Invented Ritual for Completion of Brewing Cycle (Red Sorghum, 1988)

Libation to the (Non-existent) God of Wine
or Backcountry minstrelsy revisited

Here is the third work-occasioned vernacular-minstrel song in the film. But in this case the work effort links up with the verse not as synchronized support but sequentially: what we watch is the completion of an annual work cycle (the brewing of the hi-potency high-proof backcountry “vodka” misleadingly called “wine”) established by the color of the liquid drained from the vat) leading next into what seems a thanksgiving rite directed at a kind of folk-Daoist noumenal supervisor of the brewing process.

Here’s the scene:


The Wine God, Red Sorghum (1988)

Looks true enough as a salute. The salutee also.

But in fact it is an utter make-believe, for there is no such “god” in the Daoist pantheon: the below. Like all minstrels, Zhang Yimou proxied by Yu Zhan’ao is cheerfully defrauding us: far from being wary of discovery, he (and him) seem rather hopeful that their fraud will be unmasked in the cause of collective amusement, the pre-condition of audience participation in the show.

There are two clues.
The first a kind of tweaking of scribal class culture, albeit at the lower (vernacular) end of the literacy spectrum. As in most festival paste-ups, the image is bordered on both sides by paired and (usually) odd-numbered, rhymed verses, presenting in one form or another a wish for good fortune or lucky deliverance.

But the couplet here is simply pompous, suggesting in very odd language a potency that is assigned to the wine and not to its unearthly sponsor. The trope of tiger-inebriation is another key, since the pouring of spirits down the throat of an unhappy (unsedated) giant cat is difficult to imagine, even as metaphor. “Bringing peace to the world” (ningmin) is an idea often bruited in vernacular seasonal rite, but that this needs to be done by alcoholic stupefaction also violates ritual code, in which either ceremony or reverenced godhead or even the emperor are assigned this task.

If then this is the best that the peregrine scribe can supply, his class comes under unfriendly review.

猛虎一杯均平靜 One cup will sedate even the fiercest tiger
盍喝兩盞以寧民 So let’s drink a second to bring peace to the world


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