Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs of the Yuan Dynasty

Book Review: The Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs From the Yuan
Dynasty edited and translated by Jerome P. Seaton (White Pine Press

In my estimation this is some of the most enjoyable poetry I have ever read. Having enjoyed the great Zen poets, particularly Ryokan, this poetry seems in the same general vein. The poetry is from the Yuan period (1271-1368) when the Mongols ruled China. Since the rulers were basically foreign to the Han Chinese, the great scholarly traditions of Confucian ethics and government were put aside. The mood is one of reluctant resignation to the tensions and hard luck of the times. Many references to idle time and spontaneous living without overriding responsibility abound. The poets speak much of the seasons and the mountains and of the simple beauty of nature. Wine and song and flowers and frolic are common subjects. Many of the poets are Taoist but some have also been associated with Buddhist sects and a few such as Ali Hsi-Ying were even Muslim. Zen Buddhism is basically a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism so the similarities to Zen poetry are rather self-evident.

There are earlier Chinese connections between wine and poetry stretching a thousand years before these poems. The connection between alcoholic escapism and mystical enlightenment apparently has had a long ponderance in ancient China. Here is an excerpt from Chang Yang-Hao:

I’ll stay in this green mountain shade
singing wild
and drinking till it hurts
here’s joy
that’s boundless


I live here retired, apart
from the dust of the vulgar
clouds and mist, it’s peaceful
a thousand mountains’ green surrounds the hut
I’m the old man in the painting.
look at this limitless beauty...
could I put it down
and serve again?

I am almost jealous of the poets’ abilities to just say fuck it and enjoy life. Many of us can only dream of that level of idle and time rhythmic wildness. I do find that drinking a little wine while reading these poems is interesting too and also reading them after feeling a bit repressed – in my case after a tongue lashing from my spouse (probably deserved).

Yun K’an Tzu says:

my home is in the flowering mountain
my joy is purest idleness
in a rush hut by a blue grotto
at the end of a crazy winding path
at noon I take a simple meal
and when I’m full
I take my staff
and wander to the mountain top
and gaze.


who envies you
oh high and mighty
all done up in purple
and dangling your badge of rank
my heart’s at peace
I’m satisfied with me
there aren’t many in the world today
to match this
crafty rascal

There are various references to well-known Chinese philosophers and poets too. Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream – where he dreams he is a butterfly and wakes wondering whether he is a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang Tzu. There is reference to a government official who dreams he has spent a lifetime of service to a dynasty of ants living under an ash tree in his yard. There is reference to the lute player Po Ya and his wood cutter friend Chung Tzu-ch’i. There is reference to the Taoist immortals and to the legendary drunken wildman Liu Ling.

Here is one by an anonymous poet:

Three hundred sixty-five days in a year
I’m at my wine and women
drink myself wobbly
let my sleeve soak up the rest
flowers weight my hat brim down
I drink and I flounce
and its easy

Here is one by Ali Hsi-Ying:

Lazy Cloud’s Nest II

If someone came what would I do
dozing here with my clothes on
completely at ease, feeling frisky
human life? What can you say
rank is above me a bit
wealth, I don’t need it
haha, you laugh
I laugh, haha

I bought this book nearly twenty years ago and finally I get around to reading it. Sometime I hope to find a lazy day and drink a little wine with some friends in natural surroundings and perhaps read it aloud amidst laughter and music and carefree frolic.
Ah joy and ease so hard to find
Ah but sure to appear when you stop looking
A mind at ease is beauty itself

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