Dissolved into Wine and World

Alcohol and identity in Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine

Presented at the conference Commensality and Social Organisation, held at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen in October 2011.

Archaeological excavations have shown that the world’s earliest alcoholic beverage was invented in China around the year 7000 BCE. There is evidence to suggest that alcohol was, at that time, used both as a means to induce ecstasy in shamanistic ritual, and as a part of the normal household.

Throughout the history of China, wine and wine drinking has had specific social and cultural functions, and it is possible to discern several distinct wine cultures in China today: The main one being the institutionalized wine culture, where drinking wine is a social event closely linked to commensality.

Furthermore, other deviant drinking cultures exist, in which drinking alone, as opposed to sanctioned social drinking, is an important part of the cultural identity. These deviant drinkers include poets, philosophers, and warrior heroes. Wine drinking has a strong identity-building potential in China.

This presentation will look at how the Chinese relationship to wine is taken up and examined today. Through a thematic analysis of the contemporary author Mo Yan’s (莫言1955-) novel The Republic of Wine (Jiuguo 酒国) from 1992, I will compare his descriptions of drinking and drunken identity with the institutionalized wine culture and with the deviant cultures.

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