Drunk, to Han Shu of the Imperial Library

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William Wallis



I. Han Yu and his Poem “Drunk, to Han Shu of the Imperial Library”

Han Yu, born 768, is still remembered as the preeminent prose master of the mid-Tang, but his large poetic output provides a different, and often more nuanced, view of his personality and principles. He was born at Heyang (now Mengzhou) in Henan to a literary family, though his father, the county magistrate Han Zhongqing, died in 770, resulting in the two-year-old Han Yu’s adoption by his elder brother, Han Hui (born 740). Though reaching the position of diarist (qijusheren) in the official bureaucracy, Han Hui was banished from the capital with the fall of the corrupt minister Yuan Zai in 777, and Han Yu, accompanying him to his prefecture at Shaozhou in Guangdong, encountered southern banishment for the first time. Its hardships were not limited to the sphere of cultural isolation, as soon Han Yu discovered when the still youthful Han Hui met his end in Shaozhou three years later. Now thirteen years old, Han Yu buried his brother in Heyang in 781, yet remained with his sister-in-law’s family in the South before coming at last to the capital in 786 as an examination candidate.

It was not until 792 that Han Yu passed the jinshi examination, fourteenth on a list of twenty-three “Tigers and Dragons”, most of whom went on to later fame and fortune in the government of the period. Han Yu’s own fame, however, was slow in coming, since, as a novus homo on the political scene, he had insufficient connections or qualifications to grant him an immediate post. In order to rectify the situation, Han Yu attempted to pass the high-level “Erudite Literatus” examination (boxue hongci), failing three consecutive times between 793 and 795. In 796, therefore, he accepted a post with Dong Jin, the military governor of the Xuanwu district in Bianzhou, remaining there until 799 when Dong Jin’s death and a violent uprising of the garrison forced him to leave. It was during this period that he became close friends with Meng Jiao and Zhang Ji (both of whom figure in this poem) as well as Li Ao and others, who formed the inner ring of Han Yu’s literary circle.

Serving a two-year post as a low-ranking erudite (boshi) in the Directorate of Education from 801, Han Yu was made an imperial censor (jiancha yushi) in 803. It was in this capacity that he, and his friend Zhang Shu (the addressee of this poem), produced a somewhat less than tactful memorial in response to a drought and received banishment for themselves at Yangshan in Guangdong. In January or February of 804, Han Yu set out for the deep South, forced once again from the capital, not to return again until 806, when the accession of the emperor Xianzong made it possible for him to be recalled. This exile was to have a profound effect on Han Yu’s literary career, marking the start of his more mature period and producing some of his most famous poems. It was not, however, his last absence from the capital which he left again in 807 with a transfer to Lo Yang, returning in 811.

Remaining away from Chang’an kept him out of the factionalism and intrigue that would otherwise have hindered his advancement, but Han Yu’s own sharp tongue and uncompromising reality had their effects on his morality as well. In a shockingly injudicious display of cultural purism, he wrote his famous “Memorial on the Buddah-Bone” (“Lun Fogu Biao”) in 819, a brazen attack on Buddhism which drew an insufficiently subtle connection between the emperor’s beliefs and his mortality. Saved by powerful benefactors from execution, Han Yu was exiled for the last time to Chaozhou on the southern coast. He was recalled once again in 820, at the death of Emperor Xianzong, when he served a number of important official roles in the capital before his death in 824.

Han Yu is remembered more for his later and more moralistic prose pieces than for his earlier poetry, but the poetry, if less influential, is no less a product of his genius. Though the entire Tang dynasty was preoccupied with a desire to “return to antiquity” (fu gu), Han Yu is famous for shaping the notion of an “antique style” (gu wen), a looser and freer prose form than the “parallel style” (pain wen) that had arisen in the Six Dynasties period. This “antique style” was not a reversion to nor an imitation of the literary forms of the earlier Han Dynasty, but rather an attempt to follow its ideals in an attempt to rid contemporary prose of the calcifying rigidity of parallel structure and rhyme. His poetry likewise is fluid and free, even when it conforms to the strictures of Tang regulated meter, and is direct, if not always simple. Historical Chinese critics have complained that Han Yu’s poetry is prose, objecting to the conversational style and the use of prosaic conventions and structures alongside the rare characters and poetic usages, but this is indeed what sets his style apart.

Unlike the contemporaneous circle of the “New Music Bureau” (xin yuefu) poets surrounding Bo Juyi, also concerned with the “return to antiquity”, Han Yu’s idea of archaism was centered around purity of thought rather than directness of form. While Bo Juyi produced ballad-like poems meant to counter the indirectness of high-Tang verse, Han Yu was more concerned with the principles of the ancients than with their style, and his poems show the influence of a strong ideology. This ideology was, of course, Confucianism, a way of life that Han Yu pursued to the point of religiosity and even exclusivity, inveighing against the corruptions of Taoism and Buddhism, which had never before been considered incompatible with Confucian ideals. Though Han Yu’s early poetry often seems to stagger under the weight of such a heavy ideological burden, Han Yu’s later works owe more to his beliefs as foundation and subtext for expression, rather than a static interpretation stamped like a trademark upon his productions.

If the transformation from a more naive to a more informed verse can be traced or at least dated to Han Yu’s 804-806 exile, the influence of his close friend Meng Jiao’s work was a lasting one. Though Meng Jiao, born in 751, was almost twenty years Han Yu’s senior, their attachment was a close one and their influence on each other’s work was mutual. Meng Jiao is remembered primarily as a poet, as opposed to Han Yu’s canonical identity as a prose theorist, and in certain other respects he represents a foil for Han Yu. Meng Jiao passed the jinshi examination in 796, at the age of forty-six, and four years after Han-Yu, already a mature poet and having lived two thirds of his live. In regard to poetic form, Mang Jiao tended to favor the regulated patterns of Tang verse, whereas Han Yu was more willing in his earlier poetry to descend into more archaic genres. In regard to substance, however, Meng Jiao was more outlandish and heartfelt, expressing emotion by bending his description of a natural scene; Han Yu’s poetry was generally populated by people more than things, and enjoyed describing words as much as using them, existing in a more abstract and verbal space.

The opening section of Han Yu’s poem “Drunk, to Han Shu of the Imperial Library” renders this preoccupation evident, and even hints at the distinction between the author and Meng Jiao. The poem, in the five character regulated meter (wujue), commences in a rather informal style, with an offhand first line that could indeed be mistaken for prose. Han Yu’s first two couplets announce, perhaps ironically, that though an an abstemious man he wishes to drink with his host, and the third provides the reason: namely, that he considers this a literary gathering. The enjambment of “and I” (ji yu) in the sixth line continues in the conversational vein, and the use of a first person pronoun (the second so far) not only has a certain prosaic quality but also suggests Han Yu’s immediacy in the scene, and possibly also his inebriation.

There follows Han Yu’s estimation of the poetry of each of his fellows (his own left modestly unmentioned), which must have caused some amusement on the occasion. Zhang Shi’s poems are elegant as clouds, Meng Jiao’s as shocking as a strange perfume, and Zhang Ji’s are “antique” as a lordly crane (the character providing an interesting glimpse into Han Yu’s conception of the “antique style”, meaning clear and pure, but perhaps in this instance suggesting a certain insipidity, a possible jibe at his friend.) Ah Mai is also present, one who doesn’t recognize characters but knows the “eight divisions” of archaic script. It is plain, after this description, that Ah Mai is only a child, whom Han Yu makes a comic member of his symposium and allows to copy the finished poems.

“This,” Han Yu explains, “is the reason I wish to take liquor,” justifying his toping as stimulant to literature. He takes the next two couplets to describe the effects in suitably parallel style, before announcing that without drinking, “everything is just confused.” The following scene is a contrast: young libertines in Chang’an who merely feast and drink with courtesans. Happy though they may be, they are like a swarm of mosquitoes to Han Yu, since they do not understand the joys of literary drunkenness. Han Yu ends the poem with an extended and luminous description of himself and his friends vanishing into the sunset of literary canonization, happy to spend days enjoying themselves with poems and wine.

The poem, probably written for a Chang’an party in the fourth year of the Yuanhe era (i.e. 809), is interesting as a specimen of Han Yu’s post-exile work. Given the poet’s stanch Confucian morals, it is somewhat unexpected to find him writing a drinking poem, but it is obvious from the first few lines that he intends to subvert the genre. Han Yu’s verse lacks the effete urbanity of the drinking poems that the “sons of Chang’an” would no doubt produce, and there is a certain lack of delicacy in the comic twists he inserts throughout. Nevertheless, though the poem is perfused with a tipsy gaiety, it never borders on excess or ecstasy, even as the repeated mentions of literature, though in a humorous context, are obviously taken very seriously by Han Yu.

This blend of comedy and didacticism is particularly characteristic, and would scarcely be out of place in one of his more light-hearted prose pieces. The title of prose master second only to Sima Qian is one which Han Yu wears very lightly in this poem, who obviously finds such joy in writing that it overflows as sheer humor. The image of Ah Mai copying poems he cannot read is particularly piquant, conjuring up a literary sentiment so powerful it carries along even those unable to read. The portraits of his friends are also somewhat jocular, but they demonstrate as well Han Yu’s interest in the connection between people’s words and their character. Just as the florid prose style of the high-Tang was considered evidence of immorality and decadence, the portraits of Zhang Shu, Meng Jiao, and Zhang Ji are ambiguously descriptions of their poems and estimations of their characters. The vision at the end of the poem complements this idea, by representing a utopian future characterized as utopian antiquity. The men of the writing party have achieved their apotheosis in their virtue and and in the transcendence of literary creation, and are offered a home among the immortals both political and literary. It is in this spirit that Han Yu ends his poem, with the verbal equivalent of a smile of contentment.

II. Text


Drunk, presented to Zhang Imperial Secretary


Rén jiē quàn wǒ jiǔ

People all urge liquor on me


wǒ ruò ěr bù wén

I am as though my ears do not hear.


Jīn rì dào jūn jiā

Today I have come to your house


hū jiǔ chí quàn jūn

I call out for liquor and holding it offer it to you


Wèi cǐ zuò shàng kè

Because of this: the guests on the seats


jí yú gè néng wén

And I can all ably produce literature.


Jūn shī duō tài dù

Your poems have many measures of elegance


ǎi ǎi chūn kōng yún

Vegetal clouds of spring skies.


Dōng Yě dòng jīng sú

Meng Jiao’s actions are shockingly vulgar


tiān pā tǔ qí fēn

Heavenly flowers spit strange perfumes.


Zhāng Jí xué gǔ dàn

Zhang Ji studies ancient clarity/blandness


xuān hè bì jī qún

A crane in a carriage avoids flocks of chickens.


Ā Mǎi bù shí zì

A Mai doesn’t recognize characters


pō zhī shū bā fēn

Knowing pretty well how to write the eight pieces


shī chéng shǐ zhī xiě

When the poems are done we have him write them


yì zú zhāng wú jūn

He also is sufficient to be deployed in my army


Suǒ yǐ yù dé jiǔ

This is the reason I wish to receive liquor


wèi wén qí qí xūn

On behalf of my piece waiting for its flush


jiǔ wèi jì líng liè

The taste of liquor is already pure and cold


jiǔ qì yòu fēn yūn

The spirit of the liquor is moreover airy and abundant


xìng qíng jiàn hào hào

The nature and condition gradually becomes more flowing


xié xiào fāng yún yún

Humorous jokes are just then abundant as clouds.


cǐ chéng dé jiǔ yì

This truly captures the significance of liquor


yú wài tú bīn fēn

Beyond this all else is only confused


Cháng'ān zhòng fù er

The crowd of wealthy sons of Chang’an


pán zhuàn luó shān hūn

Are served plates in order, mutton and onion,


bù jiě wén zì yǐn

They do not understand literature-character drinking,


wéi néng zuì hóng qún

And can only make red skirts drunk.


Suī dé yī xiǎng lè

Although they receive one portion of joy


yǒu rú jù fēi wén

They are something like a swarm of flying insects.


Jīn wǒ jí shù zi

Today I with you few


gù wú yóu yǔ xūn

Definitely have no stench with perfume.


Xiǎn yǔ pò guǐ dǎn

Vertiginous speech breaks the courage of spirits,


gāo cí pì huáng fén

Lofty words equal the august canons.


Zhì bǎo bù diāo zhuó

Ultimate treasures are not ornamented nor polished,


shén gōng xiè chú yún

Divine deeds refuse to hoe and weed.


Fāng jīn xiàng tài píng

Just now we go towards great peace


yuán kǎi chéng huá xūn

The original joy succeeds flamboyant deeds.


wú tú xìng wúshì

Our bunch here is lucky not to have affairs


Excessive to end dawn and dusk with this.

shù yǐ qióng cháo xūn

III. Translations

The great difficulty with translating is the choice of whether to let the translation stand alone and take its chances with all the misunderstandings its imperfections engender, or whether to leave it somewhat translucent, like a veil through which the reader can dimly glimpse that something was “lost in translation”. Having been given total liberty to decide, I chose to take both of my translations away from the text rather than leave them close, where their inadequacy would only show up better, and in consequence, I have endeavored to let both demonstrate a little more of the poem than its mere meaning. I acknowledge that the choice to do both translations as iambic, rhyming, English poetry is an arbitrary one, but it is not entirely unreasoned.

The style of the first translation was suggested by a line in Milton’s “Lycidas” which goes “Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew / Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme,” and which suggested to me the same sentiment as Han Yu’s estimations of his friends’ poetry. Though the mood of the two poems is quite different, I thought that a Miltonic translation could capture some of the august aura that surrounds Han Yu’s works, and could provide an analogue for Han Yu’s love of archaism. The classicism which appears here, therefore, is not nearly so well considered as Milton’s, but its purpose is also far less subtle: most English readers will not understand the full connotations of Doric as either Milton or myself have used it, and so it is of little consequence that merely employ it as a vague synonym for “austere”, merely to add some Arcadian local color and classical dépaysement. I think that the classicalness, even if prefabricated, is sanctioned by the last few lines of the original, which embody an elevation towards the ancients, almost as a drunken Horace: “quodsi me lyricis vatibus inseres,/ sublimi feriam sidera vertice.” It should also be noted, however, that just as Milton stole machinery from the bucolic poets without ever ceasing to be English, Han Yu feels united with the “august canons” only in spirit. The hidden specter of Confucian morality that lingering about Han Yu’s work I did not render as Miltonic Christianity (as that would have been far too difficult), but left merely as the suggestion of the not entirely dissimilar morality surrounding the Greek epic tradition.

The second translation is perhaps better, as it does not stray quite as far from the original. Not only are there no Muses in this version (leaving poetic possession as nebulous as Han Yu has it), but the consistent heroic couplets are closer to Han Yu’s original five character lines, if a little more unwieldy. I did my best to preserve the end-stopped lines, and even more the end-stopped couplets, which not only gave the flavor of Alexander Pope to the whole translation, but also was closer to the original. I find the humor of Alexander Pope with its easy flow and its ebullient wryness comparable to Han Yu, even if Pope’s wordplay was more flashy or Han Yu’s serious side more apparent. I tried to stay close to the pulse of the text, even if individual words got away from me, and to render Han Yu into English that did some justice to his jocular rhythm. If the poem was in fact occasional, and Han Yu was indeed drunk when he wrote it, I don’t think that my couplets hide the facility and skill which shimmer around the entire piece.

From every quarter pressed to sparkling wine

I turn my deafer ear,

Yet come today in your dominions here,

With outstretched hands, mine host, I press the cup to thine.

Nor idle is this: well I know your guests

And I are favored of the sisters nine.

Thine elegy in subtler numbers rests

Flow’ring like clouds in vernal skies;

Effeter, Meng Jiao’s startling strains arise

Like uncouth scents from an immortal flower,

Whilst Zhang Ji’s studied Doric tones are plain,

Crowned like a stag he shuns the herd amain.

Though Ah-mai cannot read, he has the power

To etch his symbols in archaic mode

Thus taking down our lays when once the lyre

Is still, and he is fit to swell our choir.

This is my goad

To drinking, waiting on that blushing muse

While icy clearness titillates my tongue

And heady vapors bubble and diffuse,

While from this growing feeling wrung

The laughter of our circle flurries by.

For this alone I seek the hippocrene,

That now my wits are keen

Unlike the crowd of wealthy sons who ply

Their spicy banquets in the capital

Unmindful of the stronger spell

The Muses weave, than painted coquetries.

In pleasures such as these

They yet remain a buzzing cloud,

But I, in this small company, am proud

That no stench mars our perfumed breeze.

Come demons! quench your fury on these strains,

These lofty notes that match the Orphic tomb,

These perfect gems that no inscription stains

And godlike work that all base acts disdains;

Tranquility arrives all to subsume,

Where Titans proffer peaceful joy,

And we are lucky, we who careless toy

Herewith, until day ends in growing gloom.

When all my cohort presses me with wine

I need not hear, and so need not decline.

And yet today, Sir, come within your lands

I call for ale, and press it to your hands,

Because of this: that all these seated men

And I can each deploy a subtle pen.

Your poems, Sir, have elegance to spare

Like spring clouds budding in the upper air.

And Meng Jiao’s lyrics always goad the base

As deathless blossoms spitting spice apace.

Zhang Ji’s lines in their purity reproach:

A crane who spurns the chickens with his coach.

Though Ah Mai cannot read from his own quill

His scribblings form the eight old patterns still.

Our poems done, he writes them carefully,

And he as well augments my infantry.

This is my reason for desiring wine:

Attending drink to spur the coming line.

The taste of liquor, frozen in its course,

Matches the scudding whirlwind of its force,

And strong sensations swell to greater size

As laughter puts the tears into our eyes.

This is the way in which my wine-lust’s used,

Without which I am muddled and confused.

The Chang-An beaux can wanly waste

The garlic mutton served up to their taste,

Yet knowing of no literary bliss

They seek alone a gaudy harlot’s kiss.

Their joy is real, perhaps, yet that alone,

For they themselves can’t help but swarm and drone.

Today, in company with my compeers,

My ether lets in no mephitic airs.

Our language scorns the will of every sprite

And seeks the souls of ancients in its flight.

Our treasures need no added mark or shine

No more than farm work suits to one divine.

An age of peace has swum into our ken

The joy attending works of greater men.

And we are lucky, in that labor done

We’re hindered only by the setting sun.


from Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Han Yu (768-824):

“Drunk, to Han Shu of the Imperial Library”

Others always insist that I drink;

I act like I do not hear;

yet coming to your house today,

I call for the wine and urge it on you.

The reason--these guests at your table,

and I as well, can write with skill.

Your own poetry is filled with charms:

clouds billowing through spring skies.

Meng Jiao always shocks the common:

Heaven's bloom emitting outlandish bouquet.

Zhang Ji works at antique clarity:

crane on a coach, shunning common flocks.

A-mai doesn't know his characters,

but has outstanding grasp of archaic script:

we let him copy each poem we make,

and he too serves to augment my troops.

These are the reasons I wished to get wine,

awaiting its glow in order to write.

The wine's flavor is biting,

the wine's force swells in the blood.

Our mood grows gradually loose and free,

Banter and laughter abounding.

Herein the true sense of wine is fulfilled--

all else but this is mere muddle.

All wealthy young men of Chang-an

have rich-smelling meat and garlic served;

but they don't grasp literate drinking,

skilled only in getting red-skirted courtesans drunk.

Although they may find a moment's pleasure,

they're a bit like a crowd of mosquitoes.

I and these various others today

have nothing rank in our sweetness.

Our daring diction daunts demons' courage;

magnificent phrases consort with Canons.

These most perfect jewels are not engraved;

they are spirit-work, spurning all tending.

We are entering now an age of great peace,

men of talent aid a ruler like Shun or Yao.

Our sort are lucky to have no concerns--

may we go on like this from dawn to dusk!

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