Why does the Dao advocate abstinence from cereals and thus beer?


Life thrives on dead matter. How to become immortal while eating what is dead or decomposed? How to transform the flesh into rot-proof life? To become immortal, one must feed on immortal. Besides their fasting rituals, the Taoists would like to dispense with all mortal food.

Through asceticism, the Taoist seeks to awaken the embryo which resides in his navel and which every human inherits at birth. This embryo is a strength of growth and generation and can transmute the present corpse into an immortal body provided that the vital principle is properly nourished. This principle is hindered by forces residing in the body, specifically the "3 Worms" resulting from the putrefaction of cereals[1].

Set aside/Abolish the Cereals  (juegu) means stopping eating the Five Cereals at the base of the Chinese diet: rice, millet, wheat, oats and beans. It is also said Refrain from eating grains  (juegu ), or Suspend the grains  (xiuliang ). The path marked out for the Taoists by the Daoyou jing  is very clear :

« The Five Cereals are the scissors that cut life, they rot the Five Viscera [2], they make life short. If a grain enters your mouth, do not expect Eternal Life! If you wish not to die, make your gut freed from it! » [3].

The Five Cereals are the Essence of the Earth as it is explained in the Yellow Court Book :

« Cereal grains are the Essence of the Earth;
The pleasant taste of the five flavours is the trap of evil demons.
Their stench disturbs the Spirits, and the Embryonic Breath ceases;
The three upper souls are bewildered, and the lower souls bow their heads.
» (Maspero, 368).

As soon as they are born, human beings are contaminated because, from generation to generation, they eat and drink cereals. What the mother eats is passed on to the foetus. The diet prescribed to become a good Taoist is very strict but gradual.









The immortal embryo - taoist meditation.






The first three steps are well described. The adept begins by dismissing the fermented foods such as cheese, beer, and everything which recalls rot. Then he refrains from meat and any bloody food in general, and plants with strong flavors. The deities of the body hate the smell of blood, onion and garlic. Then, the adept must completely avoid the grains. This is a test. The text does not hide the difficulty or the momentaneous ills endured : weight loss, deficiency, diarrhea, dizziness, various disorders. Some Daoïst drugs and medicine can support and strengthen the adept's mind-body along this critical third step.

The Taoist dietary outcasts the beer from rice or millet for two reasons : as a fermented product and as a beverage from cereals. The regime of the "Book of Jade Characters on Golden Tablet", a so holy book that it is kept in the Celestial Palace and has not been revealed to humankind in its entirety, is very strict:

« Those who, in their diet, stop eating cereals must take neither beer, nor meat, nor plants with the five strong flavours; they must bathe, wash their clothes and burn incense. » (Maspero 368).


Once rid of the Three Worms, the practitioner progresses through breathing techniques. He is gradually replacing the liquid food by the circulating of the breaths. Diet and Breathing are mutually reinforcing and practiced in the early stages to achieve union with the Dao. Some exercises of "breath holding" prepare for meditation. The mild ecstasy produced by this practice, when it is pushed far enough, favors the production of certain mystical states. Some Taoists living in the 3rd and 4th centuries ask a similar assistance to the starting drunkeness given by beer. This kind of inebriation erased the outer world, facilitate a mental detachment and open the mind to the concentration on the inner life (Maspero, 316-317).

The gathered plants and the collected minerals, substitute food of the Taoists, belong to the raw and celestial nature. The cereals, cultivated and cooked, are the Nature made twisted and sickly by the humans. The biographies of Taoist saints describe hermits feeding on peach blossoms, pine needles, dried jujubes, cane fruit, mountain mushrooms, yellow marsh irises, etc. The primeval raw is opposed to the cooked by humans. The heavenly scented air is opposed to the excremental decay born of the grains. We will see that between the raw, the cooked, and the rotten, there is a fourth (and somewhat paradoxical) place for the alcoholic fermentation, a grain-based matter converted by a ferment and consumed in its liquid form, namely the beer.


Under the Tang dynasty (618~907) then the Song dynasty (960~1279), the Taoist practices change. Consuming rice or millet beers implied certain economic means. The Taoists, as individuals or gathered in their monasteries, were to be sponsored by benevolent and generous donors.

Moreover, Buddhism extends its influence in China after the 5th century and fought against the consumption of fermented beverages, at least for monks, nuns and their pupils[4]. Practically, many Taoists under the Tang and the Song are contented to respect moderation in their diet as in any other aspect of their life.

The austerity of the Taoist diets and the strictness of the Quest for immortality  give way to a joyful hedonism or a libertarian social attitude. The total abstinence from the 5 cereals is replaced by periodical fasts and alchemical techniques (Lévi, 9).


This image of an emancipated Taoist will gradually erase the austerity of the first times, but also repel as in a dream the hope of becoming immortal. The pleasures of beer on earth, the heavy grain, the terrestrial gravity, and the too human drunkenness are triumphing.


[1] The traditional Chinese medicine divides the human body into three regions (Head, Chest-Arms, Abdomen and lower limbs), each with its Field of Cinnabar and its Hun spirit. These three spirits are essentially yang and therefore seek to ascend to heaven, leaving the body, cause of the death.

[2] Liver, heart, spleen, lungs, and kidneys.

[3] Maspero Henri 1971, Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises, p. 368. Henri Maspero, le Taoisme, Essais 1950

[4] The Buddhism has adopted and adapted in China much of the Celestial Kitchen. Mollier Christine 1999. Les cuisines de Laozi et du Buddha. In: Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie, Vol. 11, 1999. pp. 45-90.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger