“Drinking Alone under the Moon” by Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Po, was arguably the greatest poet of China’s Tang dynasty, and possibly of all its history. His verse is notable for the strong voice and personality it reflects, uncommon in the 8th century. An accomplished martial artist and academic genius, Li Bai was also a great lover of wine, becoming a member of the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook”, an informal group dedicated to literature and drinking. It was the custom of the time to indulge socially, so the following poem—one of his most famous pieces—explores the unusual problem of drinking alone, for which Li Bai finds an uncommon solution.

Among the blossoms waits a jug of wine.
I pour myself a drink, no loved one near.
Raising my cup, I invite the bright moon
and turn to my shadow. We are now three.
But the moon doesn’t understand drinking,
and my shadow follows my body like a slave.
For a time moon and shadow will be my companions,
a passing joy that should last through the spring.
I sing and the moon just wavers in the sky;
I dance and my shadow whips around like mad.
While lucid still, we have such fun together!
But stumbling drunk, each staggers off alone.
Bound forever, relentless we roam:
reunited at last on the distant river of stars.

—translated by David Bowles
April 20, 2014

Original Chinese

月下獨酌

花間一壺酒,
獨酌無相親;
舉杯邀明月,
對影成三人。
月既不解飲,
影徒隨我身;
暫伴月將影,
行樂須及春。
我歌月徘徊,
我舞影零亂;
醒時同交歡,
醉後各分散。
永結無情遊,
相期邈雲漢。

Huā jiān yī hú jiǔ,
Dú zhuó wū xiāng qīn;
Jǔ bēi yāo míng yuè,
Duì yǐng chéng sān rén.
Yuè jì bù jiě yǐn,
Yǐng tú suí wǒ shēn;
Zàn bàn yuè jiāng yǐng,
Xínglè xū jí chūn.
Wǒ gē yuè páihuái,
Wǒ wǔ yǐng língluàn;
Xǐng shí tóng jiāo huān,
Zuì hòu gè fēnsàn.
Yǒng jié wúqíng yóu,
Xiāng qī miǎo yúnhàn.

Hear audio at http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/libo/lb04.html

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