Drinking Alone beneath the Moon



Li Bai*

Li Bai (701 – 762) was friends with Du Fu, but on this night when he composed this poem he was alone with a pot of wine; for companions he had the moon, his shadow and his thoughts.

There is a story, there always is, that Li Bai, glass of wine in hand, drowned in a river when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection. Some say the river was the Yangtze, the mother river of China. Some say he went to keep his appointment with the moon and the stars.

Some say Li Bai died at home in bed in Anlu (now in Hubei province).


One could translate the title of Li Bai’s poem variously as Drinking alone beneath the Moon or Under the Moon Alone and Pouring Wine. The latter is a more literal translation. I say “more” literal in the sense that all translations are imperfect. The pouring and drinking of wine is also a deliberate act in which one considers and ponders the mysteries of the world.




Pouring Wine  (“literally” wine pouring, drinking, considering, deliberating)


Between the flowers from a pot of spirits
I drink alone. There is no one with me
Till, I raise my cup inviting the moon
To bring my shadow and make us three.
The moon, alas, can not drink
So my shadow only drinks with me;
But still for a while I have these friends
Happy that it must be Spring
I sing while the moon wanders off.
I dance. My shadow becomes disorderly
Awake from time to time we bosom three
Until I get drunk, and so, we lose each other
And this never ending wandering passion
Expecting to meet them at a distant time in the Cloudy Stars.

I feel my translation trails off the path in the middle and is lost in the brush at the end.

Take for instance, the second to last line


The first three characters:


may translate as “never ending” or “neverending” if one treats it as an adjective modifying,

an emotion that extends from love to passion and borders on kindness

comes out as “tour” but one could also choose wander, travel, …

The cloudy stars could be the Milky Way, but that would not be true to the Chinese.


  • image of Li Bai, Encyclopedia Britannica, original image of the moon, Pixabay

Night Rain on Ba Mountain

Ye Yu Ji Bei

Jun wen gui qi wei you qi
Ba shan ye yu zhang qui chi
He dang gong jian xi chuang zhu
Que hua ba shan ui ye shi

Night rain, sent north

Lord, you ask when I’m coming home, I do not know
Ba Mountain, night rains swell autumn ponds.
When shall we again trim wicks by the western window
And talk together while rain falls on Ba mountain?


The 45 years of Li-Shangyin’s life (c. 813–858) covered the reign of six emperors during the tumultuous decline of the Tang dynasty. Li was born in what is now Henan province in central China. The capital of the Tang dynasty, in present day Shaanxi province, was Chang’an (a name which means “perpetual peace”) . The Ba mountains of which Li-Shangyin writes are in the mountainous Sichuan province to the south and west of both Henan and Shaanxi. During the mid-8th century An Lushan Rebellion, it was the refuge of the Tang dynasty. It often rains at night in late spring and early summer, thus the reference to Night rain on Ba Mountain.

To whom did Li-Shangyin write the poem?

Li-Shangyin begins the first line with the character for Lord or Monarch (Jun),

so, we may assume he is writing to his overlord. That takes the steam out of the poetry for some who thought he was sending thoughts home to his wife or a recently dear departed friend.



The practice of trimming the wick is a means to reduce soot and prolong the life of the candle. Wicks are typically cut to one eighth of an inch, which extends the life of the candle by a factor of ten to one. Frugal yes, but also a means of prolonging a conversation.

Sent North in Night Rain

The poem is known by many names, but the one that best captures the spirit of the author is the ambiguous “Sent North in Night Rain”. The poem twice identifies “Ba shan” which is clearly Ba Mountain.

In the poem, the Chinese character for mountain is:

Translation are inherently subject to misinterpretation and Li Shangyin’s Night rain letter sent north is no exception. This could be a post, a letter, even a thought. We don’t know. From classical Chinese characters to simplified characters, then into the Roman alphabet is three steps distant from the author. Capturing the essence of the author’s meaning from the four lines of seven characters is no easy task. That is a total of 28 characters.

There is no way in English to express the idea in 28 words. One must even take liberties with the title which is only four characters.

The best translation of the Chinese


comes from eastasiastudent.net. It looks like Hugh Grigg deserves the credit.


From the title of the poem, I can pick out the last character “north”.

The first character is either night or evening.

The second character in the title is for rain.

The third character

is a verb and variously may mean, “mail” or “send” or “post by mail”.



Traveling by Night


Traveling by Night

Slender grass, a faint breeze along the shore.
The tall mast of a solitary boat at night.
Far-flung stars hang o’er the flat-wide plain.
Moonbeams bounce on the Yangtze’s waves.
How does an old man with a pen gain fame?
When age and illness overcome his spirit, retire.
Drifting through this life – what have I become
Between heaven and earth, a seagull upon the wind.

Traveling by Night

Between the shores of slender grass at night, a slight breeze stirs to move the mast of this solitary boat. The wide-flung stars overhead seem to touch the wide-flat plains. The moon seems to swim upon the Yangtse waves.

What literary honors can I achieve? Old age and illness have overcome my spirit, let me retire. Drifting through this life – what have I become. Between heaven and earth, a lonely seagull upon the wind.


Notes on Du Fu and Thoughts while Traveling by Night, 旅 夜 書 懷

There are dozens of translations of Du Fu’s Thoughts while Traveling at Night. Even the title of the poem is variously given as – Written, Reflections, Thoughts, and so on. The exact words are not important. Literal translations ineffective in conveying the meaning of the writer. It is the image beheld and the emotion experienced that is important.

The poem is number 113 in the collection 300 Tang Poems. It is also known by its first line: 細草微風岸 (Xì Cǎo Wēi Fēng Àn), [slender] [grass] [tiny] [wind] [shore]. EastAsiaStudent.net gives the Chinese and a translation.

Du Fu has not given us the time of year. However, one senses the season must be advanced as the writers age and it is at least fall, if not winter. In speaking of the wide-flat plains, Du Fu is perhaps referencing the Sichuan Basin, famous for its rice cultivation and “slender grass”.

Du Fu is also known by the name Tu Fu. Having failed the Civil Service Examination, he mostly led an itinerant life, writing poetry about the famine, political unrest, loss of life and personal tragedy he witnessed and endured during and after the the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, a rebellion that spanned the reigns of three emperors. Eventually, he settled in Sichuan, where he lived in a cottage with his wife and children and wrote many poems describing a happier life.

Zhang Mingfu Cold Food Feast


A Cold Food Feast at Magistrate Zhang’s
by Meng Haoran
A lucky first snow falling a full foot,
Evening eases in and just at midnight’s nigh,
Mats arrayed, we wine companions beg
To cut the candle to a poem’s verse length.
Warmed by the fragrant golden ashes of the stove,
Her jaded fingers clearly pluck the lute strings,
Just when, befuddled, I wish to fall asleep,
Surprised, I am awakened by the cock’s crow.


(A Cold Evening’s Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s)

瑞 雪 初 盈 尺
閑 霄 始 半 更
列 筵 邀 酒 伴
刻 燭 限 詩 成
香 灰 金 爐 暖
嬌 絃 玉 指 清
醉 來 方 欲 臥
不 覺 曉 雞 鳴


Hánshí zhāng míng fǔ zhái yàn

ruìxuě chū yíng chǐ
xián xiāo shǐ bàn gèng
liè yán yāo jiǔ bàn
kè zhú xiàn shī chéng
xiānghuī jīn lú nuǎn
jiāo xián yù zhǐ qīng
zuì lái fāng yù wò
bù jué xiǎo jī míng

Notes on Meng’s Poem

Meng’s title refers to 寒食, which is the Cold Food or Hanshi Festival. This ancient Chinese holiday developed from the commemoration of the death of the Jin nobleman Jie Zhitui in the 7th century BC. It is usually celebrated the 105th day after the winter solstice.

Zhang Mingfu is a reference to a county magistrate (明府) named Zhang.

The Morning After at Zhang Mingfu
Morning is a distant light that
Reveals ghostly figures in the naked trees
I open the window and shout
Except for the cry of the cock
The snow still blows
Against Zhang Mingfu’s house
In go to the stove,
Where the silver white ashes are cold
And though I toss inside a sparrow’s nest and wood,
Then blow
No ember lights the flame

A cracked wine cup, an empty plate
Lie scattered on a wine stained mat
On the stool a silk scarf scented jasmine
The remains of
The girl whose face was white as snow
My companions gone
And when the cock-a-doodle-do
Fades to nothingness
I am alone

Dating Meng Haoran’s poem

Meng Haoran was at the Tang capital of Chang’an for about three years, arriving there when he was about 40 years of age. Recognized as a brilliant poet, Meng was given an introduction to the imperial court, and missed the opportunity, spending time with friends. This is the likely reason that he failed the civil examination. A friend then introduced him to the emperor and Meng composed a “failed exam” poem, explaining that the fault was his for not studying hard enough. The emperor did not take kindly to the tone of the poem and Meng’s “goose was cooked.”

Meng Haoran’s date of birth is given as 689 or 691, which means that he arrived in Chang’an sometime around 730 and left around 733. Meng composed the two poems above during this time.

Zhang Mingfu is not clearly identified in Meng’s poem. In another poem he references a Premier Zhang, A Message from Lake Dongtin to Premier Zhang.

About Meng Haoran