For better or worse, alcohol consumption has been a fundamental aspect of social interaction in most societies throughout history. From a glass or two of wine over dinner at a restaurant, to pau hana cocktails at a bar, alcohol is one of the ways in which people celebrate with each other. In an age of social distancing, with restaurants and bars closed, the cultural practice of sharing alcohol (and the economy it fuels) has profoundly changed. For many, the first time it will really feel as though things have reached a new normal will be when we can get together again at our favorite neighborhood establishment.
In memory of times shared with friends in the past, and looking forward to the day when we’ll be able once again to make such memories, I would like to share with you one of the most famous drinking parties in history. This drinking party became the model for all the drinking parties that came after it for more than a thousand years across East Asia, and it enjoyed immense popularity as a subject for artists, including Suzuki Fuyō, whose painting Meandering Stream at the Orchid Pavilion in HoMA’s collection has long held a special place for me. The party in question took place in southern China, near Shaoxing (a city famous for its locally produced alcohol today) in Zhejiang province. It happened on the third day of the third lunar month in 353 A.D. This was no random day; it had long been a special holiday celebrating the coming spring and its associations with new fertility (which still linger in its modern incarnation as Girls’ Day in Japan). Winter weather had passed, and it was a time when people could finally start to gather outdoors again (coincidentally, it is the same time of year right now). That particular year, forty-two friends, who just happened to include many of the most brilliant creative minds in all of Chinese history, made an outing to a nearby river, where they decided to play a drinking game. They arranged themselves along the banks and floated cups filled with alcohol down the water. Each person was expected to write a poem before the cup reached him, or be forced to drink. At the end of the day, the best poems were selected, and a preface was added.
While many of the poems are fine literary works, it is actually the preface that made the event so famous. This was no ordinary preface, but was in fact written by Wang Xizhi (303–361), the greatest calligrapher in all of Chinese history, at a time when calligraphy reigned supreme as the most respected art form. Within a few decades of his life, Wang’s calligraphy was already avidly collected by the most elite members of society, even up to the emperor himself. The calligraphy was praised from the time it was first made for its remarkable spontaneity, which no doubt was encouraged in part by the many cups Wang himself had probably imbibed beforehand.
Later parties often modeled themselves after the Orchid Pavilion gathering. The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–1796) even had a miniature stream installed in the section of the palace intended for his private retirement, where he could float cups and play the same drinking game that Wang Xizhi and his friends had enjoyed over a thousand years earlier. Suzuki Fuyō’s painting is dated to the third month, and while no additional information is provided, we can speculate that, like Wang Xizhi’s preface, the painting was made to commemorate a drinking party in which Fuyō had participated. No doubt, the attendees saw themselves in the figures arranged along the stream, and the party’s host identified with the figure of Wang Xizhi in the pavilion, getting ready to write his famous preface.
While you are waiting for the day when you can get together again with friends, why not try this game for yourself? Get together virtually, set a time limit, and ask everyone to write a poem. Vote on the best one, and whoever wins gets a prize (or whoever loses gets a penalty, you can make up your own rules). At the end of the party, gather together the best poems as a memory of the event, and you too will be participating in a cultural tradition that has inspired countless luminaries for centuries!
– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art
Suzuki Fuyō (1749–1816)
Meandering Stream at the Orchid Pavilion
Japan, Edo period, dated 1806
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk