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Tusu wine drinking: A blessing and epidemic prevention ritual

Author  :  SHAO TIANHONG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-04-05

Tusu wine was a daily drink among families during Spring Festival in ancient times. Photo: FILE

Two thousand years ago, a typhoid epidemic attacked a big family of more than 200 people in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). Within a decade, nearly 100 people lost their lives. As a member of the family, Zhang Zhongjing, known as a medical saint by later generations, was at a loss as to what to do.

Shortly after, the plague was once again rampant in the 22nd Year of the Jian’an Era (the year 217). Cao Zhi, a poet of the time, described the tragic situation: “every family is pained with a corpse, every room has anguished cries.”

Under widespread starvation and great lamentation, a hero appeared. It was said that every New Year’s Eve, this hero told his neighbors dip a medicine bag into a well. On the first day of January on the lunar calendar, the water was taken out of the well and mixed with liquor. The whole family faced the East and drank it in turn for three days. In this way, they became immune to the plague.

This prescription was first found in the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies by Ge Hong from the Jin Dynasty (266-420). Known as “tusu wine,” this prescription contained seven traditional Chinese medicine ingredients: rhubarb, Sichuan pepper, atractylodes macrocephala, shaved cinnamon bark, platycodon grandiflorum, wolf’s bane and bullbrier. Another prescription also added radix sileris. Most of these drugs have the effect of invigorating energy and activating blood circulation, dispelling wind and coldness, as well as nourishing the internal organs. The Compendium of Materia Medica records that “a drink on New Year’s Day helps prevent epidemic infection.” For hundreds of years, the prescription was gradually improved. For example, in the Tang Dynasty (618—907), the Outline of the Four Seasons swapped bullbrier for the giant knot weed, and in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the General Treatise on Typhoid adjusted the proportion of each ingredient. The repeated citation and revision showed how doctors recognized the prescription in each time period.

Perhaps due to the threat of plague, or its affirmation and promotion by doctors, tusu wine became a regular household drink during the Spring Festival. From the Tang Dynasty to the Republic of China, people continued the tradition of drinking tusu wine. The fragrance of it has wafted through many poems. With the young drinking first and then the elderly, Wen Zhengming, a calligrapher from the Ming Dynasty (1368―1644), wrote of the joy of his children’s accompaniment. A cup of tusu wine during the Spring Festival thus gradually became a symbol of reunion.

One always missed home and thought of family during the festival, and a drink of tusu wine could ease the nostalgia. Perhaps because of tusu’s anti-disease effect as well as the tradition in which the elderly drink only after the young, tusu wine acquired an implication of longevity. When the younger generation presented tusu wine to the elderly, a wish for longevity was expressed.

In the earliest account, Ge Hong called tusu wine the recipe of Hua Tuo, a reputable doctor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. But when Ge Hong wrote the book, Hua Tuo had been dead for nearly a hundred years. Since then, it has also been said that the creators were such figures as the legendary hero the Yellow Emperor or Sun Simiao, a great medical scientist of the Tang Dynasty, but these claims are likely baseless.

Tusu originally referred to a kind of herb—it was said to be either purple perilla or bullbrier. In ancient times in some parts of South China, there was a custom of painting tusu on houses, and thus tusu later acquired a meaning of “thatched hut” or “house.” According to a book on folk customs by Han E from the Tang Dynasty, long ago there was a person living in a thatched hut who left a dose of a special medicine each year on New Year’s Eve to his neighborhood. Years later, people knew this prescription but had forgotten the person’s name, so they named the prescription with the alternative word for hut—tusu.

This story is more like a beautiful myth. The person lived in seclusion and no one knew his name. He was like a medical monk in a temple, like a fairy who saved people’s lives from the abyss of the plague. Coming and going mysteriously without leaving a trace, he ultimately became crystallized into a dose of medicinal liquor.

By the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911), tusu wine had further evolved with new cultural meanings.

On the first day of the year, the Qianlong Emperor sat before the desk in Dongnuan Ge (East Warm Chamber) of Yangxin Hall.

This marked the start of the writing ceremony. The Qianlong Emperor would drink tusu wine, light candles on a jade candelabrum, dip a calligraphy brush in ink, and then write down auspicious words for the new year, such as “time of harmony and abundance,” “a year of harvest” and “the spring brings bliss.” This Qing palace ritual started during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, and the Qianlong and Jiaqing emperors handed it down. It was practiced until the reign of the Guangxu Emperor.

The emperors of the Qing Dynasty believed that auspicious words written at the beginning of the new year would convey blessings for the country and the people. Once written down, the words were sealed and preserved in a box. No one thereafter was allowed to read them. It was as if a prayer had been sent to Heaven, and Heaven’s secrets must not be divulged. The drinking of tusu wine in the ceremony was powerful symbolism—the son of Heaven was drinking the wine on behalf of the country in the hope that its people were safe from disease and epidemics.

Whether imbibed during a ceremony or a banquet, tusu wine was full of formality and symbolic meaning, such that drinking it was almost part of a national etiquette. Apart from protecting individual lives and representing family reunion, tusu’s role extended to the national level and became an important element of national rituals as well as an important symbol of national peace and security.

In the case of setting off firecrackers, people have forgotten their original significance—they were meant to drive away the monster of nian (the year). Now only the custom of lighting the firecrackers remains.

The custom of drinking tusu wine is similar. It encompasses each individual’s and each family’s sorrow and joy, as well as a wish for longevity. Many ordinary blessings were all blended into it.

Thousands of years later, the convention of drinking tusu wine faded with time. It has even been found that the wolf’s bane contained in the prescription is highly toxic. However, tusu wine as medicinal liquor served a purpose more like today’s vaccines. It reflects the concept of “curing the disease before it occurs” in traditional Chinese medicine, which, little by little merges into the wish shared nationally by all. This concept and people’s adherence to the drinking ritual year after year convey our ancestors’ humility and awe in the face of nature.


This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Shao Tianhong is a scholar of artwork and cultural relic identification.


(Edited and translated by BAI LE)

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