Spring Night, I hear a flute – Li Bai



Spring Night, I Hear the Flute

From whose house does the sound of a jade flute flies
Scattered by the Spring breeze filling Luoyang?
In the middle of the night I hear the willow unfolding
Who does not feel these old garden feelings

In 725 or thereabouts, while in his mid-twenties, Li Bai left his home in Sichuan, sailing down the Yangtze River, beginning his wandering days. He returned back up river, married, and briefly settled in before resuming his wanderings. In this first year, like Buddha , he gave up much of his wealth to his friends. Five years later, he found himself at Chang’an, the capital. He tried to obtain a position at the court, failed, and sailed on to Luoyang where we may assume he wrote this poem, before going back home to Sichuan.

Li Bai would eventually achieve much fame. He would also become acquainted with the poet Du Fu who would later include Li Bai in his list of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.

The poem

Poems always raise questions.

The first is the significance of a flute that is jade, and not a simple one of bamboo.

I have no real answer for this other than the phonetic similarity of the compound characters 飞 声and “fei-sheng”. This is one of the Taoist steps to attain immortality,  (ascending to heaven in daylight). It may also mean to make a name famous. All cultures believe music is heavenly inspired. Li Bai is perhaps, just perhaps, saying that the sound of the flute is heavenly sent, and carrying it on the spring breeze might confirm this.

Question two – what’s up with the unfolding willow? To part from a willow tree, to stand under a willow tree is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The willow is also symbolic, one symbol being solitude, another the return of spring.

Question three, those old garden feelings.

There I am at a complete loss.

Not much is said of Li Bai’s marriage to his wife. They had a child, then another, he left her, she could hardly make ends meet, then died, and the children went to live with someone else.  More to the story elsewhere.

French Translation of Spring Night, I Hear a Flute

Printemps, j’entends la flûte

Ou est la maison de qui sons la flute
Dispersé par la brise de printemps s’étend sur Luoyang?
Dans la nuit j’entends le saule se dérouler
Qui ne ressent aucune ces sentiments de jardin

Original Chinese

春 夜 洛 城 闻 笛

谁 家 玉 笛 暗 飞 声
散 入 春 风 满 洛 城
此 夜 曲 中 闻 折 柳
何 人 不 起 故 园 情


Shei jia yu di an fei sheng
San ru chun feng man luocheng
Ci ye qu zhong wen she liu
He ren bu qi gu yuan qing?


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


Thoughts on a Silent Night – Li Bai

Poetry is meant to be read and reread. The retelling changing the meaning ever so slightly. So, I am rereading and retelling Li Bai’s famous poem, Thoughts on a Silent Night.


Thoughts on a Silent Night

Moonlight falls at the foot of my bed,
Seeming like frost on the frozen ground.
I look up and see the bright moon,
And look down, reminded of my hometown.

Li Bai (701-762) was perhaps the most famous Chinese Tang poet living in what has been described as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He was friend and drinking companion to Du Fu, another well-known poet.

Tragedy often mythologizes a life. Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, but she took offense to the tone, and caused his dismissal.

Li Bai chose to become a Taoist priest, and might have lived out a long and happy life but for the rebellion of the general An Lushan in 755. Li Bai became a staff advisor to a member of the the imperial family who took to feuding with the prince who eventually became the new emperor. Sentenced to death, Li Bai’s life was spared. Sentenced to exile, he wandered, writing poetry along the way, reminiscing about family and friends.

Perhaps, that is why he wrote this poem.

One must add one final comment, popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection on the water.

French translation of Li Bai’s Thoughts on a Silent Night

Pensées sur un nuit silencieuse

Le clair de lune tombe au pied de mon lit,
Semblant comme le givre sur le sol gelé.
Je lève les yeux et vois la lune brillante,
Et regarde en bas, a rappelé de ma ville natale.


Original Chinese

Jìng yè sī

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,

Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

Note the rhyme. Also note the interplay of the title Jìng yè sī and the last three characters of the poem, sī gù xiāng, literally, remember your hometown. Li Bai’s hometown was Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province.





Bring on the Wine


Li Bai’s impassioned request to good friends, Cen Can and Dan Qiu, to drink wine, celebrate life, and make merry. I will let the reader decide if it should be “bring on the wine” or “bring in the wine”.

Li Bai’s 將進酒, is usually translated as “bring in the wine.” Phonetically, it is pronounced “jiāng jìn jiǔ” which might be hard to say if drunk, and maybe that is the point. Li Bai often drank alone or with the moon as his only companion. He must have relished this opportunity to drink with friends.

Sir, have you not seen
The waters of the Yellow River falling from heaven
Rushing to sea, not to return again?
Sir, have you not seen
In the Great Hall, the mirrors that grieve for grey hair
That once, in the morning, like black thread, by evening becomes snow
One’s small accomplishment is one’s joy in life
So, let not a golden goblet be empty and face the moon
Friend, if heaven made me, I must have a use
While I have squandered a thousand pieces of gold, and wait their return
Boil a lamb, butcher an ox, be of good cheer
Three hundred cups, drunk at once
Master Cen,
And you, Dan Qiu
Bring on the wine
While I sing you a song
The cups cannot stop!
All I ask is that you lend me your ear
Bells, drums, delicacies and jade are not expensive enough
Oh, how I wish to be drunk and never sober again
Since the beginning of time, a sage is a single thing
Leaving to those who drink, to leave their names behind
A story is told, how the Prince of Chen held feasts at Pingle
With ten thousand cups, wild with joy
So, why does your host speak of having no money?
Because you must buy it, now directly go, I’ll drink with you
Take my lovely horse
And my furs worth a thousand
Better yet, call the boy let him swap both for the finest of wines
And together we three will erase the cares of ten thousand ages.


Original Chinese characters




Happiness 幸福

A song of pure happiness, I

I want to believe that
Her clothes are a cloud, her dress a flower that
I could hold in the palm of my hand, and
That the wind of Spring will brush away the dazzling dew
So, that I might see the peak of Jade Mountain
From the platform of a heavenly paradise


I begin by asking myself if happiness exists.

There are few poems on the subject written by the Tang poets. I did come across a series of poems by the poet Li Bai, with the alluring description, A Song of Pure Happiness I, II, and III.

Happiness, most philosophers would say, is an illusive thing. And, the two Chinese characters in the poem’s title 清 平, are usually translated as “pure happiness,” but that is not entirely accurate.

平 is not even close to the Chinese character for happiness. That character is 雙喜. If one is referring to double happiness, then 喜喜, which is often inscribed on jars and vases.

Rather, 平 means peace or calm, but if the world is at peace, then I suppose I would be happy. I also suspect from a philosophical standpoint, and the philosophy here would be Buddhist or Taoist, happiness is not the goal in life. It is ephemeral like the cloud-like gown Li Bai imagines.

There is a little eroticism involved here. I picture Li Bai out for a prowl on the town, a couple of drinks under his woolen tunic, looking up at the balcony, seeing a beautiful girl in silk and becoming enamored.

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain which Li Bai references is a place name, or rather a mythological place name that predates the Tang dynasty.  It is located in the west and it is home to the Queen Mother of the West, who dispensed eternal bliss and a good measure of happiness.

It is also likely that Li Bai’s mention of 會 向, is another place-name, Yáotái, but this will take a little more time to look into than I now have. I will say that tai references a high place from which all of the surroundings may be viewed.


The character for bliss in Chinese is 福, the other half of the two characters that make up happiness, 幸福, literally, lucky to be blissful. One does observe the similarity in the two characters, 平 and 幸, peace and lucky, but that may be just coincidence.

One observes that the world is lucky if it is at peace.

Go figure.

Li Bai’s rhyme scheme is aaba. This and other internal rhymes are sadly lost in translation.

The original Chinese poem

平 調 之 一

雲 想 衣 裳 花 想 容
春 風 拂 檻 露 華 濃
若 非 群 玉 山 頭 見
會 向 瑤 臺 月下 逢

French translation

Voit-il des nuages, et pense à sa robe ; voit-il des fleurs.
Le vent du printemps souffle sur la balustrade embaumée ;
la rosée s’y forme abondamment.
Quand ce n’est pas au sommet du Yu-chan (montagne de jade) qu’il l’aperçoit,
C’est dans la tour Yao-taï qu’il la retrouve, sous les rayons de la lune.

The translation is not mine. It is from 唐 詩 Tang Shi 300 Tang poems. There is a remark in the footnotes that is interesting. Le mont Yu-chan et la tour Yao-taï étaient des lieux célèbres habités par les immortels.



Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.


Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text


長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.


Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.


A Message to Meng Haoran – Li Bai


Li Bai

Message to Meng Haoran by Li Bai (李白)

Master Meng, my heart hails you
Your fame rises to the heavens
You, with youth’s impudence, renounced the emperor’s kind hand
Choosing piney woods and clouds; and now, white-haired
Moon drunk, flower-bewitched, a sage of dreams
But deaf to the the Emperor’s ear
How I long to be with you, high in the mountains
To breathe in your sweetness, even here

French Translation – Message à maitre Meng

Maître Meng, salue de mon cœur
Dans les cieux votre renommée s’élève
Vous, qui, dans l’impudence de la jeunesse, ont renoncé au service de l’empereur
Choix des pins et des nuages; Et maintenant, les cheveux blancs
Lune ivre, fleur enchanté, une sage de rêves
Mais sourd à l’oreille de l’empereur
Comment j’aimerais être élevé dans les montagnes, avec vous voici
Pour respirer votre douceur, même ici

German Tanslation – Nachricht an Meister Meng

Meister Meng, Herzliche grüße!
Dein Ruhm erhebt sich im Himmel
Sie, der in der Frechheit der Jugend, auf den Dienst des Kaisers verzichtet hat
Leben in Wäldern und Wolken; Und jetzt, weißhaarig
Mond betrunken, blumen verhext, ein Salbei der Träume
Aber taub zum Ohr des Kaisers
Wenn ich nur in den Bergen mit dir war
Um deine Süße zu atmen, auch hier

Original Chinese


吾爱孟夫子 风流天下闻。

红颜弃轩冕 白首卧松云

醉月频中圣 迷花不事君

高山安可仰 徒此挹清芬


Somewhere in the back of my mind comes a refrain from ABBA’s song, SOS:

“Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find. I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice, it used to be so good. So when you’re near me, darling can’t you hear me.”

“S. O. S.”

During the An Lushan rebellion, when war and famine devastated northern China, rebel forces captured the capital, and the Emperor fled south. Li Bai was captured but after a year he escaped. Forgiven by the emperor for remaining too long in the north, he never fully recovered his status; and his poems on a sadder tone.

Meng Haoran died during the rebellion. Older than Li Bai by a dozen year, he did not curry favor with the emperor, preferring his native province of Hubei to a posting in a distant province. His eccentricity was well known, and it is said that he threw away his poems after they were written. An admirer, Wang Shiyuan would gather them up. The story is also told that one evening he fell from a boat, intoxicated with wine, watching the moon’s reflection.

Why send Meng a message?

China had an ancient postal system that dated to the Qin dynasty (221 – 206 BC). Oistal stations were set up and couriers carried mail by horse and boat. Li Bai’s message to Meng was likely poetical.

Tang poets wrote messages to other poets, to the Emperor, to loved ones back home and to wives and lovers. If one could not be present in person, one could reach out and and touch a kindred spirit with the mind.

“Can’t you hear me?”


Meng Haoran

It is a Cowboy T’ang

Just for fun, imagine a cowboy sending a message to his long lost love. It might go something like this: “Send a message to my heart on the wings of the wind. Let me hear your sweet voice sayin’, ‘You love me again, even though we’re apart, I hold to your memory. Send a message to my heart to keep you here with me.’ ”

Send A Message To My Heart Dwight Yoakam with Patty Loveless


Justin Cowboy Hat


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