At parting we drink – that is quite natural. So also when we meet. But you have heard of green spider wine and the good wine of Lan Ling that smells of curcuma. If you turn to any handbook of poetic diction and look under wine, you will probably find a thousand or two kinds of assorted liquors differing in color, flavor, and the vegetable ingredients contained. Are our poets then connoisseurs or tasters, or have we here only imaginary gratification? Li Bai was no doubt an habitual drunkard. «Gold goblet and pure wine, ten thousand cash a measure», he sang with gusto. Then he was dreaming. Bitter wine, thin wine, plain rice wine, they come more within the means of the poet; near wine for the near beggar. The only intoxicating drinks I have seen at the feasting of poets or of any other variety of my poor compatriots can be easily enumerated. They are rice or millet whisky and the good old Shaoxing rice wine which, when seasoned and mellowed, costs quite a great deal. There are good substitutes — the lotus white from around Beijing, the semi-foreign grape wines of Shanxi, the wu jia pi from Canton etc. Strange to say, these familiar names have not entered our poetic dictionaries. Now to drink the common wine of your earthly brothers and to sing of the jasper dew and jade nectar of paradise is hardly fair play, even if it is the play of words. Why can we not leave the glaring footlights of word painting for an evening of really sensible enjoyment?
Another question which has kept me wondering is how far we can believe in the personal estimate of the poet as to his real capacity. Some of them drank like whales that gulp down a hundred rivers. Li Bai boasted he would like to take three hundred cups in one continuous draught. That would amount to almost ten liters of beverage. Be it the most ordinary rice wine, 2000 cc of absolute alcohol would have pickled most of his skeleton. Bai Ju Yi, who approached everything more moderately, invited his friend to one cup of wine on a snowy day. I have seen some good drinkers among our literary men. A few of them can imbibe seventy or eighty average-sized cups and go home without assistance. One steady drinker, my erstwhile colleague, must have had a quarter of a million cups which passed through his system during the last quarter of a century, i.e., twenty-five cups a day on the average; and he keeps up a nation-wide reputation for his versatility in the Southern opera, his lack of foresight in money matters, and the rather loud tinge of his nose.
These are extreme examples. The actual state of affairs does not seem to be so rosy. Drinking is indeed in our routine. Men whose temperance does not go beyond the daily half dozen cups and who know just when to stop, will in the flight of poetic exaggeration magnify their talent as least by ten. In this country as well as in the West, the artists and the soldier have been the indomitable souls who created the liquor problem. Yet forty centuries of training have toned them down. Ten cents' worth of rice whisky, two coppers' worth of roast peanuts, a few pieces of dried bean curd, and your comrade will sit with you at a wayside tavern watching the caravans go by and the pigeons draw circle, in the blue sky. This drab monotony more nearly represents our daily life than romanticism out on a spree, which might be the impression you would gather from reading our poetry. All is human, too human. Li Bai does not play on our heart strings as touchingly as does Du Fu because he is other-worldly, even down to his drinking habits. As a matter of fact, his grandiloquence has somewhat deceived us.
As with wine, so also we have to read between lines when the poets refer to women. Even Du Fu associated with singsong girls once in a while. Bai Ju Yi wrote the Song of the Guitar for one whom you would call a prostitute. Li Bai was an incorrigible sinner. Not to mention the scores of times when his writings allude to women of rather questionable character, he dedicated five poems to Jin Ling Zi, a woman of the street.
Again, shamming courtship,
The titles of some of his poems well represent his vivacity – Hunting on an autumn day and returning at night to see singsong girls in the East House; On seeing sing-song girls at the South Pavilion; Seeing sing-song girls in the house boat of Wei, the resident-commander; Visiting Qi Ya Hill with a sing-song girl; and many others of less explicit allusion.
The term sing-song girl is in Chinese ji, etymologically related to skill or art. Such a person was as a rule trained in music and dancing. It was the custom in medieval times for men of some means or of prominence in political and social life to keep retinues of young girls whose duty was to grace friendly entertainments. Between ballet dancing and chorus music they passed the wine pitcher around and made the guests forget home. Our mothers, wives, and sweethearts did not participate in such gatherings until very recently. For one thing, they lacked the training of the sing-song girls. If I shock your sense of decency by these statements, that is because you who were brought up with Puritanic notions, happen also to be acquainted with only the darkest phases of present-day commercial prostitution.
A sing-song girl of the medieval dynasties was not necessarily a prostitute. They hired themselves out only on rare occasions. Often they became influential. They established themselves as independent singers or dancers. They associated with literary men on terms of intimate friendship. If they went further, one can be sure it was no pecuniary motive that made them play with starvation. They remind one rather of the women of Dumas or Balzac. The road from Bohemia to the court was open and easy to travel.
Returning to Li Bai, who was but an example of a great many of our romanticists, one can find nothing disreputable about his association with sing-song girls. Their youthful beauty interested him. Li Bai was married four times. It seemed none of his wives came up to his standards. As to their beauty or ugliness he was dumb, except once when he mentioned his wife's pale hands. The drunkard must have been rather difficult to please, quite unlike the more domesticated Du Fu, who at the age of forty-six could sing of the smooth, looped hair and jade-like arms of his wife, a mother of many children, starved and beggarly; and he pined for the day when he could return home to dry her tears. Li Bai could entertain no such sentiments. Just as his poetry was occasional, so his infatuation with sing-song girls lasted but for the moment. «Play wherever a stage is set for you», according to one of our common sayings. Beat the drum and run the show. With the nonchalance and impertinence of this attitude he had offended Yang Gui Fei, the notorious courtesan of his day, as you have heard. Let the scene be shifted to the country and a little coquettish girl became the object of his attention.
He saw her next in a boat gathering lotus. As he approached, she paddled away, singing her boat song. She laughed and glanced at him from among the lotus leaves but would not come out again. Du Fu tittered with the wild birds; Li Bai enjoyed teasing the little girl.
On another occasion Li was sending a Taoist nun away on a pilgrimage to the holy mountains of Hunan. Of the thousand and one legends and myths he might have referred to, he selected the Goddess of the Luo River and the fairies of the Yangtze gorges who all had illicit relations with human beings. Impertinence again! Gladly would he offer his service to write love poems for others. He wrote a few for his own wife sending himself off to exile.
One would imagine that Li Bai, as representative of the vast majority of our poets, took any woman other than his own wife as something rather pretty to write about, the same as good wine, flute music, chrysanthemums and plum blossoms. These are the things that make the world beautiful and men happy — on occasions. Strange to say, our poets do not expect women to love men in the same irresponsible, occasional way. A woman's love must be abiding. She must cling to her lover as a vine clings to a dead tree. Indeed there is a double standard within a double standard. A woman not only must love differently, but she must also keep quiet and let her masculine sympathizers feel into the intensity of her emotions. The result has been chopped-up vicarious suffering and mock turtle soup in our love poetry. I know most of you cannot appreciate our falsetto soprano singers on the stage. Neither can I. We of the present generation would prefer real women of flesh and blood. We are sick of male impersonators, in poetry as well as in drama. And I bring you good tidings. Our women are now appearing on the stage and writing their own love poems, though still hesitantly. The atmosphere was very different even up to about fifteen years ago. We had but few women who were poets, not a single one of much importance. Was it because they did not dare to say what they would have gladly said? A Tang Dynasty poetess told us outright,
But Yu Xuan Ji was a social outcast, a sort of double personality; she was a devout Taoist nun on one day, and a flapper and hetaira on another. One of the Song (Sung) Dynasty woman composers wrote the following ci which, from a masculine pen, would have been considered tame and lukewarm. The guardians of social decency could have discerned nothing improper about it.
Yuan Ye is the full moon of the first month of the year. Imagine what we did to that song. We did not dare to delete or suppress it. We did everything to make the singer respectable, like the sweet retiring girl of the old folk song. So we applied the sharp scissors of orthodoxy, culled it out of her complete works and inserted it in the writings of an austere statesman who in public life was wisdom incarnate. That was the most unkind cut of them all. For your love song writer may be a Confucianist, a Puritan, a Pharisee, a Philistine, but must not be a woman.
The most glaring inconsistency, however, does not lie in our treatment of wine and women. The way we shed perfunctory tears is really the most touching. I am not questioning that a former age could have been more vociferous in its grief and resentment than our own. But it has been my sad experience to notice that nowadays the number of tear drops one actually observes does not tally with what is recorded. Instead of weeping and grinding of teeth, one is more likely to see cynicism with the veneer of a smile. In fact, the discrepancy between our age and say, the Tang or Song Dynasty seems to be so pronounced that one begins to wonder whether there was ever any period in our history when tears flowed like a river – whether we are not again exaggerating and counterfeiting. Most of the verbal tears were shed by women. Inasmuch as they did not write their own love poetry, the question of scientific accuracy was ruled out of court. «Women are just like that», their sympathizers may have thought.
Li Bai hardly ever cried himself. Du Fu cried a great deal, but his was a life of misery and starvation. «Lamenting these days, even the flowers are shedding tears», Li Bai never saw his own children die of hunger or the bones of men frozen to death on the open road. Give Du Fu a thatched roof in a secluded comer and he too could laugh even when the wind carried the thatch away. When the news of the recapture of the Beijing region at the end of the An Shi rebellion reached Sichuan where he sojourned, he laughed and cried at the same time.
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