Bai Juyi – Where Is It Difficult to Forget About the Wine?

Bai Juyi (白居易, 백거이, 772-846) was a Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907) bureaucratic official and one of the most renowned Classical Chinese poets. His family was originally from Taiyuan (太原, 태원), Shanxi Province (山西省, 산서성), but he was born in Xinzheng (鄭, 신정), Henan Province (河南省, 하남성). His courtesy name (字, 자) was Letian (樂天, 낙천); his pen names (號, 호) were Xiangshan Jushi (香山居士, 향산거사) and Zuiyin Xiansheng (醉吟先生, 취음선생) (“Master of Drunken Poetry”). Bai Juyi was recognized for his poetry at the early age of 5. In 800, he passed the imperial civil examinations (科擧, 과거) and rose quickly through the bureaucratic ranks. In 807, he became a Hanlin Academy Scholar (翰林學士, 한림학사), and wrote Confucian-inspired tracts criticizing the government and society, some of which lead to his brief exile later. However, in 811, when both his mother and daughter passed away, he pondered about death and became very interested in Buddhism. After the three year mourning period for his mother, Bai Juyi returned to government and served in various positions, including the Assistant Secretary to the Prince’s Tutor (左夫, 좌천선태부), Provincial Inspector (刺史, 자사) of Zhongzhou (忠州, 충주), Hangzhou (杭州, 항주), and Suzhou (蘇州, 소주), and finally the Gazetteer (秘監, 비서감) on the imperial court. He finally retired in 842, and moved to a Buddhist monastery near Luoyang (洛陽, 낙양). Throughout his career, he was also a prolific writer, composing several pieces of prose and poetry. Indeed, out of all of the Tang dynasty poets, Bai Juyi not only has the most number of poems that have survived to this day, but also the most varied in breadth of topics. His earlier writings are said to have expressed optimism and romanticism, but later reflect realism. In Korea, Bai Juyi’s influence was not only limited to his prose and poetry. One of his cousins, Baek Ugyeong (白宇經, 백우경, ?-?), who became an official on the Shilla dynasty court (新羅, 신라, 57BC – 935), is the progenitor of the Suwon Baek Clan (水原白氏, 수원백씨).

The excerpt below is just one verse from his poem Where Is It Difficult to Forget About the Wine? (何處難忘酒, 하처난망주). Throughout the verses, Bai Juyi — true to one of his pen names — expresses his affinity for alcohol. The first line (“Where is it difficult to forget about the wine?”) and seventh line (“At this time, if one did not even have one cup [of wine]”) are repeated throughout each verse in the poem. The excerpt also alludes to the Vernal Equinox (春分, 춘분), which marks the days when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 0 to 15 degrees. As a solar term, it falls around March 20 of every year on the Western Gregorian Calendar but varies on the Chinese Lunar Calendar. In ancient China, the Vernal Equinox also marked the day when swallows returned from the south and the first thunderstorms could be heard.

何處難忘酒 하처난망주

Where Is It Difficult to Forget About the Wine? (Third Verse)

何處難忘酒 하처난망주  Where is it difficult to forget about the wine?
朱門羨少年 주문선소년  Behind the vermilion doors, the rich grow jealous of the young.
春分花發後 춘분화발후  After the Vernal Equinox’s flowers bloom,
寒食月明前 한식월명전  The Cold Food Festival’s bright moon will lead.
小院廻羅綺 소원회라기  In the small courtyard, the sleeves of silk are swirled about;
深房理管弦 심방리관현  Within the secluded room, the reeds and zither are tuned.
此時無一盞 차시무일잔  At this time, if one did not have even one cup for wine,
爭過豔陽天 쟁과염양천  How can he pass by this elegant and lush day?

Definitions:

Which • place • difficult • to forget • wine
Red • doors • to be jealous • youth • years
Spring • divide • flowers • to blossom • after
Cold • food • bright • moon • to lead
Small • garden • to spin • to lay out • silk
Deep • room • to handle • pipe • zither
This • time • to not have • one • wine cup
To quarrel • to pass • beautiful • warm • days

Notes:

  • Pentasyllabic regulated poem (五言律詩, 오언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 先(선).
  • 朱門(주문) – Literally “red doors.” Refers to an affluent household.
  • 寒食(한식) – The Cold Food Festival falls on April 5.
  • 前(전) – Here means “to lead” or “to proceed.”
  • Korean translation available here.
18 comments
  1. Alice Cheang said:

    爭 in the closing line should, I believe, be read, not as a full verb but as an adverbial, its meaning interchangeable with 怎. (See, for instance, definition 4 in http://www.zdic.net/z/15/js/4E89.htm) This is a colloquialism widely used in Tang and Song 詩 and 詞, and Bai Juyi was especially fond of introducing colloquial idiom into his poems in both genres. Taking 爭過 as 怎過 = 如何度過, the closing couplet would read: “At this time, if one didn’t have a cup of wine, / How could one possibly get through this glorious day?” (That is, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this splendid moment to the fullest and that would be such a waste!) Also, if we look at the the other poems in the same series, they all begin with an identical first line 何處難忘酒 and end with similar compounds at the head of the last line (爭奈,何以,爭過,何計,何物, “by what means,” “how,” “with what,” and so forth).

    In line 5, might we perhaps take 羅綺 as referring to the silken robes worn by beautiful women, and hence as a metonym standing for the beautiful women themselves? (See, for instance, definition 2 in http://www.zdic.net/c/7/a7/197380.htm.) In that case, 小院廻羅綺 could be read “In the courtyard, dancing girls in silk whirl about (廻 as in 廻旋: dance in the Tang Dynasty involved a lot of swirling of long sleeves).” This would make a nicer contrast with the next line, balancing the more boisterous activity of dance being performed in the open courtyard against the quieter one of music being played in the more intimate setting of the inner chamber. In both cases, the poet is describing a party featuring female entertainers. We know this to be so because 朱門 in line 2 gives us the scene setting for this poem– 朱門羨少年 “Inside their vermilion doors, rich young men are to be envied.” (I take 羨 as having an implied subject “one envies them.”)

  2. Alice Cheang said:

    Or “In the small garden, sleeves of silk are swirled about, / In the secluded room, reeds and strings are tuned” to make a more exact parallel?

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much. I have adopted your comments into the translation. I didn’t even think that 爭 could be used as an adverbial interrogative. It fits much better in with the other verses, which also end in interrogatives. As for 羅綺, that also makes a lot sense, and fits into the context of the poem very well. I should have looked up the word on the Korean dictionary, as a definition appears there. I also did manage to find another Korean translation that specifically refers to dancing girls in silk dress: http://o.dzboard.com.ne.kr/view.php?uid=613&fid=613&page=398&Board_num=osj1952&boardnum=3&st=1426995062&mode=&mode_kind=&search= .

  3. riroriro said:

    _ 何處 = why ? ( I would ignore 處 )
    _ 廻 =return
    _ 前 ( 4th line ) is contrary of 後 ( 3rd line ) , 前 = lead doen’t make sense , it should mean ” in front of the house , garden ,…..)
    _ second line = the rich regret their young days ?
    _ last line = flowing away fast are the bright , beautiful days ?

    • 歸源 said:

      All your comments are addressed by Alice or the post.

  4. I don’t think 前 is either “to lead” or “in front”. It believe it is read as “comes before”. The time of this poem most probably is describing the eve of 寒食.

    • 歸源 said:

      I don’t think the current translation is that much different.

      • Yes, but the subtlety may be lost in the English translation.

    • Alice Cheang said:

      I think you’re right From 春分 to 寒食 (the three days preceding 清明) there are just twelve days: it’s too cold before 春分 and then, once 寒食 arrives, all cooking fires have to be doused and cannot be relit till the morning of 清明, which is a very solemn occasion and not suitable for merry-making. So the best and most appropriate time for a party (especially one that can include outdoor entertainment) would be during those twelve days, and especially on the last night before 寒食– the Chinese answer to Mardi Gras, a night of carousing before Ash Wednesday and the 40 days of Lent. This is probably why the poet makes such a big deal about establishing the time. Thanks for pointing this out.

      • You are most welcome. This is a subtlety that is lost to most, especially those translating… It is always a compromise between the true intent of the poem vs translation by meaning vs direct translation vs the understandability to the reader of a different language. Finding this balance is alas extremely difficult.

        Anyway, like you said, Kuiwon always have such interesting poetry and articles. Not only it helps to improve my Chinese but having fun at it.

      • setohj said:

        I find your analogy to Ash Wednesday quite wonderful. Coincidentally, Christianity had made some headway into China around this time by way of Persian missionaries from the Church of the East (Nestorian Church) (景教). Although Bai Juyi was Buddhist, I wonder if he was influenced by Christian Scripture. The Nestorians were purported to have a mission in practically every major city in Tang China. Thanks for your helpful comment.

  5. riroriro said:

    _ 3rd line , “after vernal equinox ” should be ” 春分後 ” . 後 = back ( yard )
    _ so in 4th line , 前 = front (yard )
    _ 5th line , 院 = wall , walled compound , room ; not garden or courtyard
    _ 廻 means ” swirl ” ?
    _ 羅 = thin shirt ; expose

    • 歸源 said:

      Please read and consider other comments here before commenting. They had all been addressed.

  6. Alice Cheang said:

    Ah, I just had this thought. May we read 朱門羨少年 as “Age envies Youth”? In other words, no matter how rich one is, one cannot turn back time, so it’s best to seize the day and make merry while we can. This sets up a standard carpe diem motif that the poet develops through the rest of the poem. The sentiment is cliched, but it’s a mark of Bai Juyi’s genius that he can still make a fun poem out of it.

    Many thanks to Kuiwon for his always interesting and educational posts, and to everyone else for their comments. I am learning and having lots of fun!

    • Alice Cheang said:

      I meant Wealth, not Age, of course.

  7. setohj said:

    ~ 羨 also = to admire or to praise. The verse “朱門羨少年” = “The Wealthy praises the Young” reflects closer to the general tone of the poem, i.e., a languid atmosphere. The word “jealous” sounds a bit too belligerent for this poem. Alice’s “envies” might be a slightly better fit. Thanks for the post and followup discussion.

  8. setohj said:

    Kuiwon, I believe you meant 772 BC, not 722 BC as Bai Juyi’s birth year.

    • setohj said:

      Sorry, I meant AD, i.e., 772 AD should replace 722 AD as Bai Juyi’s birth year.

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