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蘇軾《薄薄酒》(其二)Watery Wine II by Su Shi







Watery wine -

drink two cups.

Coarse cloth -

wear two layers.

A beauty might be different from a shrew, yet their warmth is the same after drinking.

An ugly wife or a hateful concubine brings longevity to you, [m’]lord.[2]



Following [one’s] heart into reclusion is to adhere but to what is right.

[One] naturally pays no heed to the dust at the Donghua [Gate] or the wind from the northern window.[3]



A hundred years, though long, will come to an end.

Dying with wealth is not necessarily worse than living in poverty.



[I] only fear, [even if] pearls and jade maintain your looks,

[their] thousands of years of preservation might meet with Fan Chong.[4]



Writings are certainly sufficient to deceive the blind and the deaf.[5]

Who makes [you] rich in just a morning and [your] face reddish?



A wise man is naturally wise, what good does alcohol do?

Right and wrong, worry and joy in this world are, from the outset, vanity!

* 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] An alternative reading of this line may be: “An ugly wife or a hateful concubine brings longevity to [me,] your lord.” A commentator associated this line with the phrase neigong 乃公 uttered by Liu Bang 劉邦 (256-195 BCE, ruled 202-195 BCE) in the Hanshu 漢書 (Book of the Han). Yan Shigu 顔師古 (581-645), the Hanshu commentator, suggests this phrase in the context of the Hanshu is self-referential and thus reads “[I,] your lord.” I didn’t go for this reading as it seems out of harmony with the voice in this poem.

[3] Donghua Gate (East-Flourishing Gate) was the gate through which ministers went to the court, therefore “dust of the Donghua Gate” symbolises the hardship of the official career. Wind of the northern window, on the other hand, symbolises the hardship of a commoner’s life. Again, a historical commentator who gives a reference to Liang Hong 梁鴻 (fl. 1st century) seems to suggest a different reading. Liang Hong famously married an ugly wife who happily supported his reclusion. Following this line of thought, these two lines might be read as, “Follow [your] heart into reclusion and adhere but to what is right. / [She/They, your ugly wife and hateful concubine] naturally pays no heed to the dust at the Donghua [Gate] or the wind from the northern window.”

[4] Fan Chong (d. 27) was the leader of the Red Eyebrows rebellion against the Xin dynasty. When his forces went into the capital, they burned the palaces and looted most imperial mausoleums, which are supposed to last thousands of years (thus “the undecaying for thousands of years” in the text). The burial reference is clearer if we read zhuyu 珠玉 (pearls and jade) and zhuru yuxia 珠襦玉柙 (a pearl jacket and a jade casket) in the previous poem side by side.

[5] Commentaries refer to a passage in the first chapter of Zhuangzi which reads, “The blind have no access to the beauty of visual patterns, and the deaf have no part in the sounds of bells and drums.” (Brook Ziporyn’s translation in Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2009). See also the original text and Legge’s translation on ctext:


Historical commentators are, as always, very adept at pointing out literary references, but I feel they are not very forthcoming in explaining the extent to which these references are applied in the context at hand. Does the poet use a pre-existing expression in exactly the same way as in its original context (including connotation, metaphorical or symbolic meanings, etc.)? Or does the writer only borrow the beautiful shell of that expression but deliver a different message? These concerns have led me to try out different interpretative approaches to what is suggested in some commentaries.

Besides, I found no attempts in the commentaries to explain how Su Shi moves from one idea to the next. Of course, the possibility remains that the commentators all found it too obvious and therefore not worth commenting on. If so, I may excuse myself for being a hopeless modern reader who decided to deal with one poem a week. Apparently Su Shi has explained everything in his preface. The second “Watery Wine” poem is not just another poem on the same topic, but a poem responding to the first one. In other words, the ideas in the second poem are less connected to previous lines of the poem itself than to the corresponding lines in the first poem. So there we go. We’re looking at something like an internal dialogue, and here’s how I think it goes:

Su Shi A: Having something to make do with is better than nothing.

Su Shi B: Agreed. It’s always good to look on the bright side.

Su Shi A: So, poverty is not a problem. A slob at home is happier than a minister who is always stressed.

Su Shi B: Reclusion is a choice. One simply follows what one believes in, regardless of what it entails.

Su Shi A: Living in poverty is surely better than being a dead nobleman in a fancy coffin.

Su Shi B: Well, dying with wealth is really not too bad as long as you can guard your fancy goodies in your tomb against the looters.

Su Shi A: A person is supposed to work hard to earn money, and he should also write well in order to earn his reputation. There’s no end to all this toil!

Su Shi B: Writings can at least cheat some people. Who will give you wealth and a happy red round face if not for your writings?[6]

Su Shi A: Whatever. Good people, bad people, they all die. Let’s just drink and have fun!

Su Shi B: Sorry to say this, but drinking doesn’t help if you are just too stupid to see that all is vanity.

Maybe this really was obvious to previous commentators, but it’s also possible that they shared the illusion I had when I first read the second “Watery Wine.” A reader who approaches this poem with knowledge of all the conventions of Chinese language and poetry might find everything quite straightforward once the allusions have been identified. There is nothing particularly unusual in the vocabulary or grammar. But when I set out to translate it, I was baffled by all kinds of questions that came to my mind. Typically: Who is speaking? To whom? Who is the agent of this action? Does the subject change here? One may say that this suggests the untranslatability of aspects of poetry and aesthetics that are rooted in the nature of the Chinese language, which is very different from English. It is perfectly normal, for instance, to find no grammatical subject or indication of tenses in classical Chinese. Such information may be implied by the context, but any attempts to spell things out will be made at the expense of the original artistic ecology (if such a concept exists). Imagine you ask Monet to paint the petals of his water lilies more clearly!

That being said, I think it is still beneficial to ask questions about such missing information and bring what is implied, by the context or by general conventions, to consciousness. For Su Shi’s two poems of “Water Wine,” I found it quite fun to spell out his internal dialogue. Whereas the first Su Shi employs a more descriptive and assertive tone, as if he were simply stating some truth about life, the second Su Shi challenges that truth brutally. Also, the second Su Shi makes occasional use of a second person pronoun, making what he says more personal and engaging. The contrasts in tones and views, in my opinion, truly make this set of poems more intriguing and relatable, for we can see a person who struggles and makes fun of his struggle, as many of us do in our lives. [6] Wenzhang 文章 (writings) here means far more than the composition of texts. It’s the pivot of education, the key to join the elites, and the symbol of civilisation.

Water Lilies, Setting Sun by Claude Monet (1840-1926)

The National Gallery, London (Learn more)


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