Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ritual drinking in eastern Asia and the Pacific

Ritualized drinking was once very widespread in the areas of eastern Asia and the Pacific and still survives in many areas as evidenced by the existence of the kava bowl, rice wine jar, chanoyu tea pot and similar ritual drinking implements.

In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in particular, ceremonial drinking is often the most important social activity were even informal gatherings often involve at least some ritual. Drinking plays a part in many of the most sacred events and sometimes the ceremonies revolve specifically around the ritual drinking itself.

Communal drinking of rice wine from jars with bamboo straws in the Central Highlands of Vietnam (Janowski et al., Kinship and Food in South East Asia, 262).

Vessels that appear linked with drinking, and thus possibly ritual drinking, are found in Neolithic sites of Asia. The first written evidence from this region comes from the Shang dynasty of China in which drinking rituals were of great importance. Shang ritual drinking vessels like the hu, lei and jue appear to have been modeled on earlier prototypes with the same shapes and characteristics from the Lungshanoid culture, the apparent ancestor of Shang dynasty culture.

Following some of the suggestions of Solheim, I have argued that Lungshanoid culture ultimately was influenced by the red-slipped ware from Southeast Asia. The red-slipped ware was often marked with cords and/or baskets, and decorated with impressed circles often filled with lime; and dentate/triangle patterns.

The establishment of trade routes by the Nusantao allowed for a sudden rapid expansion of trade during the Middle Neolithic that gave rise to Lunghanoid type wares. This was a bidirectional movement of people and culture through trade more than a major demographic migration event like the Austronesian expansion, as suggested by some.

Lungshanoid or Lungshanoid-like wares are characterized by tripods, usually with tapering, hollow legs; and ring-feet bases often decorated and perforated. Shang wine vessels also are dominated by tripods and ring-feet. In Taiwan and Southeast Asia, the Lungshanoid type wares tended to be red-slipped, plain or polished black. In mainland China, these types were polished black or plain. In all these areas, Lungshanoid wares were often cord-marked.

Perforated ring-foot vessels from left to right: Neolithic pottery dou-like vessel with ya-shaped perforation in foot from Zhengzhou (Sarah Allan, The shape of the turtle, 89); Iron age vessel similar to the pan water basin, from Novaliches, Philippines; perforated ring-foot vessel from South India (last two images from: Waruno Mahdi, Archaeology and Language IV: Language Change and Cultural Transformation).


Interestingly, Chinese myth links the wine culture of the Shang dynasty with Emperor Shun Di, who is also known as Jun Di, a Shang ancestor from Tanggu "Hot Water Valley," the country of the Fusang Tree located beyond the 'Southeastern Sea.'

Emperor Shun was a potter before becoming king, and he was considered a patron of pottery-making and was especially linked with wine vessels and earthenware. His daughter is often credited with the invention of wine. This "wine" known as jiu and chang was not made from fruit but from rice or millet and was not distilled, so it was technically a beer. Grape wine also came to be known but was much less common and was mostly associated with Turkic peoples in the far West.

Judging from latter practices, rice wine would have been made mostly from glutinous rice although normal rice and other grains were also used. This is noteworthy as some research indicates that glutinous rice, also known as sticky or sweet rice, was domesticated only once and in Southeast Asia.

When the Zhou succeeded the Shang, the wine ritual became much less important and the hu wine vessel took a backseat to the ding food cauldron. Indeed, one text in the Book of Documents known as the "Admonition on Wine," castigates the Shang people for excessive drinking of liquor and that opinion held sway in latter Confucian China.

The Shang drank wine that had been offered in sacred ceremonies to gods, ancestors and spirits. In Southeast Asia, ritual drinking is also commonly associated with and offered to departed ancestors, and used in mortuary rituals. Ceremonial drinking was also an important part of many types of initiation such as that of warriors or priests.

However, the hu wine vessel as noted in this blog took on a different role in the practice of alchemy that was to develop in latter times.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Bushell, Stephen W. Chinese Art, H. M. Stationery Off. by Wyman and Sons, 1904, 52.

Chang, Kwang-chih . The Archaeology of Ancient China,Yale University Press, 1963.

Janowski, Monica and Fiona Kerlogue. Kinship and Food in South East Asia, NIAS Press, 2007.

Mahdi, Waruno. "Linguisitc and philogical data towards a chronology of Austronesian activity in India and Sri Lanka," IN: Roger Blench, Matthew Spriggs. Archaeology and Language IV: Language Change and Cultural Transformation, Routledge (UK), 1999