The verdict of a Wise Tibetan KingArticle 7 of 7

The similar Chinese and Japanese texts.


A Chinese text from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) attributed to Wang Fu deals with the same issue: Cha jiu lun (Tea -Beer, Debate 茶酒論). It assesses the merits of each beverage with regard to health, moral conduct and religious prescriptions[1]. Under the Tang, the influence of Buddhism in China is very great.

A copy of this text dates from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and maintains the same features. Tea is the symbolic beverage of the Buddhist clergy, of the meditation and distance with respect to the ordinary social life of the laity. Beer, either from rice or millet, created the "communally drinking", reiterates the necessity of social bonds and rules advocated by the Confucian doctrine, and serves as an offering to the dead and the gods, both roles that a simple infusion of the leaves cannot hold.

In China, there is a clear opposition between, on the one hand, the beer of the laity, a popular beverage but also a beverage of ancestral and imperial rites, and, on the other hand, the tea of the monks, the beverage of those who withdraw from the worldly life and set their own rules of community life.

This contradictory debate between beer and tea crossed the China Sea and continued at the same time in Japan. A literature of disputatio called ronsomono developed during the Muromachi era (1336-1573). One of its best examples concerns precisely rice beer (sake) and tea. This is no coincidence. The Shu-cha-ron (Beer-Tea-Debate, 酒茶論), is a text which confronts the respective virtues of rice beer and tea. There are two versions. One dates back to 1576, written by an abbot of a temple in the province of Mino; the second one features Furuta Oribe (1543-1615), a famous advocate of tea.

Another text, the Shuhanron (Beer-Rice Debate), a variant of the Shucharon, this time depicts three types of classical characters in the Japanese literature of this period. The first (Jōko) praises sake, the joyful life and bears the title of Miki no kami (Head of Sake Brewing). The second (geko) is a monk named Kōhan (rice lover) who abstains from alcohol. The last one (Chūko) likes both rice food and the fermented beverage brewed from it[2].

The third character, Nakahara no Nakanari (naka = "middle", "entre-deux-plaines") advocates moderation of all things and embodies conciliation. A middle path is drawn between excesses of drunkenness and complete austerity. This is the very path of the Buddha, at least in the version that reached Japan through China and is represented by the Tendai School[3].

A third Japanese variant, the Shubeiron 酒餅論, contrasts rice beer and rice cake, on the same terms. Although here, the rice cake (bei) symbolises one of the offerings common to the rites of Shinto and Buddhist temples, against the rice beer (sake) which is specific to the Shinto offerings and usually excluded from Buddhist devotions in Japan.

The chronology of the texts grants the anteriority of such debates to the Chinese versions. Southern China promoted the use of tea as early as the 1st millennium and enjoyed an even older brewing tradition. It therefore seems that the Beer-Tea debates were of Chinese inspiration, then taken up and adapted to the east by the Japanese tradition and to the west by the Tibetan kingdoms[4].

But the oldest copy of the Chinese version, that of the Tang dynasty (618-907), comes from the oasis of Dunhuang, at the western end of the Gansu corridor. At that time, the region was dominated by Tibetan political and military power. It rivaled the Chinese Tang Empire. In 822, the king of Tibet and the Chinese emperor Muzong (r. 820-824) signed a peace treaty that established the borders of the two empires. Tibet becomes the centre of Buddhism, which has flowed back from its original Indian core. The brewing tradition is no less ancient in Tibet. The Tibetan royalty and Buddhism may also have inspired this form of contradictory debate between Beer and Tea. In this case, Chinese literature would have borrowed its model from the flourishing Tibetan culture, and not the reverse.

The Tea and Chang Dispute highlights a common and recurring theme in the Asian cultural areas impregnated with the Buddhist religion. Tibet, China and Japan questioned the status of beer in relation to the religious demands of Buddhism and the compatibility of the Renunciation with social life. Does abstinence from beer make it possible to maintain a social life, that of laity and common people specially ? Tea, whatever its qualities, leads to meditation, to the centring on the individual and his speculative forces. Beer creates social bonding, extroversion and surpassing.

Guardian of the restraint, Buddhism operates a balance between these two poles.


[1] Hsueh-Man Shen, 2005, Body Matters: Manikin Burials in the Liao Tombs of Xuanhua, Hebei Province, Artibus Asiae 65, note 59.

[2] C'est un usage commun de tous les peuples qui brassent des bières avec la méthode des ferments amylolytiques, c'est-à-dire sans étape du moût liquide. Si la masse de céréale fermentée est diluée et filtrée, la bière qui en résulte a une apparence liquide. Mais non filtrée et consommée telle quelle, est reste comme une bouillie épaisse alcoolique. Le nigorizake et l'amazake modernes descendent de ces bouillies fermentées anciennes. Edition française présentée, traduite, illustrée et abondament commentée "Des mérites comparés du saké et du riz, illustré par un rouleau japonais du XVIIe siècle", Bibliothèque nationale de France, Diane de Selliers, Editeur. 2014. La traductrice a malheureusement sacrifié à la coutume qui traduit saké par "vin de riz" et non pas bière de riz. Les commentaires expliquent ensuite qu'au 17ème siècle les brasseurs japonais brassaient dans leurs brasseries des "vins de riz" !  

[3] Watanabe Takeshi, 2009, Wine, Rice, or Both? Overwriting Sectarian Strife in the Tendai Shuhanron Debate, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 36/2, 259-278.

[4] Thus, in Shuhanron, Nagamochi, who is the director of the sake office, says, "It is true today as in ancient times that sake is a wonderful thing. In the old days, even those who liked to drink it were given a title and emoluments. Some even went so far as to wish to be reborn in a sake cup". This is an allusion to Zheng Quan, a high dignitary of the country of Wu at the time of the Three Kingdoms (220-256), whose love for beer was proverbial. He wanted to be buried next to his beer jars so that his remnants could be reused in the making of beer jars (jiuhu 酒壺). This anecdote written in the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms was copied in Japan in 747 in the Diayu ji. The Chinese origin of the literary genre "Disputations seems undeniable.

The verdict of a Wise Tibetan KingArticle 7 of 7