(56) A Look at Choson’s Drinking Culture

By Yang Sung-jin

In a bid to combat drunk driving, police will conduct around-the-clock roadside sobriety checks starting this week, expanding the current time frame from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The stepped-up measure comes amid signs that, while deaths caused by car accidents are declining, those associated with drunk driving are on the rise.

In a society where drinking has long been viewed as a gateway to proper socialization, it is no wonder that drunk driving is widespread. But, this love of drinking is not confined to modern society. Choson people also enjoyed drinking. In the Annals, there are a number of articles describing this affair with alcohol, some of which may hint at the root of today’s “Korean drinking culture.”

On June 6, 1691, King Sukchong met with Prime Minister Kwon Tae-un and other officials in the court. After the meeting, the king ordered a round of drinks for them: “If officials refused their turn at drinking, the king himself urged them to follow the royal order. Meanwhile, a historiographer named Hong Chung-jong volunteered to drink beyond his share, which was granted by the king.”

Due to the Choson’s social structure stressing the authority of elders, it was almost unthinkable for a junior to decline the offer of a drink. However courteous it may be, rejecting one’s turn in a round of drinking initiated by a senior was viewed as “impolite,” a practice that sometimes led to lethal consequences.

On April 23, 1428, a eunuch named Han Hong, who worked at the Palace of the Crown Prince, forced a court servant to drink far beyond his capacity. The forced drinking resulted in the death of the innocent servant and Han was later arrested and punished by the government.

In April of 1792, King Chongjo hosted a big party, inviting Sungkyunkwan (National Confucian Academy) students who passed a state examination to become government officials.

No Way Out

In his opening speech for the party, the king made a remark dashing any hopes of avoiding one’s turn to drink: “As the old saying goes, one’s true personality shows only after he gets drunk. Therefore, anybody who fails to drink up to the standard will be prevented from returning home. The old will get a small cup, the young a big cup.”

King Chongjo ordered officials to make sure that students present at the party would observe their turn faithfully, by accepting the wine cup that was passed around.

One of the students honored at the party was Oh Tae-chung. Unlike others who already succumbed to the intoxicating power of alcohol, Oh fared well even after gulping down five cups of traditional liquor. After all, his grandfather was Oh To-il, a helpless and matchless alcoholic of the time.

Debriefed on Oh Tae-chung’s background, the king said, “This very place is where Tae-chung’s grandfather slipped and fell to the ground while drunk. No wonder his grandson drinks well. Now, give Oh Tae-chung five more cups.”

When the party was close to an end, however, Oh was too drunk to control himself. “In the reign of King Sukchong, an official drank too much in front of the king and passed out. Now his descendant is lying on the same place, which is by no means a simple coincidence,” the king noted.

Indeed, Oh To-il was an unusual drinker, whose life was riddled with all sorts of weird incidents related to his notorious drinking habits. In mid-1696,

Oh participated in an evening lecture hosted by King Sukchong and abruptly made a remark that was totally unrelated to the topic, befuddling the king and other officials.

In April of 1697, the king hosted a public ritual in order to overcome the continued drought, praying for rain. At the critical moment, Oh, whose mission was to handle the wine offered to the heaven, slipped because of his drunkenness and as a result spilt the sacred cup of wine.

Enraged at Oh’s irresponsible act, the king ordered him punished, criticizing him bitterly the next day: “Yesterday, while we were hosting the ritual for rain, Oh’s face was red and his behaviors were strange, largely due to his continued drinking. I don’t understand how come he could not abstain from drinking only for a couple of days. Furthermore, he acted recklessly in front of the king.”

Liquor Prohibition

When Oh died at age 59 at a house where he stayed after the exile, his brief biography was written in the Annals: “When drunk, Oh would go naked and chase after people. One day, Oh stripped government-employed courtesans and chased after them, causing a commotion.”

Controlling such hard-core alcoholics was not a focal point of the Choson Kingdom’s nationwide liquor prohibition, which was enforced from time to time. The kings usually issued an order banning the production and distribution of liquor when they had to tighten social order and discipline.

For the most part, prohibition was enforced when the nation was hit by natural disasters such as flood, famine and drought, a realistic and practical measure aimed at saving grain, an ingredient in traditional liquor.

King Taejo, who founded the Choson Kingdom in 1392, issued an order prohibiting the circulation of liquor in 1395 as one government agency stressed the necessity of implementing the measure in a bid to refresh the social atmosphere “soaked in reckless heavy drinking.”

Interestingly, the king strictly banned monks from drinking and if found guilty of violating the prohibition, the monks were forced to serve in the reserve army. In 1398, King Taejo honored his word by ordering a monk who was caught drinking to serve in the army.

In 1401, when King Taejong issued a prohibition, the result was far from satisfactory with a number of citizens buying liquor on the black market. “Although I recently ordered a prohibition, people seemed to disregard the ban while continuing their drinking habits. This is largely because I did not quit drinking myself, failing to set an example,” the king said, gravely.

The prohibition, then, worked nicely as people who heard the king’s determination stayed away from drinking parties.

Of course, drinking can be salutary if used sparingly. In 1426, an influential scholar, Pyon Kye-ryang, recommended King Sejong to drink for health: “Drinking is a good medicine since it drives off evil spirits and vitalizes blood streams. But if Your Majesty does not drink while worrying about the protracted famine, your health shall be undermined.”

Despite the repeated calls from officials, King Sejong adamantly rejected drinking for medicinal purposes as long as a prohibition was enforced in a bid to overcome famine. There was another reason for the king’s strong determination. “How can I drink myself while other ordinary people are banned from drinking?” the king retorted, declining the request of the officials.

Today’s police may well remember King Sejong’s sobering example when pulling over drunk drivers.