Saturday, August 27, 2016

Three Ancient Chinese Drinking Songs- Li Bo

Li Bo (also known as Li Po and Li Bai) was a classical Chinese poet during the Tang Dynasty also known as the “Golden Age of China”. He never attempted to take the civil service examination, which was the primary but not sole venue for advancement for the middle class in imperial China. Thanks to his connection with an influential Daoist at court, Li Bo gained a post at the eminent Hanlin Academy, an institution founded by Emperor Xuanzong to support alternative academics and literary gifts. But Li Bo’s drinking habits and caustic personality caused him to be dismissed after two years. During the An Lushan Rebellion he joined the cause of a prince who attempted to establish an independent regime in southeast China, and after the rebellion was suppressed he was arrested for treason. Sentenced to exile, he was pardoned before he reached his remote destination. He died a few years later.
There are many legends about Li Bo’s life, aided by the blasé stances of his poetry. According to one legend, he drowned while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon’s reflection on the water. For someone who claimed in his poetry to converse and drink with the moon such an end is a very poetic story, if completely ridiculous. Most likely his death was caused by a degeneration of his body due to massive alcohol consumption and his known use of Daoist longevity elixirs, which often contained mercury, very probably had more to do with it.
The poems were models for celebrating the camaraderie of companionship and the joys of drinking wine. Author John C. H. Wu observed that, "while some may have drunk more wine than Li, no-one has written more poems about wine." Classical Chinese poets were often associated with drinking wine and Li Bai was part of the group of Chinese scholars in Chang'an his fellow poet Du Fu called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.
Presented below are three of my favorite of his poems about drink. As they were originally written in was is called Middle Chinese and I’m afraid might lose some of its beauty in the translation. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.
Drinking Alone with the Moon
A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.
The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I’ll make merry with them both—
And soon enough it will be Spring. 
I sing—the moon moves to and fro.
I dance—my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk—and we’ll go our separate ways. 
Let’s pledge—beyond human ties—to be friends,
And meet where the Silver River ends.
Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day
Life in the world is but a big dream;
I will not spoil it by any labor or care.
So saying, I was drunk all the day,
lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.

When I awoke, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
a lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.

Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
and, as wine was there, I filled my own cup.
Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
when my song was over, all my senses had gone.
Bring in the Wine
Look there!
The waters of the Yellow River,
coming down from Heaven,
rush in their flow to the sea,
never turn back again
Look there!
Bright in the mirrors of mighty halls
a grieving for white hair,
this morning blue-black strands of silk,
 now turned to snow with evening.
For satisfaction in this life
taste pleasure to the limit,
And never let a goblet of gold
face the bright moon empty.
15Heaven bred in me talents,
and they must be put to use.
I toss away a thousand in gold,
it comes right back to me.
So boil a sheep,
  butcher an ox,
make merry for a while,
And when you sit yourself to drink, always
down three hundred cups.
Hey, Master Cen,
  Ho, Danqiu,
Bring in the wine!
Keep the cups coming!
And I, I’ll sing you a song,
You bend me your ears and listen—
30The bells and the drums, the tastiest morsels,
it’s not these that I love—
All I want is to stay dead drunk
and never sober up.
The sages and worthies of ancient days
  now lie silent forever,
And only the greatest drinkers
have a fame that lingers on!
Once long ago
the prince of Chen
  held a party at Pingle Lodge.
A gallon of wine cost ten thousand cash,
all the joy and laughter they pleased.
So you, my host,
How can you tell me you’re short on cash?
Go right out!
Buy us some wine!
And I’ll do the pouring for you!
Then take my dappled horse,
Take my furs worth a fortune,
50Just call the boy to get them,
and trade them for lovely wine,
And here together we’ll melt the sorrows
of all eternity!