Pleasure and the Hermeneutics of Drunkeness


Thomas M. Lavallee


Chinese and Comparative Literature

Washington University

St. Louis, MO



Alcohol is a volatile liquid, whose volatility can adversly affect social behavior and threaten social order.  Consequently, during the course of history, societies have sought to

control it.  At several points in China’s history, rulers have placed prohibitions on the production and consumption of alcohol.  Likewise, societal rulers have sought to control volatile interpretation sparked by the misreading of texts or the reading of banned texts.  Unorthodox readings pose a threat to those who wish to maintain an orderly society according to their own normative cultural codes[1]. In what has become a dramatic scene in early Chinese history, China’s first emperor, Qinshi huangdi, attempted to control “interpretation” by having Confucian scholars buried alive and carried out the infamous “burning of the books” which rendered extinct hundreds of texts composed or compiled prior to the third century B.C.E..[2]

The consumption and control of alcohol is a culturally embedded practice, and we should ask what the specific cultural attitudes towards this issue are.  For example, how is excessive drinking defined culturally?  Likewise, how does a culture determine what kinds of interpretations are acceptable when construing verbal meaning or significance?  When reading texts that describe people who are drinking alcohol, especially people in a culture that puts a premium on social harmony or the preservation of order, tensions are revealed. These tensions reside between culturally accepted norms and the interpretation of drunken behavior.  There are also tensions on the part of a reader when attempting to construe textual meaning when the reader’s cultural background and language experience varies with the culture that produced the text.  The fact that there is a large historical, linguistic, and cultural gulf in China between the ninth century B.C.E. and the second century of the common era when many of the first commentaries to Zhou texts were written should be kept in mind.  In the following pages, I will examine the tensions that exist between a ninth century B.C.E. text that portrays drinking and its commentaries that date from the second century C.E. and later.

Using a method of literary interpretation informed by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s writings on hermeneutics, I will conduct a close reading of a “Lesser Elegantia” poem entitled “Sopping Dew” Zhan lu.  I do not propose to delve deeply into a critique of Gadamer’s hermeneutical method, rather my aim is to demonstrate how my process of uncovering meaning in an ancient Chinese text is in part informed by various ideas delineated by Gadamer.  Hermeneutics, simply defined, is the methodology of interpretation.  In an interview, Gadamer once stated: “I would define hermeneutics as the skill to let things speak which come to us in a fixed, petrified form, that of the text.”[3]

           The aspect of Gadamer’s thoughts on interpretation that I wish to emphasize is that “all acts of interpretation are embedded thoroughly in history, and no interpretation can escape its own ‘horizon’ of understanding.  A hermeneutic act, therefore, is a ‘conversation,’ a meeting of the text’s historicity with that of the interpreter.”  Thus, worth positing here is the question of whether it is indeed possible to hear the voice of the 9th century B.C.E. poet, or do the interpretive voices drown out the original song?  In searching for attitudes toward drunken behavior in a text that has been held up as a Confucian classic, a work that exemplifies moral behavior, am I bound to find little more then negative examples of drunkeness or the encouraged behavior of polite banquet decorum?  Clearly, there is more to say regarding attitudes toward drunkeness within the interpretations than within the poem itself, yet I hesitate to say that all hope is lost in trying to understand even partially what the text wished to communicate. 

I will begin by identifying the central tension in the poem “Sopping Dew” by evaluating the connotation of specific lines and words.  Next, I will extend the act of reading beyond the poem to another related poem in the anthology in which it is housed.  I will also examine a later poem outside of the anthology which quotes lines from “Sopping Dew,” in order to uncover the intertextual dimensions of borrowed meaning.  I will also look to historical texts that shed light on the social values of the age in which the poem and commentaries were produced.  Finally, I will read the commentaries to”Sopping Dew” which in the Chinese literary context are situated interlinearly within the poem in a smaller type size.  These are the parameters of my “conversation” or “hermeneutical circle.”

“Sopping Dew”


Sopping lies the dew;

Not till the sun comes will it dry.

Deep we quaff at our night-drinking;

Not till we are drunk shall we go home.


Sopping lies the dew

on that thick grass.

Deep we quaff at our night-drinking,

Here at the clan-gathering we will carry it through.


Sopping lies the dew

On those boxthorns and brambles.

Renowned are you, our guests,

None of you failing in noble power.


Those oil-trees, those paulownias,

their fruits hang thick.

Blessed and happy are you my lords,

None failing in noble ways.[4]


The tension or conflict I would like to address in this poem resides in the juxtaposition of the two lines   “Not till we are drunk shall we go home” (Line 4) and “None failing in noble ways”  (Line 16).  The crucial words here, in Chinese, are de which can be translated as “noble ways” (Waley) or as “good deportment” (Karlgren), and zui  “drunk.”[5]  I will analyze these words in the context of the traditional commentaries later in the essay, yet for now I would like to pose a question.  Are the ideas of drunkeness and noble ways or good deportment conflicting kinds of behavior in this time or society?  According to descriptions of Confucius found in the Analects (Lunyu), if we can take his behavior as exemplary of noble ways, the master never drank wine to the point of confusion.[6]  Confucius also was described as leaving a low-society wine-drinking occasion when the elders of the community took their leave.[7]  These portrayals would seem to indicate that there is a disparity between virtuous or noble behavior and drunkeness.  However, this kind of interpretation would imply that the cultural values of the time of Confucius (or of his disciples recording the spirit of his thought) had not changed since the ninth century B.C.E.[8]  Perhaps the problem of understanding the relationship between the two lines resides in the meaning of the word zui.  The Shuowen jiezi defines zui as “not approaching disorder” bu zhiyu luan ye.[9]  Like the earliest commentaries to the poem, the Shuowen was compiled centuries after the text was originally composed.  If only the ninth century B.C.E. poet could have used a more specific word to indicate the precise state of intoxication, such as “tipsy” wei zui de, then we might be able to reconcile these two lines.  For this kind of precise determination of word usage, however, we must rely on later commentators who, because of their own interpretive horizons, are not uniform in their readings.  Not satisfied with interpreting the cultural background of the poem with the yardstick of Confucian portrayals, I will now try to explore the poem’s historical and cultural context more directly by reading texts composed closer to the time of the poem “Sopping Dew.”

Drunkeness was an important issue at the time this poem was supposedly composed.  By reading another poem somewhat contemporary to this text (roughly a century later), we can see an account, and I stress a singular account, of one poet’s awareness of the danger of drinking in his society.  This poem, entitled “The Guests Are Taking Their Seats” Bin zhi chu yan, is traditionally attributed to Duke Wu of the state of Wei (served under King You, r. 780-770 B.C.E.) who according to Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200 A.D.) commentary, was a reformed drunk and whose severe tone of criticism may be informed by his own experience.[10]  “While they are still sober/their manner is dignified and grave;/but when they are drunk/it becomes unseemly and rude;/for when people are drunk/they do not know the misdemeanors they commit.”   “Drinking wine is very lucky, /provided it is done with decency.”[11]  

In this poem, again the word zui appears.  From the context of these lines, it would seem that zui may be interpreted as a negative condition.  The Shuowen definition of zui not approaching disorder does not fit here unless there is a perceived state of intoxication somewhere between drunkeness and drunkeness to the point of disorderly conduct.  The description of the drunken guests as “unseemly and rude” precludes this estimation, however.  Despite the admonishing tone of these words, a poem from a single figure in society has hardly the same amount of weight as the voice of governmental authority.  In fact, there was an edict that forbade the consumption of alcohol when the Zhou dynasty was first established during the 12th century B.C.E.

In 1122 B.C.E. the Zhou dynasty was established and soon thereafter Cheng Wang, the son of the founder Wu Wang, issued several proclamations that served as instructions for the rulers of the dynasty.  One of these proclamations concerned drinking.  In an attempt to warn the populace against the problems of drink Cheng Wang commanded:

“If there are people who drink together in group, do not fail to apprehend them all.  Send them to Zhou where I shall have them punished or killed. . . . As to the officers and artificers of Yin who had been addicted to drink, it is not necessary to punish them at once.  Let them be taught for a time.  If they learn their lesson, they shall be openly commended.  If they disregard the lesson, showing no respect for me, the one sovereign, then they are derelict in their duty and shall be classified with those who are to be either punished or killed.”[12]

However, there were exceptions made in the use of alcohol in this proclamation.  The use of alcohol in religious rituals and the offering of wine to one’s parents was allowed.  The motivation behind this edict appears to be the need to differentiate between the mores of the preceeding dynastic family, the Yin, and the new dynastic family, the Zhou.   Historical texts compiled by the Zhou relate that the rulers and population of China during the preceding dynasty of the Yin were addicted to drinking.  We can see with this edict that the Zhou rulers promoted the control of drinking as part of the new culture of the dynasty which ultimately became integrated into “Chinese” culture when this attitude informed the later commentaries to the Shijing, as we shall see later in the interpretation of “Sopping Dew.”

A similar edict was drafted and put into effect later in Chinese history during the period of the Three Kingdoms.  The ruler of the northern part of China, Cao Cao, during the late second century A.D. forbade the consumption of alcohol as a means to control chaotic social behavior. 

One of his advisors, a man named Kong Rong (153-208), one of the seven famous literati sages of the period, disagreed with Cao Cao’s edict and drafted a response which argued the benefit of alcohol to society.[13]  While Kong Rong was not immediately reprimanded, he later was executed for his numerous critical attitudes toward Cao Cao under the assumed crime of a lack of filial behavior.

Another of Cao Cao’s literary gentlemen, Wang Can (177-217), wrote a poem that quotes the “Sopping Dew” work, which was presented at a banquet where Cao Cao was in attendance as the official host.  The poem, entitled “Lord’s Feast poem” Gong yan shi, was composed around the year 216 in the city of Ye, the capital of the northern state of Wei.  At the outset of the poem, Wang describes the lush scenery of the garden where the banquet takes place, the fine foods, the vintage ales and the high quality of the musical entertainment.  Wang Can, building his praise poem bit by bit, first relates the mood of the guests:

Sitting together to share this joy,

Our only complaint is the cups move too slowly.

Heard now are the words of the Shi poet:

“One should not return home unless drunk!”

If today we do not celebrate completely,

For whom should we wait, restraining spirits?[14]


Wang finishes his lavish praise by comparing Cao Cao to the legendary statesman of the early Zhou Dynasty, Zhou Gong.  Apparently, Cao Cao’s edict no longer was in effect at the time of this gathering or the restrictions on drinking did not apply to ceremonies such as the feast described in Wang Can’s poem.  The convivial scene that Wang describes would appear to differ from the context of the “Sopping Dew” poem in that the guests are not as concerned about gentlemanly deportment.  There is the complaint that the cups move too slowly and the sentiment that all should seize the moment and enjoy the celebration with gusto.  The quotation acts as a kind of rallying cry, a refrain to drink until one is drunk.  “Not till we are drunk shall we go home.”  It is difficult to determine exactly what the attitude is of the poem regarding the behavior being described.  Is the poem laudatory verse, empty phrasings, appropriate to a banquet setting or is it a realistic description of hearty revelry?  I am inclined to believe the latter, yet so often in Chinese occasional poetry it is the posture that is important for the poet to properly assume, to say the right things at the right time.  Whether the guests or the host are actually drunk is secondary to the objective of the banquet which is to affirm the political power of the leader, Cao Cao.

Thus far I have been circling the poem, fleshing out the cultural context and following the shadow of the poem into a later period.  Now I would like to explore another dimension of how meaning was derived from “Sopping Dew.”  When reading the classic The Book of Songs, one usually progresses through the text in the company of a commentator who explicates both the integral parts of the poem, such as pronounciation and difficult vocabulary, as well as its general significance.  I will now diachronically trace important developments in the traditional commentary written on “Sopping Dew” as concerns attitudes towards drunkeness. 


During the second century A.D. at the end of the Han dynasty, the scholar Zheng Xuan (127-200) wrote the commentary on the Book of Songs that came to be the most widely read in early medieval China.  His treatment of the poem “Sopping Dew” provides us with an interpretation that assigns specific meaning to the line “Not till we are drunk shall we go home” and general significance to the work as a whole.  Zheng Xuan begins his commentary by describing the general scene of the poem as one that features the presence of the emperor with his ministers at a private banquet.  These introductory lines are derivative of the famous Mao small preface that became firmly attached to the poems in the text of the Book of Songs roughly one hundred years before Zheng was writing his commentary.  I should add that the Mao small prefaces are very brief notes that introduce each of the poems in the Book of Songs.  These notes indicate the type of poem, i.e. “festal ode,” the composer if known and the context of its performance.  In some cases, the Mao small preface makes pronouncements on the morality or lack thereof exemplified by the verse.  The small preface for “Sopping Dew” reads: “In the Zhan Lu, we have the Son of Heaven entertaining the feudal princes.” The information provided here adds little to our interpretation of the drinking behavior transpiring in the poem.  However, the preface does indicate the setting and the participants, which might give us some inclination of the demeanor with which the guests would conduct themselves.  Activities at court banquets most likely would be more restrained than local gatherings or clan feasts because of the presence of the emperor.


In explicating the first stanza of the poem, Zheng Xuan describes how the imagery of the sopping dew on the branches of the vegetation corresponds with the degree of drunkeness of the banquet participants.  That the dew will not dry until the sun comes out implies that the drinking will go on until the early hours of the morning when the sun rises.  This description of the banquet scene in the poem is fitting, for it is the drinking party that goes on until dawn that marks the gathering as a success.  Zheng then procedes with his commentary on the line “Not till we are drunk shall we go home” by stating that to leave a banquet where the emperor was in attendance before one was drunk was impolite; this behavior displayed a lack of intimacy.   However, if one was drunk and did not leave, one’s behavior would pollute the honor of the gathering.   As for the last lines of the poem that describe the de of the gentlemen at the banquet, Zheng’s interpretation approaches the understanding of Karlgren, who translates de as “good deportment,” for he reiterates the fact that none of the guest’s behavior lacks de.  Again, according to Zheng, those who left without being drunk were impolite.  The banquet guests, according to this propriety, had to walk a delicate line between drunkeness and sobriety.

We should remember that Zheng Xuan wrote his commentary some 800 years after the banquet in question took place.  His interpretation of the poem and the behavior it depicts is largely based on texts that had been handed down over time and his own judgement, which largely is derived from his interpretation of the classics.  Zheng Xuan was the most important Han commentator of the Confucian classics.  His extensive commentary provided the most consistent interpretation of the Confucian canon in China until the time of Kong Yingda during the Tang dynasty. Yet Zheng Xuan’s interpretation when viewed from a hermeneutical perspective is bound within his own societal perspective or his own “horizon” of interpretation.  The clues that his commentary provides concerning the behavior of the banquet guests bring us closer than our present day perspective, yet just how drunk the participants were remains opaque.


A later commentator, Zhu Xi, who lived during the eleventh century A.D., tends to follow the Mao preface and Zheng Xuan’s commentary to “Sopping Dew” in his own explication of the poem.  He does add, however, that it was excessive for a guest to drink more than three jue (a pitcher sized container) of jiu, most often translated as wine.  K. C. Chang indicates that with the exception of one variety of jiu, Zhou alcoholic beverages were made from fermented millet.[15]  Their relative alcoholic strength, however, is not certain.  It is possible that the percentage of alcohol was not high so that one could drink three jue during the course of an evening and not become seriously drunk.   Zhu Xi also further describes the scenery of the banquet by indicating that the guests sat on raised platforms and were illuminated by large candles.   Zhu Xi’s hermeneutical horizon as concerns the issues of drunken behavior is not made clear within his commentary.  His commentary on Shijing poetry as a whole fortunately tends to illuminate aspects of physical culture.  As far as his approach to interpreting the poems in the anthology goes, his own words are quite revealing.  After explaining that he was unsatisfied with his own initial explanations of the poems in the Shijing, he stated: “Finally, I realized that I had to dispense with the Minor Prefaces altogether, and then everything went smoothly.  I washed away all traces of the old explanations, and the intentions of the Odes lived again.”[16]

However, there still remains the issue of what the word zui means.  The poem quoted earlier in this paper, “The Guests Are Taking Their Seats,” suggests the disruptive, rowdy drunkeness that the poet discouraged.  Are the guests who leave the emperor’s drinking party drunk in this rowdy way?  Or are they good drunks, inebriated yet peaceful in their deportment, taking their leave  stumbling politely or perhaps carried out by a servant?  More recent commentary supplies us with some plausible answers.

The modern commentators Cheng Junying and Jiang Jianyuan, like Zhu Xi, follow Zheng

Xuan and the Mao small preface in dating “Sopping Dew” to the time of the early Zhou kings.  In regard to the line “Not till we are drunk shall we go home,” Cheng and Jiang state that this is a phrase that indicates the act of pledging ale, a kind of toast cheer or an exhortation to drink.  As for the issue of de, Cheng and Jiang comment that in this context, the participants are described as virtuous in the ways of ale or alcohol (jiu de).  What is most interesting about their commentary on “Sopping Dew” is their general evaluation of the significance of the poem.

 “The composition of this kind of poem, is for no other purpose than to encourage an enthusiastic atmosphere for a banquet.  There is no other deep significance to this poem.  Those who wrote on this poem after its composition have been inclined to emphasize allegorical readings, discussing at length how encoded in the imagery is the mesage that the ministers were especially loyal and the ruler grandly benevolent.  This kind of rotten preaching is the great fraud of feudal literati and needs to be thoroughly abandoned.”[17]

With these words the efforts of many traditional commentators are summarily dismissed.

According to these commentaries, the behavior exhibited at the banquet was appropriate. 
There was the need to drink until drunk in the presence of the emperor, yet in doing so none were failing in proper deportment.  The phrase “Not till drunk shall we return home” seems in all likelihood an exhortation to drink, perhaps chanted when pledging a vessel of wine to a fellow guest. 

There is a considerable degree of concern in the poem and in the commentaries for observing restraint in the use of alcohol.  Alcohol as presented in these writings was to be enjoyed in a formal, controlled environment.   The commentaries echo this formality and control by explicating the potentially confusing parts of the poem regarding drunkeness.  Each of the three commentaries I have chosen to review do not allow the line “Not till drunk shall we go home” to go unexplained.  Each of the commentators encounter the poem from their own horizon of interpretation, yet the conversation is decidely sober.


End Notes


[1].  In the context of this chapter, I will define culture as a system of meaningful behavior that exists with intimate connections to memory.  Arbiters of culture, such as textual commentators, look to the significance of human behavior within a society and determine what is culturally acceptable.  Societies or the rulers of societies execute the laws which control behavior.  Culture when viewed temporally is more enduring than society.

[2].  Derk Bodde has raised important questions concerning the actual circumstances of the book-burning incident.  Despite these questions, the story has had an important psychological impact on the interpretation of the relationship between governmental authority and information/writing.  See The Cambridge History of China: Volume 1, The Ch’in and Han Empires 221 B.C. - A.D. 220.  Ed.  Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe.  Taipei: Caves Books, LTD., 1987.  Rpt.  p. 69.  For Shiji reference to book burning see Shiji.  Beijing:  Zhonghua shuju, 1959.  zh. 6.

[3].  Hans-Georg Gadamer.  “Interview: Writing and the Living Voice.”  In Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry and History.  Ed. Dieter Misgeld and Graeme Nicholson.  Tr. Lawrence Schmidt and Monica Reuss.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.  p. 65.

[4].  Tr. Arthur Waley.  The Book of Songs, p. 147.  All Chinese quotations from Shijing text from Cheng Junying and Jiang Jianyuan’s annotated edition,  Shi jing zhuxi.  Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1996.

[5].  Bernard Karlgren translates this line as “There is none that has not a good virtue.” and “There is none that has not a good deportment.”  The Book of Odes: Chinese Text, Transcription, and Translation.  Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1950.  p. 118.

[6].  Lun yu 10:6c:  "It is only with wine is there no set limit, but he does not drink to the point of confusion.”  Tr. E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks.  The Original Analects.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.  p. 62.  Hereafter cited as Original Analects.

[7].  Lun yu 10:7b: “When the country folk are drinking wine and the elders have left, he also takes his leave.”  Original Analects.  p.  63.

[8].  The Brooks translation of the Lun yu date the 10th book to the year 380 B.C.E..  While perhaps not so exact, the period of composition for these lines seems likely.  Original Analects.  p. 59.

[9].  Shuowen jiezi zhu.  Taipei: Tiangong shuju, 1996.  p. 750.

[10].  See Shiji zhuan.  Annot. Zhu Xi.  Taipei: Taiwan Zhonghua shuju, 1991.  p. 163.

[11].  Tr. Arthur Waley.  The Book of Songs, p. 208.

[12].  Tr. K.C. Wu. Book of History (Shang shu).  In The Chinese Heritage.  New York: Crown Publishers, 1982. 

p. 353.

[13].  For information regarding Kong Rong’s protest of Cao Cao’s edict prohibiting alcohol see Liu Yangzhong’s Shi yu jiu.  Taipei: Wenlu chubanshe, 1994.  p.  46-47.

[14].  Tr. Ronald C. Miao.  Early Medieval Chinese Poetry: The Life and Works of Wang Ts’an (A.D. 177-217).  Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH.  Weisbaden: 1982.  p. 179-180.


[15].  K. C. Chang “Ancient China.”  In Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives.  Ed. K. C. Chang.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.  p. 30.

[16].  Tr. Steven Van Zoren.  In Poetry and Personality: Reading, Exegesis, and Hermeneutics in Traditional China.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.   p. 228.

[17].  Cheng Junying and Jiang Jianyuan.  Shi jing zhuxi.  Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1996.  p. 490.