The Celestial Cuisine of the Taoist Communities.


Within the Taoist communities, the faithful devote themselves to the recitation of sacred texts, of the Dao de jing in particular, as well as to embryonic respiration and abstinence from cereals. Here we follow the detailed account given by H. Maspero (L’Église taoïste et le salut des fidèles : institutions et cérémonies. Transl. The Taoist Church and the salvation of the faithful: institutions and ceremonies[1]).

The masters give their teachings, precepts and defences during collective ceremonies in the open air to the community gathered in assemblies (hui) or in "fasts" (zhai). These ceremonies are punctuated by meals taken in common and copiously provided with beer. These banquets named "Cuisine" (chu) inherit the ancient practices linked to the worship of domestic gods, gods of the earth or of tombs. They were also organised during changes of civil status, on the occasion of births (chushi) or deaths (xiachu), or to ward off misfortune and bring "happiness". A "Cuisine" always punctuates the beginning of the year and the "assembly of the Three Officials". A strict hierarchy favours merits and seniority in the path, regardless of social status[2].


A "Cuisine" consists of three kinds of food: starters, rice and rice beer (jiu).The group leaders bear the significant title "liberator". The volume of beer brewed is regulated to refrain every overindulging. The number of participants is in principle specified and counted, so as to offer as much to the deities as to the faithful. The "kitchens" will disappear as such around the 6th century, but will remain in the form of offerings made to the deities in gratitude for the favours received.

The Taoist masters are assisted by a "parish council" made up of Taoist notables, rich and educated in religion, organised hierarchically under the chairmanship of the Instructor. At the highest rank, the "Hairdressers of the Hat" guanguan, men and women. Below them come the Libators jijiu ("pour la bière", "libation"). Survival of the organisation of the Yellow Turbans which brought down the Han dynasty in the 2nd century, these two titles are worn by important actors for certain ceremonies. With the passing of time and the disappearance of the "cuisine", they were reserved under the Tang to religious men and women living in community under a vow of celibacy. In third place, the Patrons zhuzhe, a kind of sponsors from whom material help, donations and influence were expected. In the last row, the Masters of Talismans lushi seem to be the ancestors of modern Taoist sorcerers, demon hunters, charm and talisman drawers.


The Parish Council provides the Instructor with the necessary funds for worship. Funeral inscriptions indicate that its members pay for the ceremonies and that their titles are related to their generosity. The council collects the "Heavenly Tax Rice" tianzuzhimi, five bushels (50 litres) per year which each family must give on the seventh day of the seventh month. Its exact delivery earns merit. In return, the Instructor, in imitation of the Director of Fate Siming, keeps a kind of civil status of the parishioners, registers births and deaths.This "register of destiny" (mingji) enables the Instructor to make a census of the families liable to the Celestial Tax. The Director of Destiny, in the heavenly administration, could sort the pious faithful of the Taoist People from the infidels, and grant them special treatment in the other world.

The institution brings as much to the parishioners as to the Instructor. Each family holds in its honour a banquet chu to which a ritually fixed number of parishioners are invited, and which is accompanied by ritual donations to the Instructor. The annual contribution of 5 bushels of rice covers the costs, the maintenance of the Taoist masters and instructors, and the brewing of beer.

It is planned for the Upper Cuisines to brew 5 rice sheng (5 l.) per person for beer, which in the end means about 1 to 2 litres of beer according to the ratios of that time, 4 rice sheng per person for the Medium Cuisines, and 3 sheng for the Lower Cuisines. A soft inebriety is the rule, not a binge drinking. These agapes also take place at New Year's Day and on other occasions: an Upper Cuisine to ask for the increase of births or wealth, appointment to an official position; a Middle Cuisine to pray to be saved from hardship, protected in distant travels, promoted to a higher official position; a Lower Cuisine to ask for the cure of illnesses and the release from trials and imprisonments.

H. Maspero translated an excerpt from the " Biographies of the Divine Immortals " (beginning of the 4th century). The Cuisine Party is full of fantastic details. Two of the characters are Famous Immortals, Mademoiselle Ma (Magu) and Wang Yuan.

« Miss Ma meets Wang Yuan at Cai Jing's home, who is the host, and his whole family can see them. She is a pretty girl eighteen to nineteen years old, wearing a bun tied at the top of the head, the remaining hair falling to her waist. With the arrival of Miss Ma, Wang Yuan rises to greet her; then the seats are given, and each one goes forth to "practice the Kitchen» xingchu. There are countless gold and jade cups, dishes whose delicious flowered fragrances spread inside and outside. One cuts the kept meat to eat : that is, they say, the canned unicorn ... After some times, rice is served : she throws it down, saying that she cleans it from impurities; then we can see that the rice is transform into powdered cinnabar. Wang Yuan said to the people of Cai's family that Miss Ma is still young and that for him, who is old, such hocus-pocus are hardly fun. And he declares he will give them good wine [understand rice beer] from the Celestial Kitchen Tianchu. This wine [beer] is strong, and the common people can not drink it, because it burns the intestines; it must be diluted in water, a dou of water (2 liters) for one sheng (0.2 l) of wine [beer]. The Cai's family drinks this mixture, and everyone is drunk after drinking about a sheng ... » (Maspero, 322-323. English translation Beer-Studies).

It is necessary to multiply by 5 the volumes indicated by Maspero (1 sheng=1 litre) and replace obviously wine by (rice)beer. Without this correct translation, we do not understand what is being stated. The rice beer can indeed contain up to 15-20% alcohol, without any distillation, like sake, and it is stated by Wang Yuan in this story. The brewing technique with amylolytic ferments optimises the conversion of starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol. Moreover, this brewing method actually proceeds in 2 steps: a) one simultaneous hydrolysis-fermentation of a wet compact paste enclosed in a jar, b) a dilution of this fermented paste to get the alcoholic beverage. The celestial beer, undiluted and too strong for simple humans, is to be placed in this technical context. The alcoholic strength seems to index for the Taoists a power of the sky.


Finally, the progressive disappearance in China of the beer brewing with malted grains (wheat, millet), in favour of the beer brewing with amylolytic ferments, can be traced back to the Han dynasty. The amylolytic ferments (or brewing starters) method makes a very wide use of plants, source of moulds, fungi and bacteria with their ability to hydrolyse the starch. These micro-organisms proliferate on the surface of plant organs, over- or underground, which make and store the starch (root, tuber, stems, dry fruit, seed, panicle, etc.), just like the yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces on the surface of sweet fruits. The Taoists were great experimenters in the making of herbal medicines and drugs. Moreover, the "transmutation" that the alcoholic fermentation of beer causes in cereals could not escape them. The banned and unhealthy grain is transformed into an intoxicating beer. The fruit of the Earth (Yin) carries the human spirit to Heaven (Yang).

The Chinese texts do not mention any Taoists who became experts in brewing, although they were great beer drinkers. But their involvement in the Celestial Cuisine certainly played a role in the technical evolution of the traditional Chinese brewing from the Han dynasty onwards.


[1] Maspero Henri 1971, Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises, p. 318 sq. Maspero_henri, le Taoisme, Essais 1950

[2] Stein R.A. 1963, Remarques sur les mouvements du taoïsme politico-religieux au IIe siècle ap. J.-C, T'oung Pao, 50 1-78. Stein R.A. 1971, Les fêtes de cuisine du taoïsme religieux, Annuaire du Collège de France, 431-440. Stein R.A. 1972, Spéculations mystiques et thèmes relatifs aux Cuisines du taoïsme, Annuaire du Collège de France, 489-499.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger