Having just received [your] handwritten message and green spirits,
[I feel something] surging through [my] nose like yellow pickle.
I sympathise with Xu Miao who hit the drink from time to time,
And am grateful that Weisheng has even begged vinegar.
Not daring to finish off the ants on top of the cup,
[I’m] still concerned about chickens in the jar fluttering in a frenzy.
[I] shall see how you can consume five buckets,
[’Cause I’m] dead drunk from just smelling the new brew.
* From Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊, Houcun xiansheng da quanji 後村先生大全集 (Sibu congkan chubian 四部叢刊初編 edition, Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1920, vol. 1289-1336), 39.3a; see https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=78655&page=6.
 Red characters rhyme.  In drinking-related literature, Xu Miao 徐邈 (172-249) is well-known for having coined the expression zhong shengren 中聖人 (“being hit by sagehood”), an euphemism for zhong jiu 中酒 (“being hit by liquor”). Due to the prohibition of making liquor during the third century, people eschewed explicit mention of liquor. Xu Miao thus referred to pure, filtered liquor as shengren 聖人 (a sage) and unfiltered liquor xianren 賢人 (a worthy); see his biography in the Sanguozhi 三國志: https://ctext.org/text.pl?node=603166&if=gb&remap=gb (passage 1)  Weisheng 微生 is someone whom Confucius reportedly commented on: “Who says of Wei-sheng Kâo that he is upright? One begged some vinegar of him, and he begged it of a neighbor and gave it to the man.” (LY 5.23 James Legge’s translation) See Lunyu 5.24: https://ctext.org/analects/gong-ye-chang/zhs?en=on.  When writing about drinking, the “ants” often refer to the sporadic froth on the top of the liquor.  Similar to the “ants” in the previous line, these “chickens” are not real chickens. Instead, they are the xiji 醯雞 (literally “vinegar chickens”). They are often found in jars of liquor and vinegar. More on this later.
Album leaf from "Zuiju tu" 醉菊圖 by Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) depicting a recluse filtering liquor with his head wrap. Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei.
For years, my family have been using homemade vinegar produced by my uncle in the countryside. He makes liquor from grains throughout the year for his own consumption, and every batch of his liquor will partly be used for making vinegar. Of course, the products of home distillation are potentially dangerous, and it’s even illegal in some other countries. But in China, it remains a common practice, especially in the countryside. Now that my uncle’s work has been tested on himself, his family and guests for well over twenty years without causing any problem, he must have been doing something right.
I’ve been requesting to see his distilling work for about a year, but he stored his equipment away because of the construction of his new house. With the house finished, the extra detached kitchen for distilling was also done last month, the time had finally come for him to grant his niece’s keen request.
But then it was my turn to postpone our workshop a bit because of my work etc. My uncle said that the liquor might get too sour because of prolonged fermentation, so he distilled some of his fermented mash and left a bucket for my observation.
When I walked into the fermentation room, the big bucket released a very pleasant smell, similar to sweet fermented rice (jiuniang 酒釀, or tianjiu 甜酒 as we call it). Meanwhile, I also found some tiny creatures swimming in it... My memories of reading xiji 醯雞 (literally “vinegar chickens”, vinegar flies of sorts) in classical texts immediately came to mind. A Zhuangzi passage describes how Confucius draws an analogy between himself and a vinegar fly in the jar. He says that if Laozi had not lifted the lid of the jar, he would never have realised how big the world is. A vinegar fly has thus become one of most popular metaphors for the ignorance of humans in the face of greater wisdom as well as for their trivial, ephemeral life.
However, faced with the fermentation bucket, I wasn’t really in the mood for philosophical contemplation. What actually came to my mind were fragments of texts on what those creatures do in the jar. I couldn’t remember where exactly I read it, perhaps somewhere in a commentary on the Erya 爾雅, but I recalled being shocked by some passage describing how the presence of those insects or larvae indicates the stage of fermentation, as if they were something desirable.
And guess what? My uncle glanced into the bucket and noted with delight: “Look at those little creatures – this bucket must be good!” Well, I don’t think my uncle has ever taken any interest in reading the Zhuangzi, Erya, or any commentaries on them, but he clearly shares part of the wisdom preserved therein. Good to know.
The feelings evoked by the distilling process are less mixed. The equipment my uncle uses is basically a wok extension that is widely used in countryside home distillation. It consists of a ring wall, a guide, a reversed dome lid, and a tube. Oh, and some strips of cloth for sealing. That’s it. Amazing how simple it is.
Of course, there are a lot of “rough edges” in the whole process, and most of the details are handled purely by experience and personal preferences, such as how much yeast to use, how long the fermentation goes on, how much water to add in the bottom wok before distilling, etc. There are no attempts to monitor, let alone control, the temperature or alcohol percentage. This definitely doesn’t mean that a good home distiller cannot produce liquors of consistent quality, but with this system one certainly has a million opportunities to make mistakes that can destroy consistency or lead to undesirable results.
While I fully understand the health risks of home distillation, there’s something endearing in this crude system. With its simplicity, it seems closer to the pristine wisdom that created distilled spirits in the first place. When looking at the impressive, sophisticated equipment for industrial production in a proper distillery, I find it hard to imagine which genius started all this and how on earth it came about. Now my uncle’s equipment has made the idea of distillation more accessible and digestible for me. And somehow the extra mile people have gone to produce safe, diverse liquors also becomes more tangible.
The product of last week, by the way, turned out to be a bit too sour, as my uncle predicted. And of course, it’s on me who postponed our workshop. While reading Liu Kezhuang’s 劉克莊 (1187-1269) poetic complaint that basically says, “I hoped to enjoy a few cups of nice liquor, but well, thanks for your vinegar”, I wonder whether his good nephew, Mr. Fang, had also postponed his work for a curious niece.
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