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 (新鄭, 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 (左贊善太夫, 좌천선태부), Provincial Inspector (刺史, 자사) of Zhongzhou (忠州, 충주), Hangzhou (杭州, 항주), and Suzhou (蘇州, 소주), and finally the Gazetteer (秘書監, 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.
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?
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
- 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.