Having a drink in China is typically a high-energy affair. If you’ve ever been to a bar in China, you’ve probably observed (or even participated in) an elaborate round of rock-paper-scissors, vigorous dice-throwing or some other drinking game. Winning requires superb hand-eye coordination under the influence, but in Chinese drinking games there is often an emphasis on mental dexterity. These competitions are a means to display a drinker’s wit, intuition, acuity or intellectual prowess—all of which are somehow brought to focus through alcohol.
This culture of wager games has deep roots in Chinese history tracing back thousands of years. References to jiuling (“drinking game”) in literature, such as The Dream of Red Chamber or Tang Dynasty poems by Bai Juyi, describe elegant high-society affairs involving scholarly exchanges either in the form of riddles or verse composition. Tang Dynasty’s Li Bai, dubbed the “Saint of Poetry” and known equally by the sobriquet “Saint of Alcohol,” wrote many poems in a romantic, expansive and free-spirited style— fueled perhaps by wine.
For more inspiration, there are several exquisite Imperial Chinese cups currently on view for the Chinese Art sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in May. On the cups, you may see scenes depicted from a bygone period and just imagine the lively games emperors and scholars would have played.