The sentimentality of idleness: Two Definitions of Leisure

Penglai Peak (Penglai feng), from Luo-Fu Mountains (Luo-Fu shan shuhua ce) by Shitao (From the Princeton University Art Museum)

The word leisure may conjure many different images in the mind of a contemporary English speaker: reading, exercising, cooking, or perhaps, in the more likely scenarios, enjoying a moment browsing on various electronic devices. Although the poetic sentiment being discussed in this and other pieces in this section could be roughly translated as “leisure”, the character and concept of 閒 (xián) is less “time…when one can rest, enjoy hobbies or sports”, and more a particular and nuanced mental stillness, as well as the subtle emotional fluctuations that such a state entails. 

The complex and varied schemas attached to the character make it difficult to translate, as there is no direct English equivalent. Perhaps it is more accurate to render the character as “idleness”, the antithesis of being occupied, rather than leisure. Yet that translation is not entirely satisfactory either, since the character also evokes a positive sensation of peacefulness, akin to the concept of Zen, as well as the more negative connotations of being off-topic and unimportant. Resultantly, perhaps the most preferable way of exploring xián is to address its two antithetical iterations, one when idleness is a blessing, the other when it is a curse, separately. 

One: Having enough time to be at peace with one’s mind and the world

A famous Chinese Guzheng piece entitled “High Mountain and Running River” that embodies this contemplative idleness just as well as the poem below…

Idling fellow…sweet Osmanthus petals fall,
Tranquil night…spring mountain deserted.
Then moonrise, startling mountain birds,
Calling, oftentimes within spring brooks.

《鸟鸣涧》唐·王维 Wang Wei [Tang Dynasty]

In an age without the varied entertainment options provided by the modern world, ancient Chinese poets did many things during their leisure time. Some of these activities have already been discussed, such as drinking by oneself (often to the moon), or with friends. There is, however, one more manifestation of leisure that poets often describe — finding peace in a contemplative idleness. 

This poem by Wang Wei, its title translated often as Calling-Bird Brook, is perhaps the most famous of the many verses describing such a state of inactivity. Despite its extreme concision and the fact that the idle person is mentioned only once in the first line, each of the many images evoked contributes to the construction of an atmosphere of stillness, contemplation and peacefulness. In the first couplet, the stillness of the person is juxtaposed against the movement of falling petals, symbolizing the passage of time and changes in season, both common subjects for philosophical contemplation. This image is set against a broader backdrop of the mountain, towering motionless in the silent night, beyond the reach of mundane concerns. The poem then moves from this meditative stillness to sudden enlightenment, embodied by the domino effect caused by the moonlight — it startles the birds in the mountain, causing them to swoop down into the brooks, their call piercing the preceding silence.  

In his seminal work The Art of Chinese Poetry, scholar James Liu suggests that the type of idleness evoked by Wang Wei is neither a derogatory indolence, nor purely the absence of activity. Instead, the person described in the first line is at peace, his mind peaceful, free of worldly concerns. Peace here is defined not merely as the absence of conflict, but embodies a more philosophical state of being, closer to the Western understanding of Zen. Although Zen is more commonly associated with Japanese culture, the term originated from Chinese Chán Buddhism, a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed during the Tang dynasty, and only later evolved into multiple Japanese schools. 

The influence of Tiantai, a Buddhist school popular during the Sui and Tang dynasty that fuses Confucian and Taoist thought with imported Buddhist ideas, is apparent in Wang Wei’s lines, which could be read as describing meditation. Meditation practices emphasized the dynamics between 止 (zhǐ, śamatha, meaning cessation) and 观 (guān, vipaśyanā, meaning contemplation and realization). Interpreting the poem under this framework, it is not difficult to identify the first couplet as a description of a subject meditating in nature, allowing earthly concerns to brush past, until they reach, in the second couplet, a realization that reveals some essence of existence. 

Since the “cessation” of activities is a prerequisite for reaching the state of zhǐ, which in turn is necessary for spiritual realization, it is no wonder that idleness is elevated to such a level of philosophical significance in Chinese poetry.

Returning Birds and Old Cypress by Anonymous (From The Cleveland Museum of Art)

Two: Having too much time to ponder life’s copious bitter imperfections

Despite its supposed ability to elevate mortals to a higher philosophical plane, the state of zhǐ is perhaps elusive for many in the current conditions of the world. Mortal concerns are, in this moment, so intense that sitting alone with one’s thoughts, idle, unoccupied would probably bring about the exact opposite of their cessation. Fear not, ancient Chinese poets too were troubled by worldly concerns, and had word and lines to describe this type of unsettling idleness.

Who says this languor has long gone?
Every spring, the melancholy returns still.
Each day, I drink till sick before flowers,
Not daring to resist my wilting reflection.

《蝶恋花·谁道闲情抛弃久》五代·冯延巳 Feng Yansi [Five Dynasties]

Spring in Jiangnan by Wen Zhengming (From Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

James Liu contrasts this poem by Feng Yansi against Wang Wei’s philosophical lines:

…it signifies a nonchalant, listless, and wistful state of mind that resembles ‘ennui’.

James J. Y. Liu in The Art of Chinese Poetry

In his poem, Feng romanticizes the prospect of wasting away through excessive drinking, yet does not give a reason for his sadness. Instead, he speaks of a listlessness and subtle melancholy that persists, in which he indulges thoroughly, daring not to resist its call. Describing his inability to prevent himself from pining away with wine as “not daring to” do so adds a moral dimension to his action, implying a masochistic enjoyment of, and indulgence in, this type of idle melancholy. Similar to the nineteenth century European concept of decadence, the languor described in Feng’s poem did not result from deprivation, but rather is a disease of abundance and sophistication. Doubtless, in a time of great turbulence and unrest (as the Five Dynasties certainly were), only cultured officials like Feng could afford to reserve time for such leisurely experiences of sadness.

Such artistic expressions of ennui, however, were not penned solely by statesmen poets during times of war.

The flowers fade as water flows,
One strain of deep longing,
Two scenes of idle sorrow.
No way to rid this lasting love,
Banished from one’s brows,
It reappears in one’s breast.

《一剪梅·红藕香残玉簟秋》宋·李清照 Li Qingzhao [Song Dynasty]

Revisiting this lyric by Li Qingzhao, this time focusing on the second stanza, reveals that the intense longing for her loved one the persona exhibits is described as an ‘idle sorrow’. Yet this by no means diminishes the depth of emotion conveyed by the poem, quite the contrary, it adds subtlety and nuance. 

For separated lovers, longing is an omnipresent feeling that persists through time, bubbling beneath the surface even when focus is directed at more immediate concerns. Idleness in this instance leaves time for the consideration and expression of that longing, allowing for a shared moment of emotional connection despite the lovers being in “two scenes”, separated by thousands of miles. Idleness can be read therefore as a trigger for the expression of longing, which itself is unable to be dispelled, only concealed, transferred from one’s visage to one’s heart.

Idleness is a mood enhancer, much like wine (or indeed, for Chinese poets, the moon). Just as wine brings either rapturous happiness or tears, idleness could bring about a contemplative, meditative state, it could also draw melancholy into sharp focus when distractions fade. For ancient Chinese poets being idle was not just the absence of other commitments, but the presence of specific opportunities to muse, be it about metaphysical concerns, personal emotional matters, or even baseless bouts of sadness. Perhaps in this age of constant preoccupation and information overload, modern humans have a thing or two to learn from these ancient yet wise attitudes. 

《蝶恋花·谁道闲情抛弃久》五代·冯延巳 To the tune of Dié Liàn Huā by Feng Yansi [Five Dynasties]

Original Text



I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.


Translation by James J. Y. Liu,
From The Art of Chinese Poetry

Who says that this idle feeling has long been left aside?
Whenever spring comes, my melancholy returns as before.
Every day, before the flowers, I'm ill with too much drinking, 
Yet dare I refuse to let my image in the mirror grow thin?

O you green grass by the river and willows on the dam, 
Pray tell me: why does new sorrow arise with each year?
Alone on a little bridge I stand, my sleeves filled with wind;
The new moon rises above the woods and everyone else is gone. 

《鸟鸣涧》唐·王维 Calling-Bird Brook by Wang Wei [Tang Dynasty]

Original Text



I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.


Translation by Cai Zongqi,
from How to read Chinese poetry: a guided anthology

Man quiet: sweet osmanthus falls
Night tranquil: the spring mountain empties
The rising moon startles mountain birds
Which call awhile in the spring stream


A note on references: Listed below are all works the contributors referenced in the process of writing specific pieces, some for inspiration, others for confirmation of specific details. Works that are considered suitable for readers of this blog as extended reading are indicated in bold.

Ma Lin, Waiting for Guests by Lamplight, circa 1250

In Women and the Moon: Isolation, sorrow, and longing from the Palace to the Boudoir

Cai, Z. (2008). How to read chinese poetry : A guided anthology. New York: Columbia University Press.
Retrieved from,sso&custid=s4392798&direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&AN=224624

Chang, K. S., Saussy, H., & Kwong, C. Y. (1999). Women writers of traditional china : An anthology of poetry and criticism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Lee, M. O. (1988). Per nubila lunam : The moon in virgil’s “aeneid”. Vergilius (1959-), 34, 9-14.
Retrieved from

Owen, S. (2019). Just a song : Chinese lyrics from the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center.

Ratto, K. (1971). The moon in literature. Elementary English, 48(8), 932-936.
Retrieved from

Read, S., & Gill, C. (2019). How women and the moon intertwine in literature.
Retrieved from

Seed, D. (2019). Moon on the mind: Two millennia of lunar literature.
Retrieved from

Verlaine, P., & Shapiro, N. R. (1999). One hundred and one poems by paul verlaine : A bilingual edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Retrieved from,sso&custid=s4392798&direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&AN=333857

Yang, L., & An, D. (2005). Handbook of chinese mythology. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Abc-Clio.
Retrieved from

《一剪梅·红藕香残玉簟秋》宋·李清照 To the tune of Yì Jiǎn Méi by Li Qingzhao [Song Dynasty]

Original Text



I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.


Translation by Eugene Eoyang, 
From Women writers of traditional China : an anthology of poetry and criticism

The scent of red lotus fades: the jade mat feels autumnal.
Gently loosening the silk gown,
I board the orchid boat alone.
Who's sending a gilded message in the clouds?
When the migrating geese bring word
The moon will be full in the Western chamber.
Flower petals drift down, the river flows.
One kind of longing
In two places: idle melancholy.
No way to dispel these feelings.
For just when they brim the eyes,
They go straight to the heart.

《怨歌行》汉·班婕妤 Song of Resentment by Ban Jieyu [Han Dynasty]

Original Text



I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.


Translation by David R. Knechtges,
From Women writers of traditional China : an anthology of poetry and criticism











《玉阶怨》唐·李白 Lament of the Jade Stairs Li Bai [Tang Dynasty]

Original Text



This character-by-character annotation is adapted from Cai Zongqi’s “How to read Chinese poetry: a guided anthology”


Translation by David Hinton, 
from Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology

Night long on the jade staircase, white
dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings.
She lets down crystalline blinds, gazes out
through jewel lacework at the autumn moon.

《嫦娥》唐·李商隐 Cháng É by Li Shangyin [Tang Dynasty]

Original Text



This character-by-character annotation is adapted from Cai Zongqi’s “How to read Chinese poetry: a guided anthology”


Translation by Cai Zongqi, 
from How to read Chinese poetry: a guided anthology

Behind the mica screen, candles cast deep shadows
The Great River slowly sinks, and dawn stars are drowned
Chang-e must regret stealing the elixir—
Over blue sea, in dark sky, thinking night after night

Women and the Moon: Isolation, sorrow, and longing from the Palace to the Boudoir

A beauty like the moon, when concealed behind clouds at dusk,
becomes more beautiful still.

《三部乐·美人如月》宋·苏轼 Su Shi [Song Dynasty]

Flowering Plum in Moonlight and Snow by Liu Shiru (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

For thousands of years humans have been fascinated by the moon, by its brightness and shade, by the way it waxes and wanes, and the way moonlight casts soft shadows in its wake. Although in recent years scientific discoveries and space exploration has demystified much of the satellite’s mystique, it is undeniable that the moon has been an object of literary and artistic intrigue for much of human history. As a literary symbol, the moon is often associated with femininity, serving as a manichean opposite to the masculine brilliance of the sun. Indeed the Western canon contains no shortage of works comparing beautiful women to the moon, or sketching their silhouettes against the romantic glow of a moonlit night. The feminine moon symbolises the emotional, often the tragic. It accompanies Queen Dido as she walks in the underworld, it chases Thisbe as she evades the lioness. Such associations are also present in classical Chinese poetry, in which the moon often accompanies women, and evokes isolation, desolation, longing, and sorrow. 

As in the West, some of the most famous literary instances of the moon were penned by men about male subjects. Nevertheless the symbol appears also in many stories about women — classical Chinese poetry is not short of its own slender silhouettes set against the moon. Some of these works were even written by women poets, who tell stories of shared feminine plights through (semi)autobiographical writing. Much like how Sappho and Dickinson wrote about “her silver face” (or “her perfect face”), women poets of ancient China seemed keenly aware of their implicit connection with the feminine celestial body. 

The following sections tell the stories of the Chinese moon goddess, imperial court ladies, and the most notable poetess in Chinese literary history. The world has changed much since the times in which these poets lived, yet through their lines perhaps we may be able to feel what they felt when looking at the moon in all its eternal ephemerality.

The Woman on the Moon 

The Moon Goddess Chang E by Unidentified Artist (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

The tale of Chang E (嫦娥), the Chinese goddess of the moon, is quite different to the Greek Artemis or the Roman Diana. Beyond more superficial features like Change E being associated with the rabbit rather than deer, the Chinese goddess is far less powerful and autonomous than her Western counterparts. In Greco-Roman mythology, the moon goddess is associated with the hunt and chastity, and drawing her wrath like Actaeon did might result in being turned into a stag and a gruesome death. Chang E on the other hand, did not have such powers.

Chang E should regret stealing that elixir,
Jade-green seas and bright blue skies, she laments night upon night.

《嫦娥》唐·李商隐 Li Shangyin [Tang Dynasty]

In one common version of the legend, Chang E was the wife of Houyi, the heroic archer who shot down the nine extra suns that appeared in the sky, causing strife for the people. For his good deed the hero was awarded the elixir of immortality, which he chose not to consume. Some versions of the story suggest Change E drank the elixir out of greed, others out of necessity when Houyi’s apprentice attempted to steal the potion. In nearly all iterations of the story, however, the poor woman is unexpectedly lifted from the mortal world and consigned to the chambers of the Guanghan Palace (广寒宫) on the moon for all eternity. This is likely why the poet Li Shangyin speaks of the goddess’ “regret” — she may have reaped the benefits of immortality, but she is also forever separated from her husband, and may only look longingly at earthly pleasures from her isolated palace. Though this poem possibly contains the most renowned lines about the goddess, many critics argue that Li Shangyin is employing the plight of the goddess allegorically, and is rather lamenting his own destitute. The expression of negative emotions by male poets through a female poetic persona is not uncommon in Chinese poetry. So much so that entire academic volumes have been written about this very practice. 

Beyond these lines by Li Shangyin, both Chang E and her palace are often evoked in poetry to express emotions of regret and loneliness. Indeed, for the family oriented Chinese, Chang E’s moon palace, no matter how beautiful and eternal, could not compare to the company of loved ones and the warmth of the mortal world.

In those lofty palaces, which year is it tonight?
To there I want to return, drifting in the wind,
Yet I fear those crystal towers and jade arcades,
Are too high and frosty.
How shall dancing with my clear shadow, alone,
Mimic mortal joys?

《水调歌头·明月几时有》宋·苏轼 Su Shi [Song Dynasty]

The Moon Beyond the Walls

Certainly, Chang E was not the only woman longing for the mortal joys beyond the walls of her palace. Since the practice of concubinage is common in every imperial Chinese dynasty, thousands of women were trapped inside the imperial palaces, with their sole purpose being to serve the emperor. Yet many of these women did not even have the chance to meet the emperor, let alone indulge in his affection.  From this loneliness and disappointment the genre of the “palace lament” (宫怨) poems, which focussed on the lives and longings of palace women, were born. Since the moon symbolises both reunion with family, which was a near impossible luxury for palace women, and loneliness, it was a common image in these poems. 

As jade stairs breeds white dew,
The long night soaks silk hose.
Setting the crystal blinds,
Gazing the autumn moon.

《玉阶怨》唐·李白 Li Bai [Tang Dynasty]

In this famous palace lament, some would say the most famous, Li Bai tells a story through images and mood, rather than explicit diegesis. Due to the customary absence of pronouns, not even the subject is defined, so one can only assume that this verse is about a palace woman from the symbol of “jade stairs”, often a synecdoche for an imperial palace. There is no indication of time either, except the implicit suggestion that enough time has passed for the dew to soak the woman’s silk hosiery. The melancholic mood is thus equally subtle, as it can only be derived from the woman’s enduring insomnia and the symbol of the moon. Perhaps the moon, hanging far beyond the confines of the palace walls, reminds the woman of her long lost family, or the life she could have had. 

Spring Morning at the Palace of the Han Emperors by Unidentified Artist (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

Although Li Bai was a man, the tradition of the palace lament was, according to some sources, started by a woman — Ban Jieyu (班婕妤), or Lady Ban of the Han dynasty. Hailing from a family of scholar-officials, Lady Ban was well educated and, upon entering the imperial palace, courted the affection of Han emperor Cheng. Her good fortunes ended when the emperor turned his passion towards the Zhao sisters, who plotted against her, resulting in her self-banishment to take care of the emperor’s aging mother. In her most famous work, the “Rhapsody of Self-Commiseration” (《自悼赋》), she laments that “dust has covered once ornate halls and moss now masks the jade stairs” (华殿尘兮玉阶菭), coining the jade stairs symbol employed later by Li Bai and many others. For Lady Ban and many other women trapped in the imperial palace, living without the emperor’s love was a deeply agonising experience.

Fashioned into a fan of “coupled bliss”,
Round like the bright, rounded moon.

《怨歌行》汉·班婕妤 Ban Jieyu [Han Dynasty]

Unsurprisingly, Lady Ban also employed the moon as a symbol in describing her abandonment and resultant resentment. In her other famous work, the “Song of Resentment” (《怨歌行》), she compares herself to a round fan, which, though much beloved by its owner in the summer, is abandoned by autumn. In this case the roundness of the fan, much like the roundness of the moon, symbolises togetherness and joy. Thus the symbol is employed ironically, that is to say, no matter how round the fan or moon may be, joy eludes those palace ladies abandoned by the emperor. 

It may seem slightly paradoxical that a symbol as traditionally auspicious as the moon is employed so readily in poems describing anguish and disillusionment. Yet it is this very paradox that heightens emotional and dramatic tension in creative expressions — a rose on Juliet’s balcony in the second act may symbolise innocent love and euphoria, a rose on the young lovers’ grave in the final scene would signify the opposite. The moon in Chinese poetry is much like the rose in this example, it serves as a magnifying glass, enhancing whatever emotion that dominates the context.

Epilogue: Clair de Lune

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

With the sad and beautiful moonlight,
Which sets the birds in the trees dreaming,
And makes the fountains sob with ecstasy,
The slender water streams among the marble statues.

“Clair de lune (Moonlight)” by Paul Verlaine,
translated by Norman R. Shapiro

Sometimes the symbolic power of the moon can be evoked without any explicit references to its form. Clair de lune, with its silvery sheen and romantic softness, often conjures a subtly melancholic mood with a dreamy texture.

Who sends a gilded letter, through clouds, hither?
When those wild geese remigrate,
And the moonlight floods the west chamber.

《一剪梅·红藕香残玉簟秋》宋·李清照 Li Qingzhao [Song Dynasty]

In describing her longing for her travelling husband, the poet Li Qingzhao sketches an image of a moon-filled chamber, perhaps her boudoir, still and silent as time passes and migrating wild geese return home. The image is no doubt emotionally charged, as it is clear the persona is yearning for a word from her husband, but receiving none. Such delicate emotions are to translate, as it is impossible to convey the significance of all the rich symbols — clouds, gilded letters, migratory geese, the moon, and the west chamber, without losing the concision and linguistic elegance of the original. Fortunately, the human brain is capable of understanding art through various, at times synesthetic means. As such, maybe the best “translation” of the feeling evoked by “the moonlight floods the west chamber” is Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy, played by Martin Jones

Drinking to remember, drinking to forget: Examining Alcohol and Poetic Intoxication

A note before reading this piece: We all navigate this world with our own experiences and own baggage, and we carry this baggage with us when we experience and interpret works of art. As a result, no text could be understood in the same way by two people, and different people are suited to different forms of explanation. In this piece, I have tried to explain concepts in a way that suits me, a student of the Classics (both Chinese and Western) and an avid fan of literature and the arts. I hope that my explanation can communicate the things I feel when I read classical Chinese poetry, but it most certainly will fall short in that regard. Nevertheless, I hope that through my attempts, some fraction of the beauty of these texts may be transmitted from the poets drinking and writing centuries ago, to you.

Drinking and Composing Poetry by Yao Shou (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collections)

From Shakespeare’s “dish for a King” to Fitzgerald’s “finger-bowls of champagne”, alcohol and intoxication are concepts far from absent in the Western literary canon. Indeed, alcohol is a prominent feature in literature and art in every corner of the world, and the associated state of drunkenness a tool through which plots may be twisted and hidden emotions expressed. Although primarily considered a depressant, alcohol produced both stimulating and sedating effects in humans. Heightening highs and lowering lows, the substance sets the stage for deeply emotional episodes, makes and breaks relationships, and, unfortunately, enables addiction. Given its accentuating effect on human emotions, it is unsurprising that alcohol is both the beverage of choice for writers and artists seeking inspiration, and a mainstay in the creative products they produce. In turn, by examining the representation of drinks and drinking culture in literary works, one might be able to gain unique insights into the cultures and circumstances in which both author and story resides.

As Nicholas O. Warner writes in his introduction to the special, literature-focused issue of the Journal Contemporary Drug Problems, “cultural artifacts”, such as literary texts, may prove helpful to understanding “the values and beliefs underlying social behavior”, such as drinking. The ensuing articles in this issue discuss Finnish literature, American film, Irish drama, and Russian poetry, each explicating the nuanced connections between cultures and their literary products. Of particular interest is Julia Lee’s contribution “Alcohol in Chinese poems: references to flushing and drinking”, in which the author examines a claim arguing that the lower levels of alcohol consumption in contemporary China is a somewhat recent development. Indeed, after surveying many classical Chinese poems, it seems true that despite the population’s high alcohol sensitivity, consumption was rather liberal and less restrained during ancient times. Lee makes several interesting observations in her analysis, including how government censorship and prohibition may have warped literary depictions (literati-poets were often government officials, or at least aspiring ones), and how studying poems may reveal how much and for how long poets drank. Most notable, however, is her discussion of culturally-relative conceptualizations of drunkenness and the barriers to translation this erects. For example, Chinese character zuì (醉), most often translated directly as “drunk”, is believed by some sinologists to be a state less excessive than what the English word commonly denotes. Additionally, the character tuó (酡), describing the flushing reaction during drinking and in other situations, may have different connotations in China compared to the West due to the population’s physical sensitivities. Definitional and translation quarrels aside, it is clear, through both Lee’s study and the vast array of drinking related poems not encompassed by her survey, that many ancient Chinese writers enjoyed drinking and the feelings associated with the activity.

Despite this, the way in which Chinese poets drank and composed was markedly different from the anacreontic ways of many poets enshrined in the Western canon. In a letter to Maecenas, the Roman poet Horace references an ancient Greek edict which claims that no poetry of water-drinkers (contrasted with wine-drinkers) would please or be long-lived, listing many ancient Greco-Roman bards who drank liberally. Although the letter satirizes those unlearned men who try and gain poetic prowess through drinking alone, Horace does not deny that good poets do drink, and perhaps that drinking enhances their words. Indeed, the Greeks and Romans drank much wine, and often in social settings. At times, like during Symposia, the drinking was moderated, the drink itself diluted with water. At others, like during the notoriously debauched Bacchanalia, “when wine had inflamed their minds, and night and the mingling of males with females and young with old, had destroyed all sense of modesty, every variety of debauchery began to be practiced”. One would not, at least not explicitly, find descriptions of flautists performing sexual favors (they did during Symposia) in classical Chinese accounts of drinking. The fact that poetry, like all other literary forms, became closely bound to Confucian morality since at least the beginning of the common era, combined with the preservation of poetry being largely monopolized by governments, meant that classical Chinese poetry was a lot more subdued and conservative. Drinking was, for Chinese poets, not a license to participate in debauchery, but a channel through which noble ambitions and dignified emotions may be enhanced and expressed. Of course, drinking also served a social function, and when not drinking alone and lamenting personal circumstances, Chinese poets did drink with friends and female companions. Nevertheless, compared to the conceptualisation of drinking as the liberation from social responsibility and earthly concerns in the Western tradition, drinking in Chinese poetry harnessed, and only ever so slightly exaggerates the moments of inspiration that wine delivers to these upstanding gentlemen.

Indignation and unrealised ambitions

Meet and share a flask of murky wine, with cheer. 
Then endless histories, past and present, may yield to our indulgence.

《临江仙·滚滚长江东逝水》明·杨慎 Yang Shen [Ming Dynasty]__

All translations provided in the body of my articles are my own. Although in the process of writing and translating I have consulted many previous (and better) translations. Some of the translations I consulted and my word-by-word annotations can be seen in our poems collection.

Despite the many formulae and conventions classical Chinese poetry adheres to, the identities of poets were relatively diverse. Since the establishment of a mature written tradition proper around 400 C.E., a vast array of poems by peasants, monks, courtesans, and imperial concubines have been recorded and preserved. Yet the typical writer of poetry in classical China is still undeniably a man of the literati class — one who may or may not have been of high birth, but nonetheless holds office in the bureaucracy after passing the imperial examination (kējǔ, 科举). In order to pass this examination, men often had to study the Confucian canon for much of their childhood and early adulthood, be capable of applying these canonical classics to current politics, and be skilled in prose-writing and versification. Advancing through the ranks of the Chinese cursus honōrum was difficult, both inherently, due to the rigor of the examination process and the demanding nature of subsequent appointments, and artificially, due to rampant corruption and political intrigue. Stagnant careers were, therefore, common for many literati-poets, and the associated indignation a prevailing theme in classical Chinese poetry. 

The most notable example of a poet drinking away his indignation having suffered much in the supposedly meritocratic bureaucracy is Li Bai (李白) [701-762 C.E.], perhaps the most widely known classical Chinese poet both at home and abroad. One famous poem by Li, entitled ‘Bringing in the Wine’ (将进酒), is said to have been composed after the poet was dismissed from the imperial court at a whim, probably resulting from the machinations of political enemies. The poem, exhibiting a carpe diem attitude towards the perceived impermanence of life, is described by translator and scholar Stephen Owen as having “a frenzied intensity” and a “violent energy”, violates the usually restrained social drinking conventions. Rather than attempting to lessen his indignation by pledging Confucian self-improvement and expressing stoic disappointment towards corrupt politics, Li embraces an almost-anarchic attitude, implying drunkenness-induced elation and overconfidence as solutions to mortal concerns. Still, the most famous lines in the poem, given below, when decoupled from their poetic context, seem incredibly positive.

A fulfilling life calls for limitless pleasures,
so let not the golden goblet rest empty beneath the moon.
My natural genius must be of use somehow,
so gold wasted in the thousands shall return again in time.

《将进酒》唐·李白 Li Bai [Tang Dynasty]

Yet when we consider the true motivation of this poetic persona — drinking to forget not only immediate personal struggles, but the universal struggles of all humanity for all eternity, the poem ceases to seem so light-hearted. One can feel the burning indignation and resultant escapism in lines like ‘I hope to fall into an abiding slumber, never returning to sobriety’ (但愿长醉不复醒), and ‘together with wine we will abate all eternal sorrows’ (与尔同销万古愁). For Li and many dejected literati-poets like him, being unable to fulfill their ambitions in serving the emperor, people, and country creates a gaping void in their consciousness, one that may only be filled by the intoxicating comfort of alcohol. Thus, Li invites his colloquotor, whom during the Táng dynasty may have been his drinking mates, now his readers a millenia later, to be enlightened about life’s transience futility, and then to drink with him. In drinking we may find truth, but we may also find solace. 

For Li and many other great poets of imperial China, from indignation and unrealised ambitions spring often inspiration and unexpected genius…all it takes is a bit of wine.

Infatuation and unassuming desire

The only sober one you must not be, I urge, 
For numbered are the days of gross intoxication, among blossoms.

《木兰花·燕鸿过后莺归去》宋·晏殊 Yan Shu [Song Dynasty]

Sex and love are often key elements in Western works involving alcohol, and with good reason — booze not only reduces inhibitions, increases emotionality, but also is commonly believed to have aphrodisiac effects. Although no accounts of erotic parties like those in Greco-Roman literature survive from ancient China, classical Chinese poetry is not short of innuendo and erotic imagery. In particular, the cí (词), or song lyric genre, due to its popularity in entertainment quarters and common association with feminine emotionality, has produced an abundance of works dedicated to romance and intimacy. Designed to be sung by courtesans entertaining guests, song lyric poetry often inhabits a female persona, or at least describes a female lover as the main object. Consequently, the emotions imbued in these lyrics often escape the Confucian metanarratives and moral obligations literati were bound by in the rest of their lives, allowing poets to embrace sentimental themes and expressions. 

One acclaimed song lyric poet, Yan Jidao (晏几道) [1038-1110 C.E.] explicitly links his poems composed for and during drinking banquets to universal emotions and experiences:

“In [my lyrics] I not only gave an account of things I held dear, but also depicted those momentary sounds and sights over a cup of wine, and the things on the minds of those spending time with me.

Yan Jidao, Translated by Robert Ashmore

Indeed, unlike the traditional forms of poetry popular before the Song dynasty, song lyrics are not usually assumed to be autobiographical. Lyrics composed by Yan perhaps arose from a moment of inspiration in a drunken state, or were motivated by stories told by his drinking mates. Nonetheless the emotions and images in his works were no less moving than poetry stemming strictly from personal experience.

Flowing tides follow the flight of spring,
Floating clouds will finally rest with whom?
When wine fades, the blank brocade screen stirs resentment.
Seeking her in dreams, on that road of fluttering rain and falling flowers.

《临江仙·斗草阶前初见》宋·晏几道 Yan Jidao [Song Dynasty]

These lines form the second half of a poem describing memories of a loved one, who is supposedly now lost, never to be found again except in the persona’s drunken dreams. The natural imagery of tides and clouds flowing towards an unknown and unseen destination is particularly poignant, as it illustrates the futility of chasing this lost lover — she is like these at once ephemeral and eternal elements of nature, always there, yet always out of reach. Even in dreams, where the persona may attempt to seek his lover, she is obscured by the beautiful yet melancholy images of rain and wilting flowers. 

In this case, alcohol serves as a key that unlocks nostalgic memories and enables hope for the lovers meeting again. One can only imagine how moving this lyric might be when sung by a beautiful courtesan to a room full of drunken guests.


Figures, flowers, and landscapes (leaf A) by Chen Hongshou (from The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection)

In the lines on drinking written by Li Bai, the poet channels his passions, compounded by alcohol, through emphatic philosophical statements that show readers what his completely liberated mind thinks about the world. Contrastingly, in the lines by Yan Jidao, no statements are made. The lines consist only of meticulously crafted images, and any alcohol-enhanced emotions are hidden carefully within, generating a bitter-sweet aftertaste that may linger for quite some time. 

No matter if the poet and his poetic subjects are drinking to remember or drinking to forget, it is clear that the affective effects of alcohol are capable of reaching through time and space, intoxicating readers both past and present. After all, in the words of Li Bai, “only the names of drinkers are immortal”.