Is the Quest for Immortality compatible with beer?


Taoist practices have proliferated and are codified during the period of the Six Dynasties (200~400). Ge Hong (c. 280~ c. 340) belongs to the seekers of immortality who multiplied under the dynasty of the Han, some of them encouraged and consulted by the imperial court. His work, the Baopu zi  (Master Who Embraces Simplicity), places the techniques of immortality at the core of the ancient Taoist tradition, beyond the simple procedures of hygiene or therapy, even if he is very critical about the abstinence of the 5 cereals as a means of becoming immortal.

Contrary to the conception that sees the perishable body as the temporary and material dwelling place of an immortal soul, the body is for the Taoists the unique and durable receptacle of multiple souls. The body (heart and spirit) is the possible means of survival. By nourishing his "body" correctly, the human being can hope to escape death. This exploration is known as the Quest for Immortality. It is inscribed in the Zhuang zi: "divine men" do not eat the " five grains", but suck up the wind, drink dew, ride the clouds and the air, drive flying dragons and walk out of the four seas.

The Dao offers its followers a path and concrete means to achieve immortality or increase their longevity, a quest that will occupy their entire existence. In this aspect, the Dao is a religion of salvation less known by Westerners who have isolated its philosophical and speculative activity. The quest for immortality mobilises both spiritual (reflection, asceticism, morality, knowledge of pantheons, ceremonies, exorcisms) and material means (dietetics, breathing, gymnastics, medicine, alchemy, sexuality). The Quest for immortality does not exclude any effective means. Dietetics, corporal and spiritual exercises are simultaneously practised by the adepts, according to a progression directed by a master of the Dao at the head of one of the many Daoist schools and communities in Asia.


Nourishing the body and the mind are not two distinct but complementary ways of regaining the unity of each being. The Quest for Immortality then implements two apparently contradictory practices (in the view of Westerners): abstaining from cereals and beer (seen as a fermented beverage made from grains) and at the same time using the inebriated state caused by the beer as a mastered vehicle to open the mind.

The Taoist Dietetics indeed advocates the abandonment of cereals as one of the steps that the body must take forward in order to get rid of the spirits that contribute to its degeneration: the 3 Worms (San chong) or 3 Corpses (San shi). Gorged with the pestilential scent of cereals, they are themselves a real rottenness. They are found in faecal matter, closely associated with death. The Dao adept neither eats nor drinks cereal-based products: neither grain, nor bread, nor porridge, nor beer. Rice, millet or wheat beers are forbidden. However, they have been the most common fermented beverage throughout China since the Shang (1570~1045 BC, Brewing under the Shang dynasty), almost every social classes included. The grape wines are nearly unknown in ancient China. So much for the discipline of the body.

The adept of Dao also tries to glimpse, by the means of the mind, the previous state of his existence, free from prejudices and the heavy dialectic that cuts his intelligence from the unified vision. This preparation of the mind often passes through drunkenness, not as an end in itself, but as a prerequisite (not the only means) for the awakening of the spirit. Some adepts, having managed to master the abstinence from cereals and therefore from beer, nevertheless continued to drink it in a highly intellectualised context reserved for the privileged classes (poetry, philosophical discussion, free conversation, learned circles).

Drunkenness is a classic theme of Taoist poets, for example Xi Kang (223~262) or Li Bai (701~762)[1]. They embody the popular figure of the joyful and perpetually drunk immortal. But what drunkenness are we talking about? This Taoist tradition celebrates the life fully lived and the enjoyment of the present moment, but also a transcending of it. By means of the fermented cereal beverage, the Taoist wants to attain lasting intoxication, that of the liberated body-mind. The best Chinese (and Japanese) poets, and painters too, have been able to render the special atmosphere of Tao and Zen, made up of contemplation and intoxication of course, but above all of philosophical and existential freedom. But this Taoist tradition should not obscure another path made of severe fasts, strict discipline of body and mind, undertaken from the very youth to have the time and the best chances to reach immortality. So much for the discipline of the mind.


The codified drinking of rice and millet beers is practised during banquets reserved for the great initiates, masters and immortals. The Cuisine of Heaven refers to those meals during which a Daoist saint drinks as much beer as he wants without ever being drunk, a power that manifests his condition of immortality. So why drink, asks the rationalist? Because beer only brings the breath of intoxication to the spirit of an immortal (who has a body, let us remember), never the miasma of drunkenness and headaches which are the fate of cereal and meat eaters.


The Taoist dietetics presents yet other oppositions between "forbidden cereals" and "sought-after drunkenness with beer". Avoiding the grains foods weakens the " 3 Worms " but does not make them disappear. You have to swallow pills to kill them. Their preparation, complex and expensive, often involves a strong beer as an infusion or decoction agent. The alcohol contained in the beer becomes the acting medical, the alchemical principle or the usual solvant for essential oils. This balance between prohibition and use of beer reappears in the Taoist medicine. The Song period documents numerous lists of decoctions and drugs to compensate the dietary deficiencies due to the severe Taoist diets without meat and cereals. Some introduce rice or millet beers in their concoctions, as if the alcoholic fermentation purified or lightened the 5 cereals.


One wonders how a grain-producing country like ancient China was able to initiate, spread and maintain the ban on the 5 Cereals within limited but very active religious communities[2].

Through the mirror of Taoist practices, beer thus oscillates between its purely food and cereal nature on the one hand (bread-beer), and its volatile and alcoholic nature on the other, a promise of modified states of consciousness. It corrupts the body in the appearance of rice-beer, millet-beer or wheat-beer, i.e. a cereal beverage. But, it is an initiator in its spiritual aspect, a medium of intoxication for the highly educated and sharpened mind of the Taoist masters. This double nature of beer is not theorised by the thinkers of Dao, more concerned with practices than with conceptual scaffolding.



[1] Li Bai, also transcribed Li Bo (Li Po), has for pen name Li Taibai.

[2] Lévi Jean 1983, L'abstinence des céréales chez les taoïstes, Études chinoises, n°1:3-47; pp 4-5.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger