诗酒趁年华 To the Best of Times



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.

  • Theoretic-Alcoholism: 
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!).

Setting 1

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.

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

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].

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)
墨客品书. (2019). 从《池上》看白居易的“白话文”古诗. Retrieved from http://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1653621170836924231

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 🙂

Setting 2

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:

I have rendered this character-by-character annotation from personal knowledge. If you see any mistakes, please comment or contact.
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《聞官軍收河南河北》白日放歌須縱酒,青春作伴好還鄉. (2019). Retrieved from https://kknews.cc/other/kv6z28r.html

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.

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”.