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li bai: "drinking alone in the moonlight"

UPDATE – The poem for today, the first of Bai Juyi’s “Bemoaning My Old Age: Three Poems” (叹老三首), will be up later this afternoon; my translation is done, but I need to check one of the lines. In the meantime, look at the comments for this poem, where Oli and Kun quite rightly point out that I screwed up in a couple places with this translation.

Another famous Li Bai poem today. 月下独酌, or “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight,” is, like a lot of Li Bai’s stuff, about getting drunk.
As a theme, that gets old pretty fast; a lot of his stuff strikes me as being a Classical Chinese version of “Yo, you guys, you wouldn’t believe how wasted I got the other night!” — but then again, I’m a foreigner, so I know nothing.

At any rate, where yesterday’s poem, 将进酒 (“Bring in the Wine!”), was a blustery, stream-of-consciousness rant in the 乐府 “folk ballad” style, “Drinking Alone in the Moonlight” is in the 五言古诗 five-character classical form, giving it a much calmer feel.

I’ll be out of town over the weekend, but it seems reasonable to make this a “poem of the weekday” thing anyway. I’ll probably put these translations on a separate blog soon, and include more notes on the translations, as well as questions about things I’m not sure of. In the meantime:



Li Bai: Drinking Alone in the Moonlight

With a pot of wine in a field of flowers,
I drank alone, no friends at hand.
So I raised my cup to invite the moon,
And my shadow behind me made three of us.

Now, the Moon didn’t know how to drink,
And my shadow just followed me round,
But I stayed with the moon, and moved with my shadow,
As we had a fine time, awaiting the Spring.

When I sang, the moon swayed back and forth,
And when I danced, my shadow went wild.
Sober, we were the best of friends;
Drunk, we went our separate ways,
Returning forever to our lonely travels,
Agreeing to meet again some time, out past where the Milky Way ends.


  1. JG wrote:


    Friday, November 19, 2004 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Your stampeding audience wrote:

    This is a lot of fun. Keep it up!

    Saturday, November 20, 2004 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  3. Kun wrote:

    我觉着”行乐须及春”是及时行乐的意思,可能诗是在春季写的. (我查了一下资料,证实我的猜测是对的.)

    Saturday, November 20, 2004 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  4. oli wrote:

    Hm according to 2 books of mine 及 in 行乐须及春means 趁着’while’. ‘One should make the most of the(this?) springtime’.

    “Returning forever to our lonely travels”
    Apparently 无情 indicates 忘情,尽情, to one’s heart’s content.
    And 游 isnt travel, but 交游 to make friends.
    so.. ‘Forever together to our heart’s content friends’? Sounds like something from the top of a pencil case.

    Sunday, November 21, 2004 at 3:33 am | Permalink
  5. Brendan wrote:

    Oli and Kun –

    Aaaaaahhhh, crap. I’d seen the line about springtime interpreted as the way I have it, but the reading od “temporary” makes more sense. I’ll fix that when I move this to the (upcoming) new blog.

    Also, right, 游 as 交游 makes much more sense. I’d asked my tutor about this line and never got a satisfactory answer, and as the only 唐诗 collections I have are non-annotated, I totally fudged that. D’oh d’oh d’oh. Thanks — again, I’ll emend that.

    Thanks so much for the helpful comments — I really, really appreciate them, as it’s much more fun (to say nothing of useful) to be corrected than to be shouting into a vacuum, which is how I feel sometimes. Cheers – and do come back, as I’ll be making this a daily thing, and really really honestly for-reals do intend to keep it up seriously.

    Sunday, November 21, 2004 at 3:58 am | Permalink
  6. matt wrote:

    I like this one.
    I have finally started to dabble with writing Chinese. I fucked up, and publish the fully edited version, which whilst not perfect, is less fun for all involved. The process of criticizing and being criticized(corrected) is wherein the fun lies.

    Sunday, November 21, 2004 at 5:41 am | Permalink
  7. oli wrote:

    Your doing these translations from an unannotated tangshi? that’s impressive! I guess it encourages you to be less lazy and absorb more the actual language of the poem, rather than just being given the answer.

    Im really interested in classical chinese poetry, but never having (formally) studied classical chinese ive got a whole load of annotated books. Everything i said was just copied out of them! Anyway, all I need to do is memorise the annotations and it becomes ‘knowledge’ – right?

    Sunday, November 21, 2004 at 6:42 am | Permalink
  8. Brendan wrote:

    Totally. My classical Chinese is basically a semester’s worth of introduction, plus whatever I’ve picked up along the way, plus whatever my 古代汉语常用字字典 tells me. For some texts (like Zhuangzi), that’s enough to get by; for other stuff, I’m really just faking it.

    I’m doing classical poems for a couple reasons. The first one is totally unglamorous; I’m going over them with a native speaker, reading them aloud, and having my tones corrected. My tones are generally OK to begin with, in connected speech, but with classical Chinese, you really can’t fake it, so this seemed a good way of doing it. At the same time, the poems are part of the (minimal) classical education that Chinese people used to get, and so I’m trying to absorb it in hopes of someday being able to dash off a witty 七律 about the hostess’s dress at some cocktail party, or wowing a Beijing cab driver with a verse, complete with line-endings that rhymed some time during the Eastern Han dynasty, about the sorry state of public transportation.

    Sunday, November 21, 2004 at 6:48 am | Permalink
  9. Vlad wrote:

    I approve.

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  10. smoker wrote:

    anyway, it is a very good piece of work indeed.



    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  11. smoker wrote:

    Hi, Brendan. I just found a version of this translation by Herbert A. Giles.

    I love his translation. Better than yours. hehe…yours is good too..

    An arbour of flowers and a kettle of wine:
    Alas! in the bowers no companion is mine.
    Then the moon sheds her rays on my goblet and me,
    And my shadow betrays we’re a party of three!
    Though the moon cannot swallow her share of the grog,
    And my shadow must follow wherever I jog.
    Yet eheir friendship I’ll borrow and gaily carouse,
    And laugh away sorrow while springtime allows.
    See the moon-how she glances response to my song;
    Seemy shadow – it dances so lightly along!
    While sober Ifeel, you are both my good friends;
    When drunken I reel, our companionship ends,
    But we’ll soon have a greeting without a goodbye,
    At our next merry meeting away in the sky.

    Monday, November 29, 2004 at 9:56 am | Permalink

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