Note to Self

Note to Self

Looking at my wine, I did not catch sight of the dark night coming
Or the flowers falling down on my gown
Tipsy, in the moonlight I walk along the stream
The birds have yet to come and few are the people

Note to self

Li Bai’s (李白) poem 自遣 is usually translated as “Amusing myself”.

I prefer “note to self” since the first character 自 can be translated as a prefix for self and the second character 遣 is dispatch or letter. Taken together as a compound word, the two characters take on the meaning “Cheer up!” which is close to “Amusing myself”.

Taking the translation of 自遣 as amusing myself as intended, an English language student might wonder if Li Bai meant something sexual. Probably not, probably mere coincidence, but I did come across an alternative meaning of the compound word as defecate. My Chinese is not good enough to confirm this, but it would explain the poet’s need to talk a walk down by the stream.

Why is that Tang poetry so innocent and simple in its beginning, becomes a bit lost on the way to the poet’s meaning?

Poor Li Bai, discharged from his administrative duties, sentenced to death, then spared and exiled, disgraced, Li Bai finds himself on the way to Sichuan and his hometown. Literally and metaphorically, it is the winter of his life. No one is there to accompany him on the way to exile. Winter and the birds will not keep him company. Caught up in his loneliness and wine, he does not notice the dark night as it comes. Then noticing his old friend the moon he goes for a walk down to the stream, a little tipsy, alone, but for the moon.

I leave it to the reader to decide why


Original Chinese




Duì jiǔ bù jué míng, luòhuā yíng wǒ yī, zuì qǐbù xī yuè, niǎo hái rén yì xī



4 Comments Add yours

  1. walter lo says:

    One meaning of 遣 is 排解,发泄, as in ~闷。消~。~兴。~怀。It means “to let off or to express one’s feelings.” So “to defecate” is unlikely to be one of the meanings 😀
    And the word 还 has two pronunciations, hái and huán.The second pronunciation means “to return” or “give back” as in ~乡。~俗。~手。归~. Here, in this poem, I think the context would indicate that it is the second meaning that is used, ie line 4 means the birds have returned to their nests, and there’s hardly any sign of people.


    1. I agree with your comments, but sometimes the fun in poetry is in the double meaning. Comedy is the ability to look at one thing and make two seemingly impossible conclusions:)


  2. walter lo says:

    Wondering whether you are interested in a translation of this poem here:
    I have come across it only just now.


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