Reasons to empty a glass after a stupid year
The last week of the year started out rough: a sleepless, feverish, racked-by-dry-coughing Christmas night that turned into a positive Covid test the next morning. My youngest child, my brother, and my niece all subsequently tested positive, though none were ravaged by the same degree of symptoms.
But the year is ending on a happier note; not only did I swiftly recover, but yesterday an old friendship delivered a hilarious dollop of serendipitous bounty. Relatedly, 2022 promises as much intellectual stimulation as any dedicated rabbit-hole diver could desire. Such good tidings must be shared.
I am lucky enough to be a member of a Facebook group populated by Chinese historians. Yesterday morning, the great Gene Anderson, author of one of the two or three most indispensable English-language books on the history of Chinese food, posted a link to a spanking new (and open access) article in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: Libation Ritual and the Performance of Kingship in Early China.
The ensuing Facebook commentary immediately devolved into a discussion of how to properly translate 酒, the Chinese word that typically describes alcohol meant to be imbibed by humans for the purpose of inebriation. Should it be “wine” -- as the translators of Chinese poetry for centuries have decreed, even though the fluid in question typically was not made from grapes? Or should it be “ale” -- even though un-carbonated and woefully lacking a head of any kind? Or some other descriptor?
As a long-time ritual imbiber, this is the kind of philological question I am naturally interested in, but I have to confess that I wasn’t paying the closest attention. I’ve seen similar discussions on the same exact topic pop up multiple times over the years and I’m not sure that it is a question that can be finally resolved to any ultimate degree. It’s like a sports-bar argument trying to compare Bill Russell’s greatness with the 60s-era Celtics to Steph Curry’s incandescence as a Warrior. Different times, different players, different basketball languages...
Wait, did someone mention a sports bar? Because then I saw this!
This was unexpected. Because I am quite familiar with the genius King Kaufman! He is a good friend, a former colleague, and a regular consumer of my Szechwan chicken wings. We were students at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism together in the late 1980s and one of my earliest memories of him was when I made the new-to-Berkeley rookie mistake of dressing up as a hippie to a King Kaufman Halloween party and over-imbibing in one of Berkeley’s more famous ritual intoxicants.
I promptly informed the professor of Chinese history who had invoked King Kaufman’s spirit that my friend would be delighted to learn that his name had come up in the context of a discussion of how to translate 酒！
And then in short order, the following three things happened: The professor sent me a Facebook friend request, discovered that I am a Warriors fan, and signed up for a paid subscription to this newsletter. Cha-CHING!
Friendship with the “genius King Kaufman” (because that is what I am going to call him henceforth) is truly the gift that keeps giving.
So that put me in a good mood, as did the gradual retreat of my Covid symptoms. But then it occurred to me that if I wanted to share this fun story, it would behoove me to read the original article that incited the entire discussion and all succeeding events. This was hardly a chore, as I am a sucker for both ritual libations and archaeology.
This archaeology of deep history traces the evolution of a libation assemblage from its emergence in coastal mound centers of the early third millennium BC to its incorporation into Bronze Age high culture in the second and first millennium BC. Against the backdrop of drastic socio-political changes unfolded through three millennia, the configuration of the assemblage displayed remarkable resilience and it co- evolved with processes of political experimentation and state formation in early China. The elaborate ritual performed with their presence had a significant role in constructing cultural identity, marking social difference, and precipitating political change.
Continuities involving ritual alcohol consumption between Neolithic societies in East Asia and the Shang and Zhou dynasties!?! Inject this right into my veins! (Or pour it into a goblet and hand it over. Gan bei!)
This is not the place to get into the nitty-gritty of the argument made in the article. All I will say is that the phenomenal grasp of recent research into early Chinese history displayed by the author, UCLA anthropological archaeologist Li Min, was awe-inspiring in its depth and range. I immediately wondered: has this guy written a book?
Yes, yes he has: Social Memory and State Formation in Early China, published in 2018.
Li Min starts this book with an extended quotation from one of China’s earliest historical works, the Zuozhuan. The passage discusses the sacred bronze tripod dings that the Zhou dynasty cherished as the symbol of their authority, and whose authenticity was said to have traced back to the preceding Shang and perhaps back even further into the haze of prehistory. Then the author declares:
“I hope to offer an archaeology of knowledge on the emergence and transformation of these legendary bronze vessels, from culinary wares to symbols of kingship, within the contexts of changing techniques, technologies, and political structures.”
State of the art archaeology? The discovery of corroborations between ancient texts and material cultures? The delineation of continuities between Neolithic cultures and historical dynasties? CULINARY WARES. Yes, please!
As the esteemed archaeologist Lothar von Falkenhausen writes in his introduction to Social Memory and State Formation in Early China:
I predict that Social Memory and State Formation in Early China will be one of those seminal books that everyone must read and engage with; for it establishes a new frame of discourse, forcing readers to rethink what they thought they knew. Such rethinking is altogether healthy and may be expected eventually to lead to new intellectual breakthroughs. I hope that this book will serve as a source of inspiration especially to younger colleagues – as an encouragement to explore new methods and to be creative in the way they approach both material and textual data. As the unforgotten K. C. Chang used to say: “The future is very bright.”
That, right there, is reason for a ritual libation to close out the year. But I have one more grace note.
As research for my upcoming six-part series on Leibniz, China, the I Ching, the birth of computing, and the goal of universal mutual comprehension (with cameos from Neal Stephenson and Philip K. Dick!), I happened to be reading Martin Davis’ The Universal Computer: The Road from Leibniz to Turing earlier this week. In the chapter on George Boole, I learned that the brilliant 19th century mathematician died at the age of 49, from a bout of bronchitis that became pneumonia.
As some who has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia in his life and just survived Covid-19, it is chilling to think that had I been born at any other time than the latter half of the 20th century, I would most likely never have lived to see my sixtieth year, much less spend it getting up to date on the latest archaeology of Neolithic Chinese libation assemblages.
There is an incredible amount to be disappointed about right now with respect to the current state of the world and the prospects for our future. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Science is amazing, and scientists deserve our applause. If you are imbibing a ritual libation tonight, pour one out for the vaccine inventors, the penicillin discoverers, the ICU nurses and the public health officials doing their damnedest to keep us all alive. Happy New Year to each and every one of you.