Below the lotus at noon, on a boat my dream drifts;
Fragrance fills the West Lake, around me rises the mist.
— To the Tune of Zhāo Jūn Yuàn by Yang WanLi
To the south of the Yangtze River to pick the lotus seeds,
dense and flourishing are the lotus leaves,
between the leaves fish chases and swims.
— “To the South of Yangtze River”
–《清平乐 · 村居》辛弃疾
Most adorable is my naughty youngest son,
who is lying by the brook and podding lotus seeds.
— To the Tune of Qīng Píng Yuè, by Xin QiJi
Taking a nap amid the fragrance of lotus flower, watching red fish swim among the green round lotus leaves, picking a seed-pod and peeling out the fresh lotus seeds as snacks…
As the recent heat wave brings us into summer, I dreamt of lakes full of lotus near my house in China. For many Chinese, lotus is the carrier of summer memories.
In literature, as shown in the lines above, lotus is a common presence in poems depicting poetic and leisurely summer life. In addition to these relatively straightforward presence, lotus appears often as the protagonist of poems and proses, praised by the poets for its purity and noble spirits.
One famous example is the prose “On the Love of Lotus” ( 《爱莲说》 ）by Zhou DunYi (周敦颐) in Song Dynasty, in which he summarizes the lotus’ nature as:
Growing out of murky mud yet untainted,
Rising through fresh water yet preens not.
If you have never seen lotus live, you would be surprised that the roots of such beautiful flowers are buried deep below the filthy mud at the bottom of a lake. Before standing elegantly in the middle of the lake, the stem and leaves of lotus grows out of mud and rises through water. Every night, the lotus flowers are submerged back into the water before rising up again at sunrise.
Magically, however, should you uncover the lotus roots (what we call “藕” in Chinese）from the mud, you would find their inside white and clean. In fact, the lotus roots can be eaten raw, with a pleasant taste of fresh sweetness and light fragrance.
Even more astonishing are lotus flowers, despite being underwater every night, the flowers rarely carries any water drops upon them as they rise in the day. On a rainy day, unlike most plants with their leaves and petals covered with water, lotus leaves and petals remain dry. Upon landing on lotus, the raindrop would slide down the petals and convene at the center of the round lotus leaves. When the breeze blows past, the leaves sway and water would fall off into the lake. See, not only the filthy mud, the lotus does not even allow clear water to cling on itself!
Now, we understand the physical foundation of the descriptions “growing out of murky mud yet untainted, rising through fresh water yet preens not”. What spiritual quality of lotus is the poet, Zhou DunYi, praising with these lines?
According Zhou DunYi, the lotus guards its pure and upright spirit under the two conditions of “murky mud” and “fresh water”, remaining unaffected by either. As a common practice in Chinese literature, the lotus is personified here as “君子”, the moral ideal for literati class gentlemen under the Confucian canon.
To be “untainted by murky mud” is to hold one’s moral principles in an environment full of lures and temptations, not giving in to malpractices such as bribing, favoritism, and corruption (which are quite common in feudal bureaucracies). To “not preen after rising through fresh water”, on the other hand, ask that a “君子“ keeps his moral virtues (“fresh water”) as an internal principle, instead of becoming conceited and showing off his actions of nobility (“preening”). Due to its cleanness in regards to both mud and water, the lotus becomes a symbol of 君子 through the words of Zhou DunYi.
Besides purity and modesty, what other qualities of the lotus (君子) has Zhou DunYi praised?
Its stem is straight, with an opening right through the center.
It grows no vines, nor extra branches.
its fragrance spreads far, the farther the fresher.
It stands upright, quietly, with elegance.
It is to be admired from afar,
instead of being approached and tainted.
The first four lines refers to the lotus’ physical traits such as stem and fragrance, with the following moral equivalences: To be upright, and open to critics and advice. To not advance one’s growth (“stem”) with flattery and favors (“vines and branches”). To extend wide, positive impacts (“fragrance”) with one’s moral practices. To live one’s life in modesty, tranquility and elegance.
The last two lines refer to the special location of lotus flowers. Different from most flowers, lotus grows in the middle of water, unapproachable to passer-by on the coast. Despite one’s admiration to the lotus’ beauty, one cannot casually pick and play with the lotus flower as one could with other approachable land-based flowers.
In the literary context, poets often use lotus as an analogy for themselves, whose upholding of moral purity induces jealousy, leading to stagnant careers and even political persecution. Like the unapproachable lotus surrounded by water, the poets find themselves secluded, unable to make their noble aspirations heard, understood, and implemented. The poets depict the falling lotus in autumn to express their frustration and commitment to uphold their values.
No butterflies or bees,
shall follow her fragrance from afar.
When her red petals fall apart,
The lotus bloom’s bitter at heart.
《踏莎行》贺铸 <To the Tune of Tà Suō Xíng> by He Zhu Last two lines translated by Xu YuanChong
In the lines above, the poet uses the absence of butterflies and bees to symbolize his aspirations not being understood by those in power. It is thus not surprising that the poet himself is “bitter at heart”. This expression here, nevertheless, is in fact a pun. After the red lotus petals fall apart, all that is left is the lotus pod — the container of lotus seeds. Within each lotus seeds, there is a core plumule which we call the “lotus heart” (莲心). The lotus heart is used in traditional Chinese medicine and known for its bitterness. Thus, the lotus bloom is truly “bitter at heart”.
Speaking of the lotus heart, I would like to end this post with a line by a modern poet, Professor Yeh Chia-Ying of NanKai University:
For the heart of lotus seed would not die,
A thousand springs later,
it shall bloom and thrive.
These lines are inspired by an archaeological miracle of a lotus seed’s germination after being buried for over a thousand years.
Perhaps poetry are like these lotus seeds. After being asleep and buried in ink and rolls for thousand years, may they awake, bloom and thrive in our minds.
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
人闲桂花落，夜静春山空。 月出惊山鸟，时鸣春涧中。 Idling fellow…sweet Osmanthus petals fall, Tranquil night…spring mountain deserted. Then moonrise, startling mountain birds, Calling, oftentimes within spring brooks.
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.
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.
谁道闲情抛弃久？ 每到春来，惆怅还依旧。 日日花前常病酒，不辞镜里朱颜瘦。 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.
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.
花自飘零水自流，一种相思，两处闲愁。 此情无计可消除，才下眉头，又上心头。 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.
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.
“That’s hard to say, but something that I will never get tired of is porridge.” I replied.
“But it has no flavor!”
“Plainness is a flavor in itself.”
Now I will stop being a philosophical hypocrite and admit that I also strongly favor spicy food and used to hate porridge myself. Until? Perhaps until plain porridge became a less readily accessible taste of hometown (usually not served at restaurants abroad because..well, it has no flavor). Or perhaps until the day I read a poem by Su Shi.
To the Tune of Huàn Xī Shā
Fine rain and slanted wind on a crisp dawn,
before sunshine brightens the river shore,
scattered willows are shrouded by light fog.
Look, the incoming spring
rises up in its flow.
Foams of snow and flowers of milk,
floating atop my tea cup by noon;
as we taste the spring plates filled
with greens and shoots freshly grown.
Where there be flavor thus simple,
true content of life is shown.
This poem depicts the poet’s day trip into the mountain with his friends in early spring. To ensure the smoothness of reading, I did not translate after the original character order or grammatical structure in Chinese, nor was I able to fully account for the nuances and literary context of all the fine expressions. But worry not! We shall now take a closer look.
As I envision myself in this poem, I see traditional ink paintings with light strokes in water color. No extravagance, everything is soft, casual and almost unintentional. The fine rain are carried and tilted by the light breeze, enclosing the world in refreshing moist as they fall. The chill of a dawn in early spring, no longer the bitter coldness of winter. An omnipresent whisper, seeping into one’s breath and clothes with silky threads of rain.
What else does the poet put in this paint of early spring? No dense flowers, crowds or laughters. Simply a few scattered willows on the sun-lit river shore. Not only that, we only see them through a layer of light fog. Picture in your mind the willow shoots of early spring. Looking up close, we see not yet the new leaves. Looking from afar, nevertheless, the twigs themselves have a tender greenness from within. Now, the golden sunlight shines through the hazy fog of morning rain, and a faint stroke of greenness brightens the river shore.
How does Su Shi describe this picture? “媚”. As an adjective, it means “charming, bright, cute”. As a verb, it is “to appreciate, to love”. A lively picture, an appreciative mind.
Fine rain, soft breeze, light fog, shimmering sunshine, scattered willow…charming, tranquil, yet perhaps a bit still? As a final stroke to the picture, Su Shi adds the spring. Every spring, as snow melts, fresh spring from the mountain, named Luo Spring, would flow into the River of Huai. As more and more spring joins, the river of Huai awakens, flows and swells. The picture is no longer quiet, we now hear the spring river singing the song of life.
Now we come to the second half of the poem, where Su Shi describes the picnic with his friends at noon . Snow foam and milk flower floating in cup…what exactly was he drinking? The answer is tea. Today, in mentioning good tea, we think of the extended loose leaf and clear, transparent liquid in delicate cups. Keep in mind, however, that this poem was written in Song Dynasty — a thousand years ago. Back then, tea was brewed with tea powder, quite like matcha in today’s Japan. According to a record at the time, 《侯鲭录》(‘The Record of HouJing’): “Tea is to be the opposite of ink, good tea ought to be white, and good ink black.” (“茶与墨正相反，茶欲白，墨欲黑”）Su Shi describes the foam on their brewed tea to be white as snow, rich and thick as blooming flowers made of milk. How fresh, pleasant it must have been!
What refreshments accompanied such good tea? The Spring Plate. In ancient times, to celebrate the first day of spring, people put seasonal vegetables and fruits in a plate, the Spring Plate, to share with friends. In their picnic, Su Shi and his friends try out the spring plates with fresh buckwheat shoot and bamboo shoot in them.
As an agriculture-based civilization, traditional Chinese values the synchronization with nature in all aspects of life. For instance, one should “get up as the sun rises and rest at sunset” — “日出而作，日落而息”. (Yes I do feel a bit guilty for my disoriented circadian cycle…) The same principle applies to cuisine, it is believed that one should eat fresh, seasonal food whenever possible.
In the poem, Su Shi and his friends not only enjoy a pure taste of spring from the fresh vegetable shoots, but also derives greater joy in following and being a part of the rhythm of nature.
Of flavors in life, there could be the strong, the ardent, the bustling, the prosperous; like the cracking oil on blazing fire, or the shiny brocade adorned with blooming flowers.
Or, there could be the light, the moderate, the simple, the ordinary; like the fine rain, the soft breeze, the light fog, the scattered willows, the flowing spring, the white tea, the fresh shoots…
As Su Shi puts it, of all flavors, joys, experiences in the Realm of Men, one eventually returns to the long-lasting content in the ordinary day-to-day life. A picnic in early spring with tea and salad. What could be simpler? Should we examine our life as Su Shi does in this poem, every detail can be a source of joy, plainness is the flavor of content.
Perhaps years later, I will remember this summer of 2020. Sitting at this wooden table by myself, watching the silhouette of the Tower in the setting sun, tasting the porridge I cooked with barley and golden rice, and listening the cicadas’ first evening song. On a campus so out-worldly, in a silence so rare.
— 辛弃疾 《西江月 · 夜行黄沙道中》To the Tune of Xī Jiānɡ Yuè by Xin QiJi
Grammatically, there is no strict tense in Chinese. Borrowing some tense structure from English, I would claim this poem an eternal present-continuous. Whenever it appears in my mind, it draws me into an evening walk with the poet. Although I am not physically there, Mr. Poet is telling me in real time what he sees, smells, feels, and hears. Now, press the play button and off we go:
Bright moon, flickering twig, magpie startled;
Chill breeze, mid-night, cicadas buzzle.
“The moon is bright, I see a twig flickering — ah, it must be a magpie startled by the moonlight. I feel a chill breeze in the middle of the night, the breeze wakes the cicadas and accompanies their buzzes. “
In the fragrance of paddy flowers, speaking of a harvest year;
Listen, a field full of frog croaks.
“You wonder: who is speaking of the coming harvest of this year? I do not know, perhaps I am walking by some villagers chatting in the field, perhaps I am talking about the harvest to someone, perhaps the fragrant paddy is telling us of its forthcoming ripe. We sit patiently, listening to the frog’s song of summer, savoring our hope for a fruitful autumn.”
Seven to eight, grains of stars, the sky beyond;
Two to three, drops of rain, the mountains in front.
“One moment, my mind flies beyond the domes of sky to the stars. The next moment, raindrops bring me back to the mountains I walk upon. One moment, the stars flicker, the next moment, the rain drizzles. So random, casual, unintentional. As I walk, I let my consciousness travel. “
The cottage of old times, by the forest it is near;
Turning at the brook’s bridge, and suddenly they appear.
“Perhaps my walk does lead to somewhere. If I recall correctly, there should be a cottage around here. I know it is built by the woods, but where is it? It must be very close….ah, here it is! A surprise amid expectation, what a pleasant encounter! “
This poem creates within my mind a flowing state of wander and relaxation; a state of extending my senses toward all nuances in my environment; a state of concentration and content with the present; a state of hopeful yet patient expectation for the future.
“There’s nothing new happening”, “Every day feels the same”, “I feel rotten and unproductive”, “Agitated yet procrastinating, cannot bring myself to do anything yet tired of doing nothing”.
Yes, for those of us who are too used to a vibrant campus/workplace where a hundred things happen every day, the monotonous, uneventful life under quarantine can turn out poisonous to some extent.
Say, what was the last time you had such a long period of unstructured leisure (in case you are not familiar with it, the word ‘leisure’ approximately means ’empty google calendar’)? It sounds almost ridiculous, but think about it: how often do we, in today’s society, live with absolute leisure? We may be a bunch of expert planners, but when it comes to “dealing with” leisure, we are ignorant as kids (Ah but no! Just the opposite! Ignorant as Grown-ups!)
Therefore, in this series, I will share with you a few of my favorite Poems of Leisure–an actual category in Chinese poetry, in fact. These poems have enabled me to enjoy and (faintly) appreciate shelter-in-place much more than I otherwise would.
The sun slowly slides down, the wind sways the leaves and their shadows, the air smells like grass and green tea and some flower I don’t know, my mind swims in lines of poetry, my fingers types out this very word, I feel… I wish you could feel something similar as you read on…
美人如月，乍见掩暮云，更增妍绝。 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]
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 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.
嫦娥应悔偷灵药，碧海青天夜夜心。 Chang E should regret stealing that elixir, Jade-green seas and bright blue skies, she laments night upon night.
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.
不知天上宫阙，今夕是何年？ 我欲乘风归去，又恐琼楼玉宇，高处不胜寒。 起舞弄清影，何似在人间？ 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?
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.
玉阶生白露，夜久侵罗袜。 却下水晶帘，玲珑望秋月。 As jade stairs breeds white dew, The long night soaks silk hose. Setting the crystal blinds, Gazing the autumn moon.
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.
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.
裁作合欢扇，团团似明月。 Fashioned into a fan of “coupled bliss”, Round like the bright, rounded moon.
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.
云中谁寄锦书来？雁字回时，月满西楼。 Who sends a gilded letter, through clouds, hither? When those wild geese remigrate, And the moonlight floods the west chamber.
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”.
Before my bed, moonlight on the ground, Silver shines that I first thought to be frost. My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon, My head lowers, as I start missing home.
<Thoughts on a Silent Night> by LiBai
My own translation (unless otherwise noted). More details of the poem see here.
Today is April 23th, 2020, in Gregorian Calendar.
In lunar calendar, it is 庚子年 四月 初一, the 1st day of the Fourth Month, in the year of ‘Gēng zi’.
When was the last time that you saw a full moon?
By lunar calendar, full moons are always on the Fifteenth （“十五”） of the lunar month. Today, I am going to write about my latest meeting with the full moon two weeks ago.
Like most modern Chinese people, I do not pay attention very often to what day it is in Lunar calendar (except for near Lunar New Year). Therefore, I did not know it was a “十五” until I climbed in bed and turned off the light.
There it was. Soft silvery light that simmered through the curtain and spread on the ground in front of my bed. It looked just like frost.
If I have never heard of the poem 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>, this would have meant nothing. Believe me, however, that few Chinese would see this ‘frost on the ground’ without thinking of home.
“But surely”, you might wonder, “not all Chinese people have read this particular poem?” (Especially given that the poem was written in 726 AD — that is, 1300 years ago)
Indeed, 《静夜思》has transcended its original category of classical poetry into the realm of idiom and cultural imprint. This short twenty-character verse truly attest to the Chinese expression of “家喻户晓”, which means : “Known by all families and households.” This is a poem that walked out of the boundary of elite’s written books into the mouths and minds of generations of civilians. With its simple language (any preschool Chinese children today may understand and recite it by hearing) and straight-forward theme, 《静夜思》is the incontestable representative of the relationship between full moon and nostalgia in Chinese culture.
The moon, especially the full moon, is an omnipresent symbol for home, family and nostalgia in Chinese culture. To fully understand that, let us examine from the perspectives of Time and Space.
Recall the last two lines of 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>:
My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home.
What crossed the poet’s mind as he lifts then lowers his head? No one can tell for sure except for Li Bai himself. However, I can share with you my thoughts as I looked through the curtain at the moon that night two weeks ago.
“Is my family watching this beautiful, bright moon right now?” — Nope, they are in a different time zone.
"As the moon rises on the sea, all places under the sky share this same moment."
–张九龄 Zhang JiuLing
‘All places under the sky’– all of one’s loved ones, no matter where they are.
Despite the fact that the Earth is round and time difference exists, the temporal universality of the full moon persists. One knows that his/her family could be watching the same full moon and missing them at the same time (or within a few hours), regardless of their separation in distance. This is as close to telepathy as it gets for those living in the 8th century without Zoom.
“The moon turns full again, it’s been a month since I last saw a full moon.”
Notice the recursion here? The last time I saw the full moon, I missed my family and wished to return, and here I am, a month later, still away from home with the same old nostalgia. As it waxes and wanes, the moon is a ruthless reminder of the passage of time.
Speaking of this, let us return briefly to the Lunar Calendar. As the name suggests, the Lunar Calendar is based on the phases of the moon. The new moon is always on the 1st (“初一”) and the full moon always on the 15th (“十五”). Looking at the shape of the moon, one can easily track the approximate date within a month in the Lunar Calendar.
Given the use the Lunar Calendar, it is not hard to understand the significance of the moon in traditional Chinese culture. The moon is an intrinsic chronological symbol and a foundation for most major festivals. For instance: (we will mention and elaborate on each of these festivals in later posts)
New Year (春节): 1st of the First Month (First new moon)
Lantern Festival (上元节): 15th of the First Month (First full moon)
Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节): 15th of the Eighth Month (the largest full moon)
To sum up, moon is a symbol of nostalgia/homesickness in Chinese culture for its significance as “the shared moment” and “the passage of time”.
Now you may ask: what is so special about the Full Moon? Why is the full moon more significant than other moon phases in the context of nostalgia?
For that, we move on to the perspective of…
“I ought not to hold a grudge against the moon, but why is it always full when we part?"
The line sounds a bit out-of-no-where? Bear with me, there are quite a few stories to unpack here.
First, the poet seems to be blaming the moon: ‘Why do you turn full when I part with my family/friends?’ What’s so wrong about the moon turning Full?
In Chinese, a full moon is usually called in two ways : “满月” or “圆月”. As you may have guessed, “月” is the character for ‘moon’. In the first case, “满” as a character stands for the combined idea of ‘full’, ‘bountiful’, and ‘satisfying’. In the second case, “圆” as a character signifies the shape ’round’ at face value. However, in the context of “圆月” as the full moon, people often associate “圆” with the expression “团圆“, which refers to a full family reunion (think about round table dinner!). Going back to the quote, we can see that the character used here to describe full moon is “圆”. The picture below illustrates a common cultural image for the character in this context:
Thus, the full moon, with its spacial trait of perfect roundness and completeness, is a symbol of family reunion without any member missing.
In this quote, however, the full moon only bothers the poet by reminding him of his loneliness after parting with his family. The poet questions the moon as if believing the moon to be consciously mocking him with its fullness. Deeper down, one can almost hear the poet’s frustration at Fate: “Why set us apart when the moon indicates reunion month after month?”
Fortunately, the poet managed to resolve his ‘grudge’ towards the moon at the end of this poem, when he wrote:
"I only wish we live long, safe and sound, Sharing the same moon, though miles apart."
This is the canonical example of the moon transcending spatial difference in Chinese literature. The poet eventually comes to terms with the inevitable partings in life, and finds consolation in the longevity and spatial universality of the moon.
Even today, with all the modern knowledge of celestial bodies I grew up with, this idea still struck me with awe from time to time. Whoever we are, wherever we are on Earth, are we not just men, looking at the same moon?
In this post, we looked at the relationship between moon and homesickness/nostalgia in Chinese poetry, especially the full moon as a symbol of family reunion. An ever-present element throughout our analysis is the idea of universality as the anchor of connection. As a prominent celestial body, the moon embodies both temporal and spatial universality — it is shared across distance as both a visual object and a calendarial indicator.
In ancient times, there were not even photographs, and communication by letters took months (if ever) to deliver. The moon — and poems about it — carry the unchanging care, love, and faith that connects men amid the uncertainties and unknowns.
Some of my personal thoughts on poetry & life experience based on 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night>.
Word of Caution: This post is a bit more personal than most of my other ones.
Just yesterday, I was telling a friend that I don’t often get nostalgic or sentimental.
–Well, if it wasn’t for the moon.
In the past two weeks it’s been getting really warm here in California. Tonight, it feels like a typical summer night in May or June in Beijing. Out of coincidence, I discovered my old uniform t-shirt from my middle school. Upon invitation from the cool breeze outside, I went for a jog.
The air smells like baked grass seeds after a day of intense sunshine, I find this a universal “smell of summer”. Five years ago, it smelled just like this.
To be precise, the baked-grass smell plus the faint fragrance of roses around the playground in my middle school in Beijing. That was in May and June 2015, the two months before I left abroad, the two months when I voluntarily stayed at school for evening study sessions every day.
We would jog on the 400m track every evening during the 8:00–8:30pm study break. One time as we passed the south-west corner of the playground, I saw the full moon rise above the trees, floating beside the golden clock on the red brick teaching building. I remember, right there, right then, I thought of these lines：
去年元夜时 ，花市灯如昼。 Last year at the Lantern Festival, On the flower fair, lanterns bright as day. 月上柳稍头，人约黄昏后。 As the moon rises above the willow, There we met in dusk’s faded glow.
— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu
As mentioned in the post <Frost on the Ground>, the Lantern Festival is on the 15th of the first month in Lunar Calendar, or the first full moon of the year.
In ancient times, this is the only day when unmarried young people — women especially — are implicitly allowed to step out of their houses to join the celebration of releasing lanterns for good fortune (or attending a clandestine rendezvous under the full moon). If that is not enough deprivation of individual freedom, the young people back then had no say on their marriages and mostly end up marrying a total stranger chosen by their parents. Even without family feuds, most young couples would still find themselves in a Romeo & Juliette scenario and few ends up happily ever after.
I am very sorry, but there is a second half to this poem.
今年元夜时，月与灯依旧。 This year at the Lantern Festival, The moon and lanterns remain here still. 不见去年人，泪满春衫袖。 Where we met last year, I stand alone; My tears flood, my sleeves soaked.
— 欧阳修 《生查子》<To the Tune of Shēng Zhā Zǐ> , by OuYang Xiu
It is not full moon today. Here I stand on this grass field. I can smell baked-grass-seed, this smell of California spring/summer that you must have grown so familiar with. Here I stand under this starry night, under this sky that has watched you stand here alone in the past four years.
人有悲欢离合，月有阴晴圆缺。 Men may sorrow, rejoice, part, reunion; Moon may brighten, dim, wax, and wane; Ever changing, never as planned.
— 苏轼 《水调歌头》<To the Tune of Shuǐ Diào Gē Tóu , by Su Shi
I shall often start my blog with a poem. It primarily helps me to set my mood for the post, so I most likely will not refer to it. (If you want to read and guess why I selected it, by all means, entertain yourself 🙂
Indeed, I have lived in places where the legal age of drinking is 18 or 16, but those alone cannot justify the frequency at which I mention ‘I wish I could have some wine/sake right now.’
(Obviously such a wish has never been fulfilled here).
So, let’s talk about drinking.
Please expect to see NARNIX DICTIONARY in later posts. I promise there to be 0% scholarly content within these definitions. You may check the full list for fun here.
An unusual zest toward drinking / the idea of drinking under a set of particular circumstances with very specific requirements on date, time, location, natural environment, human company and emotional state.
Theoretic-alcoholism is often observed in people who are into Chinese literature. Its origin can be traced back to contents in poetry. Today, I will introduce two common triggering settings for theoretic-alcoholists (more to come in later posts!).
It is a cold, grim, winter day. You sit in your home, alone. You have been thinking, pondering for a long time. You feel isolated from others, both physically and mentally. You look outside of your window. It’s falling dark, the sky is grey and cloudy, it may snow soon.
You long to talk to someone—a friend. So, an Invitation you send.
For each poem I refer to, I will put the word-by-word presentation and my own translation (in italic). Click on the title of the poem if you want to learn more. You can find various interpretations and explanations of key cultural concepts in our [Poetry Collection].
Invitation Bai JuYi
New-brewed wine under fresh foam, Sizzling upon my red clay stove. Dusk falls, soon will snow, Would you like a cup or two?
(My own translation)
The friend will come. You will sit in your backyard around the warm little stove; through its red clay the firewood will glimmer. You will heat the newly brewed wine upon the wavering fire; the green foam on the surface of the wine will sizzle and the warm fragrance of grain will spread. Snow will fall. With a friend who truly understands you by your side, you will drink the hot wine, talk, and watch as the world turns white.
This is one of my favourite poems of all time. With four lines and a mere 20 characters, the poem grasps the essence of friendship. Not just any friendship, but a deep interpersonal connection that is characteristic in Chinese culture — often referred to as ‘知己’ (zhi ji). Here, ‘知’ (zhi) means ‘to know, to understand, to empathize’, and ‘己’(ji) means ‘self’. Hence, 知己 translates directly to ‘someone who knows my true self’.
But what is a 知己, really? Everyone has a different interpretation and only you can answer that for yourself. Perhaps several faces are crossing through your mind as you read these words.
The magic of poetry lies in that it roots a web of images and impressions in our minds. For me, the concept of 知己 is inextricably linked to this poetic Invitation. A 知己 is someone to whom I will send such an Invitation, someone who I know will fit into the picture painted in this poem, someone who can warm my soul like the red clay stove and hot wine on a snowy day, someone who will one day send such an invitation to me.
Now, read the poem again.
Yes, good idea, but only after the end of shelter-in-place 🙂
In general, the prevalent references to drinking in Chinese literature have two traits in common. First, the poets are mostly on the less jovial half of the emotional spectrum: nostalgia, sorrow, frustration, desolation, grief, etc. Second, the poets themselves often acknowledge the moral impropriety when referring to drinking during daytime.
Let me further clarify the second point. In ancient times, (and somewhat similarly today), drinking during the day was considered inappropriate by the society as a whole. The underlying convention is that it is okay for one to dwell in emotions at night, whether it be drinking alone or expressing oneself in poetry, so long as one remains productive and normal-functioning during the day.
As with all conventions, this convention is often broken intentionally by the poets as a symbol of their desolation or rebellion. Most of the time, if a poet refers to his/her being drunk at midday, they are openly saying: ‘Yes, I know I’m not supposed to, but I am so desperate/ sad/ messed up/ tired of this society/ devastated by emotions that I am breaking this basic rule.’ Keep this in mind, as we shall see tons of examples later on.
But the poem I am going to talk about now is different. It stands out as probably THE HAPPIEST poem of all time, written by the poet who is known for conceiving human sufferings to its greatest width and depth. Remember the poet’s name, 杜甫 (Du Fu).
杜甫 (712-770 AD) lived through a transition period of the Tang Dynasty. Despite living most of his life under political persecution, extreme poverty, and flight from war, 杜甫 remained a most devout follower of the Confucianism moral code. His empathy for the suffering of the people and loyalty to his country is shown extensively through poetry.
The poem 闻官军收河南河北 (On Hearing the Reclaim of Lost States) is written in 763 BC, when 杜甫 was 51 years old. To draw an analogy for today, imagine the poem being written by a seventy-year-old professor who is old-school and upright in his moral values and demeanor, to the extreme. Now, in this very poem, he enthusiastically depicts himself drinking at midday:
Translation by Stephen Owen
Hearing That the Imperial Army Has Retaken HeNan and HeBei
Beyond Swordgate the news suddenly comes that we've recaptured Jibei, on first hearing it, tears cover my clothes. I look around to my wife and children, what sadness remains? I carelessly roll up poems and writing almost mad with delight. White-haired, I sing out loud, I should drink ale as please, with green spring as companion it's just right for going home. I'll go right down through the Ba Gorges, thread my way through the Wu Gourges, then on down to Xiangyang, where I'll head to Luoyang.
(Du, F., & Owen, S. (2016). The poetry of Du Fu =: Du Fu shi.)
In the above translation, Owen translated the phrase “白日” as ‘White-haired’. The actual meaning of this phrase has always been under debate. To generalize, the phrase could be interpreted literally to mean ‘midday’, or as a metaphorical reference that the author has passed the youthful stage of his life (like the rising sun), and wish to return to his hometown as an elderly man (toward the sunset).
杜甫 wrote this poem at the end of a civil war and riot, after eight years of flight as a refugee, after witnessing millions of ordinary people suffer under violence and flee for their lives, after being stranded in a foreign town, not knowing if he would ever return home again.
Joy: the most sincere, intense joy. Joy for himself, for his deepest longing to return to his hometown. Joy for his wife and children, for they shall finally have a settled life. Joy for his country, for it is again united in peace. Joy for the people, who will no longer suffer from violence and hunger, and shall return home to a better living.
Does such joy not move one to tears? Is such joy not worth unrestrained singing and a few indulged cups of wine at daytime? Every time I view in my mind the picture of 杜甫—an old man with hair greyed from years of suffering—crying, singing, laughing and drinking on this day, I cannot help but be moved.
Of all contexts and settings for indulgence in day-drinking, this one is justified.
Of the all-too-often sighs of self-pity and nostalgia in Chinese literature (of course they too deserve merit, you shall later see), the emotions of 杜甫 oustands with their realness.
Personally, it reminds me of my accelerated heartbeats as the plane first landed back home after my first year living abroad. And I hope, in the near future, I shall think of this poem with a sigh of joy and relief at the end of this pandemic, for the wellness of people I love, for flying back home, and for the wellness and reunion of families around the world.
All of that would be worth opening a bottle of Champagne at noon.
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.
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
一壶浊酒喜相逢。古今多少事，都付笑谈中。 Meet and share a flask of murky wine, with cheer. Then endless histories, past and present, may yield to our indulgence.
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.
人生得意须尽欢，莫使金樽空对月。 天生我材必有用，千金散尽还复来。 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.
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
劝君莫作独醒人，烂醉花间应有数。 The only sober one you must not be, I urge, For numbered are the days of gross intoxication, among blossoms.
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.
流水便随春远，行云终与谁同。 酒醒长恨锦屏空。相寻梦里路，飞雨落花中。 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.
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.
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”.