The 'Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup' (Yinzhong baxian) is a poem written by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (AD 712-770) who, like many Tang dynasty men of letters, derived considerable enjoyment, and, apparently, inspiration, from drinking wine.
This poem provided the subject for paintings at least as early as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and appeared as decoration on porcelain in the Qing dynasty Shunzhi reign (1644-1661), although it was particularly popular in the Kangxi reign (1662-1722).
In his poem he chose to celebrate the drinking habits of other literary men of his time, including that of his great friend Li Bai (AD 701-62).
Du Fu said about the Eight Immortals:
Li Jin, Prince of Ruyang:
'Ruyang can drink three gallons [of wine] by daybreak,
But when a wine cart passes his mouth still waters,
He would prefer to take up an appointment in Jiuquan [Wine spring].'
He Zhi-zhang sits crosswise in his saddle
as if he were riding across seas
in his befuddlement he seeks a cool well
to sink into a deep sleep.
Minister Li Shi-zhi spends daily for his wine ten thousand cash
and he drinks as a whale drinks from the sea
each time his lips are so happy they burst into song
the eternal words, keep it straight, no diluting for me.
Cui Zongzhi light-hearted and carefree, handsome young master, raising the wine cup, the whites of his eyes look toward the clear sky, he sways like a jade tree in the wind.
Su Jin has made a vow to the Buddha embroidered on his vest
but for his drunkenness he takes care to forget all his rules.
Li Tai-bo drinks a gallon of wine, writes a hundred poems
then sleeps it off in the back of a wine shop in Chang-an
when the emperor asked him to board the royal barge
he shouted back, I am a drunken immortal.
Zhang Xu needs three full beakers for his art
then his brush brings fairy clouds down to the silk
his cap tossed aside in his frenzy, bareheaded before princes.
The term "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup" was first used in a poem by the celebrated Tang poet Du Fu (712-770), who himself was sometimes referred to as the “ninth poet” immortal. The descriptions of the eight poets as depicted on the bowl – following in a clockwise direction- are as follows:
He Zhizhang (665-744) – was a statesman, poet and calligrapher active during the reign of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (713-756). Here he can be seen riding his horse in a drunken state and being supported by an attendant. A second attendant follows carrying a pole on which hangs a lunch box and wine ewer. In front and to the right of the horse is the well into which – according to an anecdote – he fell into whilst drunk.
Li Shizhi (d.747) – was Prime Minister during the later part of the Kaiyan era (712-741) and was known as the “ First Minister of the Left “ – with a reputation for simplicity. He was forced to retire through intrigue and at a later stage committed suicide. The painting shows Minister Li seated before a screen and drinking a cup of wine whilst another attendant – to his right – offers him a second cup. To the forefront of the panel are two large wine jars – one of which has a ladle.
Li Jin – was the nephew of emperor Xuanzong and held a prominent position in government, being titled “ Prince of Ruyang “. Du Fu found the prince a congenial companion and wrote at least one long poem in his honour. Here he can be seen - unsteady in his stance – being offered a cup of wine by his attendant. There is a wine cart and a further attendant to the left of the prince.
Jiao Sui – was a man of humble descent from western China – here he can be seen seated in a landscaped garden with three others - with a pavilion close by. A large pouring vessel – presumably containing wine – can be seen beneath the table.
Su Jin - was a devout Buddhist who rose to become Vice-President of the Board of Revenue and tutor to the then heir apparent. In this depiction he can be seen kneeling on a rug before a statue of the Buddha. In front of him is a single wine cup and to his right a large pot containing a ladle.
Cui Zhonghi - styled Duke of Qi and seen here raising his goblet to the “ blue heavens “. He is surrounded by two attendants - one carries a wine ewer whilst the other can be seen unwrapping a zither.
Zhong Xu (713 -740) - was one of the greatest cursive script calligraphers and an official during the reign of the emperor Xuanzong. Under the influence of wine he would become oblivious to his surroundings and would often fling off his cap in the presence of the court. Here he can be seen with his hat on a small table to his left side. An attendant can be seen stretching out a piece of paper whilst the Tang emperor sits on a wooden chair smiling benignly.