s Water and Water tells us that the debate is futile and meaningless, because both Tea and Wine and all the myriad of other beverages fundamentally rely on Water to exist.

So, there we have. We know all we need to know about wine in China’s Tang dynasty. Well, not quite, but this caravan is calling it a night.

Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next time.



[1] Poo, Mu-Chou. “The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1999), 123. <www.jstor.org/stable/3632333>

[2] Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963, 143.

[3] McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, 2009, 108.

[4] See Schafer 142, McGovern 108, and Whitfield, Susan and Ursula Sims-Williams (ed). The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, exhibition at the British Library, 2004, 236-8.

[5] Schafer 142.

[6] Schafer 143.

[7] Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The Art of Wine in East Asia, exhibition at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Nov. 5, 1985-Jan. 21, 1986.

[8] Poo 141-2.

[9] Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The Art of Wine in East Asia.

[10] Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The Art of Wine in East Asia. & wikipedia

[11] McGovern 58 and Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The Art of Wine in East Asia.

[12] Whitfield 236-8.

[13] ibid.

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