by Li Bai
(a.k.a. Li Po, 701-762)
In the middle of the flowering grove, one jug of beer.
Drinking alone – no friends or family near –
I raise my cup, invite the moon to join me.
Counting my shadow, we’re a party of three.
But moon’s a lightweight, doesn’t know how to drink,
And shadow simply matches me cup for cup.
For now, though, they’ll do just fine, I think.
Spring is here, my friends! Let’s live it up.
I start to sing; the moon sways to and fro.
I get up and dance – shadow reels in disarray.
Sober, we crave the company of some jolly fellow;
Drunk, each goes his separate way.
Freed of all ties, yet bound forever more,
Let’s get back together on the galaxy’s far shore.
Come April, and the village of Xianyang lies deep in fallen blossoms. Who can bear to be alone with sorrow in the spring? Who can gaze on such sights as these and stay sober? The unseen Maker rolls his dice: for you, wealth and a long life; poverty for you, and a life cut short. But one mug of beer can balance life and death, even out a thousand things that confound the intellect. Drunk, I lose track of heaven and earth, sitting alone on my mat, unmoving, unmovable. I end by forgetting that I ever existed at all: pure joy, then, for the no-one left behind!
If Heaven above be not besotted with beer,
why should a Beer Star appear in heaven?
If Earth, too, be not a tippler,
why do we find a Beer Springs on earth?
With beer thus beloved above and below,
drinking beer can hardly be against nature.
I’ve heard a clear brew likened to a sage,
while the slang term for a cloudy beer is saint.
Since I’ve drunk deep of saints and sages,
what need have I to search for spirit guides?
Three cups, and the Great Way lies open;
a gallon, and everything resolves into Suchness.
Simply strive for beer and find contentment.
Don’t speak of these arcana to the sober ones.
This translates three of the four sections of the original poem. The first section best imitates the rhyme and meter of the original.
“Sage” and “Saint” were code words for strained and unstrained beer during a period of prohibition in the early Tang Dynasty.
For other translations of ancient Chinese beer-drinking poems at Via Negativa, see The guest (Du Fu) and Night drinking at the western pavilion of the Flower of the Dharma Temple (Liu Zongyuan).