Exploring the Influence of Wine in Li Bai’s Historic Poetry

By | 27 March 2024

Stuart Walton discusses the insightful wine-related poetry of an eighth-century Chinese poet who appreciated the virtue of solitary drinking.


Stuart Walton

Studying the works of the eighth-century Tang poet Li Bai, we come to understand that solitary wine-drinking can carry profound significance, rather than the derogatory and pitiful image it often conjures in the West, suggests Stuart Walton.

Not all instances of wine consumption breed sociability. Despite frequently being synonymous with camaraderie and unity, wine has also served the role of solace for the solitary in literary and spiritual contexts. The figure of the independent drinker had turned into a symbol of destitution by the late 19th century, coinciding with the medical recognition of alcoholism in the West. From Degas’s transfixed absinthe drinker to Hemingway’s lone bottle of Margaux, these images reflect the spectrum of silent despair to uncontrolled recklessness. They all signify that drinking alone is a misdeed, prompting feelings of introspective guilt or the resolution to ignore those feelings.

The Chinese tradition of poetry brings wine into companionship with solitude. It forms the catalyst that translates a bitter present into the ecstatic, glorious dimension the transcendent sublime. The most significant exponent of this solitary drinking is the Tang poet Li Bai (AD 701-762). Li Bai took birth in Suyab, the current day Kyrgyzstan situated along the ancient Silk Road linking China with Central Asia and other western routes. He was originally from a family of merchants who possibly migrated to Jiangyou in Sichuan when he was a young boy. He was talented from a young age, being well-versed in the literary classics and a practicing poet even before hitting double digits.

If he had sat for the daunting civil service examination that was considered the gateway for the promising sons of ambitious families, he could have enjoyed a well-paid administrative career. But he chose to be the uncontrolled cannon, a proficient swordsman with an aggressive streak, marrying women of high social standing, one after the other. When he hit his mid-twenties, he embarked on a riverine exploration that took him through the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers. His experiences gathered during this period of immense cultural and social turmoil went on to inspire his exceptional lyrical poetry during his bouts of drunken introspection.

Li Bai’s most famed composition, “Drinking Alone by Moonlight”, describes a scenario where the poet plans a pact with the moon to convert his lonely drinking session into a gathering, his own shadow forming the third participant. However, it is in vain. His reflection expresses, “The Moon, alas, is no drinker of wine; / My shadow only mimics at my side.” Thus, he is all alone. “Yet with the moon as my friend and my shadow as my slave, I must celebrate before spring ends.”[1] They were together when he was sober, but with intoxicated dancing, each moves in its own way. Even his shadow “becomes untidy and scatters” while trying to mimic his drunken dance.

Springtime is the eternal season of the drunken poet. Not only is it when the fruit trees that might have flavored last year’s wine are in blossom, but it is also when the wine is at its best to drink. By the eighth century, wine (the preferred translation of the catchall term jiu) was a vastly varied product. It could be the potent multi-grain brew that had been produced since antiquity. It could be the fruit wine of peaches or plums. It might be an aromatized medicinal potion, full of floral and herbal extracts for balancing the drinker’s qi. It could be imported grape wine from the Central Asian trade routes, or even a variant of the same region’s koumis (fermented mare’s milk).

It doesn’t matter what it is. The important thing is to drink. “I urge you not to refuse a cup, / for the spring wind has come to laugh at us.” (“Facing Wine”). The trees are in blossom again, and here comes another old friend. “Bright moon peers into the golden wine cup.” He sees “[t]he rose-cheeked lad of yesterday,” now whitening with the years. We are at the opposite end of the spectrum here to drinking to forget. Wine is the sacrament of memory. “If you do not drink the wine, / Then where are the men of yesteryear?”[2]

In her illuminating gloss on this piece, its translator Paula Varsano notes that Li Bai acknowledges “both the obligation to the past and its intrinsic absurdity.” Drinking is a spiritual duty and a way of respecting both the literary tradition and one’s own past existence. “If you find happiness in wine / Don’t share it with the sober,” he warns elsewhere.[3] In “Hard is the Way of the World,” a more gather-ye-plum-blossoms mood takes hold: “Enjoy a cup of wine while you’re alive! / Do not care if your fame will not survive!”[4]

Li Bai’s fame did survive. He died at the age of 61, most likely being cared for by friends, most likely of a racketing life. In the kind of popular legend that has a forsaken duty to be true, it was said of him that, out on the lake one night in his own bateau ivre, he leaned over the water to try to catch the reflection of the teetotal moon that had accompanied so many of his nocturnes of solitary drinking. As ever, it slipped his grasp.


1 Trans. Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (London: 1919).

2 Trans. Paula M. Varsano, Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception (Honolulu: 2003).

3 Trans. Charles Kwong, in Scribes of Gastronomy, eds. Isaac Yue and Siufu Tang (Hong Kong: 2013), cited (and slightly modified) in Thomas David DuBois, China in Seven Banquets: A Flavourful History (London: 2024).

4 Trans. Witter Bynner, The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (New York: 1929).

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