Drinking Alone under the Moon

Li Bai
s oft repeated poem inspires much thought. Were I to accompany Li Bai under the moon and the Milky Way, these would be mine to share — Alone we enter the world, alone we leave, and in the middle we have the chance to share a drink and dance. There were three there then, the moon, my shadow, and I. It was dimly lit, and two said not a word. In my pocket I found a poem, Li Bai, it was yours.

[Previously translated, December 2016]

Drinking Alone Under the Moon
Li Bai

A jug of wine among the flowers,
I drink alone, I think.
I tip my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, my shadow, and I make three.
The moon does not care to drink.
My shadow only trails along.
Fleeting friends we three, the moon, my shadow and I.
Still, let us make merry ’til the end of Spring.
The moon swaying as I sing.
My shadow dancing in step along with me.
Sober, we happily honor the hour.
Drunk, we part.
Our meeting beyond the heavens,
Until we gather again, these two and I,
Beneath the Heavenly River

Li He, 李賀

Contemporaries accounts say he was small and sickly, with long fingernails. That he had a uni-brow can be seen in the 18th century image drawn by Shangguan Zhou.

Li He, as depicted in the 1743 book Wanxiaotang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan (晩笑堂竹荘畫傳), image wikipedia
Li He depicted by Shangguan Zhou, early 18th c.

Other poets described him as a man of 鬼才, guicai, i.e. “ghostly talent”. Perhaps this was because of his precocity, he wrote his first poem at the age of seven; perhaps because of the dark subject matters of his poems. His branch of the Li family was far removed from that of the ruling Tang dynasty. Nor does it seem that he had a close connection to earlier poet Li Bai or the later Li Shangyin.

His courtesy name 長吉, Changji, Forever Lucky, does not fit him for failed the Imperial Examinations and died at the age of 26 or 27. Because of his early death, his poems are not found in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems. His cousin, given the task of collecting his poems, threw most of them into the privy. Rather, it is due to the later poets Han Yu, Li Shangyin and Du Mu, that he is remembered, and to poets of the Song Dynasty who gathered what remained of Li He’s poetry into collections.

[Li He image from Wikipedia, drawn by Shangguan Zhou.]

Mooring on the River at Jiande

A rocking boat moored on a misty bank
The parting day brings new worries
In the distance the heavens droop behind the trees
The moon is a close friend
on Blue River

Sù jiàn déjiāng

Yí zhōu bó yān zhǔ
Rì mù kè chóu xīn
Yě kuàng tiān dī shù
Jiāngqīng yuè jìn rén



Stay Overnight on the Tonglu River

Meng Haoran followed up his poem about mooring on the Blue River with a similar poem, Stay Overnight on the Tonglu River, Write to My Old Guangling Friends. Guangling in the title refers to a district in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province.Weiyang, referred to in the second stanza is near the capital of Chang’an. Jiande is our familiar city on the river which is given the name Tonglu, rather than Xin’an, its name according to Google Maps. NOt that it matters, but Meng Haoran is likely giving the river the name of Tonglu County through which it flows, east of Jiande.

Mountains at dusk, melancholy monkeys howl
Blue river, restlessly flows all night long.
Wind rustling through the leaves on the riverbanks
Moonlight shines on one solitary boat.

Jiande is not my home
It’s Weiyang where I miss old friends.
Both eyes still shedding tears
In this distant western place.

The River is as Blue as the Sky

Who has not stood at a river bank in the evening and watch the heavens sink below the trees? The water is like a mirror reflecting the sky in all its changing colors. Then as the sun sets, the water turns a deep blue the color of the evening sky. When the full moon rises on the horizon, it is so close one can touch it, lile a close friend?

Meng Haoran has stopped for the evening at Jiande (Déjiāng, 德江) in Hangzhou, the western part of Zhejiang Province. Meng has moored his boat along the misty bank, several miles downstream from Qiandao Lake. Jiāngqīng, 江清, Blue River in the last line is a reference to the river’s sky blue color at the setting sun. Though not identified, Xin’an is the river’s name.

Moon River, the Moon is my Friend

Tang poets like Du Fu and Li Bai have written endearingly of the moon, but none so beautifully as the older affable Meng Haoran.

Li Bai drinking alone made friends with the moon and his shadow, Li Bai, his shadow, and the moon. So friendly was Li Bai with the moon, the story is told that he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, fell off his boat, and drowned. Du Fu spoke about how a full moon scatters restless gold across the waves.

Modern artists write about the moon. Moon Over Miami, a film and song from 1941, is a classic example. Johnny Mercer’s 1961 lyrics to Moon River captures a similar image for me. “Moon river, wider than a mile / I’m crossing you in style someday…” Fly Me to the Moon, by Bart Howard, sung by Kaye Ballard in 1954, and Frank Sinatra in 1964 is another example.

jiāng xuě, River Snow

In a thousand mountains, no bird flies
On ten thousand trails, no human trace
But one man in a grass raincoat and hat
Fishes in the river and  snow

In a thousand mountains, where no bird flies
On ten thousand trails, where no man walks
A single man in a grass coat and hat
Fishes by himself on the river and in the falling snow

Liu Zongyuan

Why do so many poets, embrace the sport of fishing? Because it’s done alone.

Liu Zongyuan (栁宗元, 773 – 819) wrote River and Snow , 江雪 while living in Yongzhou, Hunan province. The dates of his birth and death identify him as a late Tang poet. The poem is simple and direct in its message. The poet in his coat and hat of grass fishes for words to describe his loneliness surrounded by a thousand mountains and ten thousand trails where no bird flies and no man walks.

I have translated this poem before, and before that, but like my favorite snow covered path in the wintry woods where no man goes but me and the fleeting deer, it is one I like to come back to this time of year. It is different but still beautiful, perhaps that is why one likes to fish.

A poet is a fisherman
漁民, Yúmín
And a scholar
学者, Xuézhě
who fishes for words
with which to say
how beautiful is
this winter’s day;
in a thousand mountains
on ten thousand trails
alone, on the river

in the falling snow
fishing in coat and hat,
wine to keep him warm,
not catching
the words he needs to say
how beautiful

how wonderful is
the pure white snow,
Bái xuě ái ái,
and when at last
he’s had enough

of words and fish
he falls asleep

to dream of better days

Pinyin and Chinese

qiānshān niǎo fēi jué
wàn jìng rén zōng miè
gū zhōu suō lì wēng
dú diào hán jiāng xuě

千山鸟飞绝,万径人踪 灭。

Reading Laozi, Bai Juyi

A speaker knows not, and he who knows speaks not
I heard this from the Old Man.
If the Old Man knows the Way,
Why five thousand words?

Laozi’s Contradiction

The Old Man is Laozi, 老子, Lao Tzu, Lao-Tze, Old Master, Chinese philosopher (6th c. BCE) and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, 道德經, Dàodé Jīng, the philosophy of Tao, which teaches that to find The Way, we should become one with the rhythm of universe.

Laozi’s contradiction exists in the fact that being and teaching are not the same. One who speaks can not know. Happiness, wisdom and knowledge stem from Wúwéi, 無為, “not doing,” as a fish swims in the water, as a flower shaken from a tree by the wind, or a cloud that appears in the sky on a summer’s day, as seeing a loved one’s smile.



dú lǎo zi

yán zhě bù zhī zhī zhě mò
cǐ yǔ wú wén yú lǎo jūn
ruò dào lǎo jūn shì zhī zhě
yuán hé zì ruò wǔ qiān wén

Farewell to Yuan on his Second Mission to Anxi

In Weicheng, the morning rain moistens the powdered dust
The green guesthouse is the color of new willow
Let me persuade you to drink another wine for
West of Yangguan Pass, there are no old friends to be found

In Weicheng, the morning rain wets the dust
The guesthouse is green, the color of new willow
Drink up! another cup
West of Yangguan, you’ll find nothing but deceased
(tongue in cheek translation, see notes below)


Line 1 – Weicheng, the city of Wei was in western Shaanxi province. Line 4 – Yangguan Pass, Yang Pass in the even more remote Gansu province that touches upon the arid Gobi Desert. Yuanguan, along with Yumen Pass, marks the entrance to the Silk Road, China’s link to the Cental Asia and the Middle East.

Place names trigger memories. The Beatles, a British rock band of the 1960s, wrote In My Life (There are Places I Remember, album Rubber Soul, 1965) whose lyrics begin: “There are places I’ll remember, All my life, though some have changed, Some forever, not for better, Some have gone, and some remain.”

Remarkably, many place names in China have remained, some have changed. Chang’an, the Tang capital is now called Xi’an. In my life, sometime after 1979, Peking, China’s present capital, became Beijing. Weicheng, city of Wei, present day Xianyang on the Wei River, a few miles upstream (west) of Chang’an (Xi’an).


Yuan of the Title – an old friend of Wang’s not otherwise identified. Perhaps a soldier, perhaps an administrator, for sure, a drinking companion who would find few trees to give shade and shelter and little wine to wet his lips and no old friends with which to share a drink.

[Some translators give the name as Yuan the Second. I suppose the confusion arises from whether the second describes the preceding or following character 元二使 in the title. As I understand Chinese grammar (and I am no expert) modifiers precede the thing they modify.]


The Title – in the late Tang dynasty, the protectorate of Anxi (modern Xinjiang) consisted of four military garrisons whose purpose was to protect China from invading forces from Tibet and the Western Turkic Khaganate. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (beginning in 755), near the end of Wang Wei’s lifetime (699–759), Tibetan forces were stirring up trouble along with the rebel General An Lushan. Garrison forces in Anxi were withdrawn to help battle the rebel forces which had taken the Tang capital Chang’an in 762. Wang Wei was of course dead at the time all this was unfolding.

It would appear, therefore, that Wang Wei wrote this poem sometime prior to 755.

Chinese and Pinyin



sòngbai yuán èr shǐ ān xī

wèichéng zhāoyǔ yì qīngchén
kè shè qīng qīng liǔ sè xīn
quàn jūn gēng jìn yì bēi jiǔ
xī chū yángguān wú gù rén

Ezra Pound’s Translation

Light rain in the light dust.
Green willows around the courtyard
Going greener and greener,
But you, Sir, better take wine ere you depart,
For no friends will be about
When you come to the gates of Go.
I modified Ezra Pound, epigraph to “Four Poems of Departure”, in Cathay (1915)

Notes on Translation

Are you still with me? Then you are into minutiae, the trivialities of translation.

Almost universally, translators begin the title as “Farewell”. Farewell in Chinese more often appears as 送别, Sòngbié, which itself is mellifluous. Wang Wei has chosen to shorten this to , Sòng, which is kind of a “send off.” Not a big difference, probably not any difference at all.

Last line – One other interesting word choice is 故人 gù rén which means both “old friend” and “deceased friend”. To stretch a point, there are not “no friends,” but 無, Wú “nothing” but “deceased friends” in Anxi.

Homesick in Handan on a Winter Solstice Night

Why Bai Juyi (白居易, 772–846) was stuck in Handan (in modern Hebei province), on a Winter’s Solstice, I don’t know. It was the beginning of deep dark winter and a break from farming when the family gathers to share stories, and he wanted to be home. We’ve all found ourselves stuck somewhere on a holiday, feeling sorry for ourselves, wishing we were home, sharing a warm drink and a laugh or two.

I can think of a couple of recent American movies that loosely follow this theme and a favorite song from World War II.*

This is Bai Juyi’s turn, left alone in a cold dark postal station with a small stove for warmth and light, no companion other than his shadow, and his thoughts, which become this poem.

Handan Homesick on a Winter Solstice Night

It’s the Winter solstice, so here I am, stuck at Handan’s postal stop
Grabbing my knees, before the fire, my shadow beside me, is all I got.
Missing you, needing you, wanting to be home, sitting with you, late this night
You too, should thinking of this faraway traveler.



Post Notes

Two modern American movies come to mind: Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, trying to get home for Thanksgiving; and Home Alone 2, lost in New York, over Christmas; one could add An American Tail, a cartoon animation about a Jewish mouse’s separation from his family at Hanukkah. The 1943 song I’ll Be Home for Christmas, by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent also expresses the emotion beautifully.

Homesickness is of course a universal emotion. Missing one’s parents, one’s family, a love one, Bai Juyi’s expression “思家” thinking of family, says it simply and beautifully.


Whistling wind, in a driving autumn rain
Clacking stones, stumbling on the shore
Waves leaping, crashing into each other
White egret startles, recovers, descends

Anyone who has experienced a transcendent moment in Nature understands that it is impossible to recreate it in words. Zen teaches us this. Still we try, we take a photograph, or as in this case, in words.

Wang Wei’s transcendental moment took place in autumn at the Luan Family Shallows during a driving rain, the kind that whistles and pounds the ground, filling the creeks, rivers, and lakes. Shallows (颯颯, Sàsà) here does double duty, describing the shallow area along the river bank where the egrets like to fish and the water breaks upon the rocks, but also serving as the sound of the whistling rain.

Wang Wei uses onomatopeia again in line 2 – 颯颯, Qiǎn qiǎn, the sound of water moving in the shallows. Here is an alternate translation:

swoosh swoosh, in the midst of the autumn rain
glug glug, a stone slips and slides in the shallows
jump, waves against each other, splashing
white egret startled, returning, descends

Chinese and Pinyin


Sàsà qiūyǔ zhōng
Qiǎn qiǎn shí liū xiè
Tiào bō zì xiāng jiàn
Báilù jīng fù xià

Wangchuan Poems

Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) and Pei Di (裴迪, circa 714- unknown) collaborated in a series of poems that contained observations about the natural scenery on Wang Wei’s family estate on the Wang River, about 60 miles south of the Tang capital.

Wangchuan Ji is the Chinese name for the poems. In English the poems are known by either the Wang River Collection or the Wheel River Collection, sometimes as the Lantian poems, since the estate was in Lantian County. The confusion arises from the coincidence that Wangchuan (輞川) means Wang River, but uses a different character than Wang’s name (). Wang (), as in Wang River, means the outside of a wheel, the rim.

The collection comprises 20 poems by Wang Wei and a response by Pei Di for a total of 40 poems. The date that the poems were composed is not known for certain, but generally ascribed to around 740 AD (A Study of the Classical Landscape at the Wang River Villa of Wang Wei, Akira Tanaka, 2012). They were written in a period of relative stability in the Tang dynasty, a decade and a half before the devastating An Lushan Rebellion.

Pei Di’s response is below.

Pei Di’s poetic couplet

The sound of the rapids clamors to the farthest cove,
Along the river bank, towards the southern crossing.
Floating ever onward, gulls and ducks sailing
Always wanting to be close to people.


Note to the Gentle Reader. Wang Wei was both poet and artist. Most of his art was lost, some examples recreated by later artists.We may presume that a painting accompanied the poem and is now lost.

A Cold Food Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s

I see that it has been almost four years since I last dined with Meng Haoran at Zhang Mingfu’s. Though it is now only November, this will be the fifth winter since we dined. A warm stove, fragrant ash, a cold feast on a cold evening, a glass or two too much of wine among friends, one last verse to share, her tender melody puts one to sleep til dawn.

Surprise, it is not winter but spring. In China, one says,

“A timely snow promises a good harvest.” 瑞雪兆丰年

A Cold Food Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s

A lucky first snow a full foot deep,
Idling away the evening, a half an hour more.
Mats aligned, we wine companions ask,
Trim the wick-length to a verse’s measure.

Warmed by the stove’s fragrant ashes,
Her delicate fingers pluck the lute strings clearly,
And drunk at last, I feel the lure of sleep,
Fast asleep, until the cock’s cry.


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 Translation

Hánshí, Cold Food, refers to Qingming a traditional Chinese festival that takes place in early April. In 732, Tang Emperor Xuanzong proclaimed that respect for one’s ancestors could only be made formally at their graves on the first day of the Qingming solar period.

Ruìxuě can be translated as an auspicious or lucky snow. Auspicious because of the Chinese proverb that says snow in Spring promises a good harvest (瑞雪兆丰年).

Meng Haoran