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蘇軾《薄薄酒》 Watery Wine, by Su Shi


Watery Wine (Two poems with preface)

蘇軾 Su Shi (1037-1101)


Mister Zhao Mingshu[2] from Jiaoxi lives in poverty. He enjoys drinking and gets drunk with any alcohol at hand. He often says: “Watery wine - better than tea. Ugly wife - better than an empty room.” His words, although vulgar, come close to supreme wisdom, so I extend and expand [them] in order to supplement the music bureau [poetry] of this eastern county. Afterwards, I felt this was not yet enough, so I wrote one more poem in response, just to give the reader a good laugh.






Watery wine –

better than tea.

Coarse cloth –

better than nakedness.

An ugly wife or a hateful concubine – better than an empty room.



Waiting on the water clock[3] in the wee hours, boots covered by frost,

is not as good as sleeping all the way till noon in the summertime, in the coolness under the northern window.



A pearl jacket and a jade casket,[4] accompanied by ten thousand people on my way to Beimang,[5]

are not as good as sitting alone in a hung-quail [coat][6] with hundreds of patches, my back facing the morning sun.




For wealth when alive,

for writings after death:

A hundred years in a blink is occupied for a thousand generations.[7]



[To be] [Bo]yi, [Shu]qi, or Robber Zhi, all of whom lost their sheep,[8]

is not as good as getting drunk at this very moment, forgetting everything about right and wrong, worry and joy.

* From scroll 14, Su Shi Shiji 蘇軾詩集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982). Base text: Wang Wengao 王文誥 ed., Su Wenzhonggong shi bianzhu jicheng 蘇文忠公詩編註集成, published in 1822.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] Mingshu is the courtesy name of Zhao Gaoqing 趙杲卿, a native of Mizhou 密州 (in modern Shandong). [3] Symbolising waiting for the morning court audience.

[4] Despite the xia 柙 (box, small container, or a cage) in the term yuxia 玉柙, it is not really a small container but the burial suit that only nobles had the right to use. An example can be found here at Henan Provincial Museum: [5] A mountain located in Henan, symbolising the graveyard of the nobles. [6] The quail-feather pattern is perceived as resembling a patched-up coat. More on this later. [7] Apologies for these possibly very vague English lines, but this is what the original wording offers. If I were to spell things out, my interpretation would be: One is busy gaining wealth during one’s lifetime and gaining reputation, by one’s writings, after one’s death. A life of a hundred years, which passes in a blink, is thus occupied by what concerns the thousands of years to come. [8] Alluding to the Zhuangzi story about two shepherds who lost their sheep. One was absorbed in his book, the other gambling, but they were equally bad shepherds. On that basis, the Zhuangzi goes on to argue that Boyi and Shuqi, two worthies who died for their sense of duty, and Robber Zhi are the same in the harm they do to their lives.


More than two thousand years ago, Sima Qian 司馬遷 (or perhaps his father) commented on the paradox of making a name as a humble person of principle. Whereas there might be many people who modestly yet consistently stick to what they believe to be right, only the ones who gained publicity via the mouth of the famous names are remembered for who they were. Zhao Mingshu is an example at hand. If Su Shi had not befriended him, no one would know the existence of this gentleman who was worthy of respect.[9] No one would know of his maxim, which then inspired at least twenty poems after Su Shi picked it up.

Zhao Mingshu’s original maxim has a particular charm. With the two AAB-structured phrases (which sound quite cute to my ears) and a rhyme, it’s simple and memorable. It’s totally understandable why Su Shi couldn’t hide his love for these few words and dedicated two poems to them.[10] I must say the charm of crudity disappears from Su Shi’s elaboration. Instead, we find some interesting literary tweaks, plenty of allusions, and Su Shi’s habitual philosophical seasoning.

Apart from things I put into the notes, I spent some time contemplating the hung quail. Dictionaries tell me a quail has patterned feathers and a bald tail, which makes it look like a worn-out and patched-up coat. Okay... But what does the xuan 懸 (hang, suspend) do there? The earliest textual witness of the expression “hung quail” I know is in the Shijing, which mentions a series of game hung in the courtyard, including quails.[11] The Xunzi already uses the expression to describe a man in poverty.[12] But neither of them gives any details of the techniques for hanging game birds. I kept on thinking: On what occasion would people see a hung quail and think it looks like a patched-up coat? We are certainly talking about hung quails as game birds here. Quails and hunting are both popular subjects in Chinese paintings (see below for an example of a painting of a quail), but unfortunately, I can’t recall any visual example of a hung quail. I thought I would hang game birds by their feet, not the neck, but a quail hung upside down, wings spread wide, can hardly look like a coat. If I hang it head-up, however, a small coat can be easily imagined, especially because of the absence of a long tail. More intriguingly, I read that when people age their game birds I only learned that birds can be aged like beef when preparing this blog they may hang their birds by their feet, by the neck, or by the beak! I’m not suggesting there was any ageing process going on in early China, but the hanging methods might well be shared.

I know Su Shi mentioned in his preface that he wrote another poem on the same topic, but this series of my blog is called “A Poem A Week.” :)

By Li Jian 李堅 (fl. 18th century)

© National Palace Museum, Taipei

[9] See Su Shi’s brief note on Zhao Mingshu, attached to his account of another friend in Mizhou, Liu Tingshi 劉庭式. The account (“Shu Liu Tingshi shi” 書劉庭式事) is, by the way, quite touching:

[10] You might recall how Su Shi expressed his passion for Tao Yuanming’s 陶淵明 (365?-427) poetry. He initiated a project of writing one poem in response (rhyme-wise, as is common in the Chinese poetic tradition) to each and every one of Tao Yuanming’s 159 poems (completing 109 responses the end). Tao Yuanming was considered by his near-contemporary critic Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 (ca. 468-518) as a not-too-bad poet, but Su Shi, Tao Yuanming’s No. 1 fan, managed to transform him (or his image) into one of the best poets ever.

[11] For a convenient reference on the ctext:

[12] For a convenient reference on the ctext:


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9 תגובות

26 באפר׳ 2020

Just reading the 紅樓夢 and came across our familiar friend 鶉。





19 באפר׳ 2020

No I meant being hung in the air by rope or some sort of device . Quails are not fond of flying. If only they could transform into a 鵬, then people wouldn’t be spending so much time looking at their butts.


19 באפר׳ 2020

Sure, I have no problem with that. 縣 is to be read as 懸 in many early texts. Shijing and Lunyu, for instance, do not use the graph 懸 at all, and the word “hang/hover/suspend” is written as 縣 and read as xuan2. We can see how things developed from earlier graphs (e.g. bronze script). It's believed that the early graphs of 県 depict an upside-down head, and 縣 is to hold the upside-down head (see 古文字詁林). There is dispute about the nature of the relationship between 縣 and 懸, some believe 懸 is a later graph, as you mentioned, and some say 縣 is a loan graph.

Back to the expression 縣鶉 here. By "a quail hanging in the…


19 באפר׳ 2020

I ought also clarify that when I said that the MOE was ‘perfect’, I meant that it was able to succinctly summarize in a sentence what I took a paragraph to explain.


19 באפר׳ 2020

I was interested in the use of 縣 in 衣若縣鶉, so I did a little looking around. On this website (, it claims that 縣鶉 has the same meaning as 懸鶉. Furthermore, it shows another term 縣旌, where it claims that 縣 has the meaning of 懸掛空中隨風飄蕩 (

The entry of 縣鶉 in the 漢語大詞典 claims that 縣 is pronounced xuan2. Which upon checking the 古漢語大詞典, found the 縣 is apparently the ancient form of 懸.

So, with the meaning of 懸掛空中, I think the idea that 懸鶉 is a quail hanging in the air, is quite feasible.

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