Chinese poetry: 7. Rapture with wine

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry
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VII.  Rapture with wine

Again, as every reader of Chinese poetry must be aware, there are constant references in it to drinking and becoming “tsuei” (醉), which is usually translated as “drunk,” though actually it carries rather different implications and associations. The word does not imply gross sensual enjoyment, nor does it suggest hilarity and conviviality, as do many European drinking songs. The character tsuei 醉 consists of a pictogram for a wine-jar 酉 and a phonetic tsu卒, which by itself means “finish” or “reach the limit.” According to the “Shuo Wen Jie Zi” (說文解字), a philological work of about A.D. 100 and the cornerstone of Chinese etymology, the phonetic here is also significant, and the whole composite character is explained as meaning “everyone reaching the limit of his capacity without offending propriety.” Even if we do not accept this explanation, it still remains true that in poetry tsuei does not mean quite the same thing as “drunk,” “intoxicated,” or “inebriated,” but rather means being mentally carried away from one’s normal preoccupations. Of course these English words can also be used metaphorically: one can be “drunk with success” or “intoxicated with beauty,” but when used by themselves they do not have the same feeling as tsuei. I therefore prefer not to use any of these words but to translate tsuei as “rapt with wine.”

In saying the above I am not suggesting that the Chinese never get drunk. Whether Chinese people get drunk or not in real life is one thing; what the Chinese poets mean when they write that they are tsuei is quite another. Being tsuei in Chinese poetry is largely a matter of convention, and it would be as wise to take literally a Chinese poet’s professed “drunkenness” as to accept at their face value an Elizabethan sonneteer’s complaints of his mistress’s cruelty. This convention goes back at least as far as “The Fisherman” (漁父), a piece in the anthology The Songs of Chu (楚辭), formerly attributed to Chu Yuan (屈原) but probably a forgery of the first century B.C. In this, the poet complains, “The whole world is drunk, but I alone am sober.” (世人皆醉我獨醒) Later poets like Liu Ling (劉伶) inverted the positions of the poet and of the world and from one’s personal emotions. In one of his famous poems on drinking, Tao Chien expresses very clearly this escapist attitude.

 Two travelers there are, often seen together,

Yet they have widely different tastes.

One, a scholar, is often rapt with wine,

The other, a plain man, sober all the year.

The rapt and the sober laugh at each other,

And neither would listen to what the other says.

How foolish is he so rigid and proper!

The haughty one is the wiser of the two.

Take my advice, you that are flushed with wine,

When the sun sets, light your candles up!

In a similar vein, Li Po writes:

 Living in this world is a great dream,

Why exert oneself to shorten one’s life?

That is why I’m rapt with wine all day

And lie happily by the front pillars of the hall.

Waking up, I look at the courtyard:

A single bird is singing among the flowers.

Pray tell me, bird, what day is this?

The oriole keeps singing in the spring breeze.

Moved by this scene, I wish to sigh,

But pour out another cup of wine instead.

I sing aloud to wait for the bright moon;

My song over, all my feelings are gone.

Are these the boisterous songs of habitual of drunkards?

 

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