Thursday, March 19, 2009

Birthday Bêtises & Classic Chinese Poetry

I turned 22 yesterday!

Like many other 22 year olds, I celebrated by going out with my friends and, as my eloquent brother put it, got totally shitfaced, which led to spending the first half of today completely stationary in bed, willing my stomach to settle. How "klassy", I know.

It's not that I have a penchant for sauce (although I do appreciate a good brandy and a good whisky) or that I'm fond of drinking to the point of sickness. My birthday aside, I'll shamefully admit that I was actually trying to drown my sorrows because I just got the most memorable birthday present to date: a broken heart.

Like my girl Amra says, "Les mecs, ils sont tous des connards!"

I relayed this to my indignant and very irritated mother, who responded shrilly, "That's so stupid!!! Why do you have to drink to celebrate? Why would you drink when you're sad, when you know it would just make things worse?!"

I replied that, yes, in the back of my mind I was aware that drinking wouldn't make me feel any better, but I definitely wasn't the first to whom getting hammered to drown out my dolor appeared an inexplicably excellent idea. I then surprised even myself by quoting two lines of classical Chinese poetry written by (Li Bai), one of the greatest Chinese poets in history:


Paula Varsano translated these two phrases beautifully as

"Plunge a knife in to break the water
the water flows but faster.
Raise a cup to quell the pain
the pain grows but deeper."

It's interesting to note that many of the most revered Chinese poets in history were notorious alcoholics. In fact, they even have a nice name for the eight most famous ones - 飲中八仙 (Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, according to Wikipedia).

Anyway, after this conversation, I grew curious of what made up the rest of this poem, so I did some research online and found it. However, because the Chinese language is so intricate, I couldn't really understand what the poem was saying even though I could read the words, so I called up my mom to ask her to explain it to me, since she's the best teacher I've ever had.

The poem and the best translation I could find go:


What left me yesterday
Can be retained no more;
What worries me today
Are the times for which I feel sore.
In autumn wind for miles and miles the wild geese fly.
Let's follow them with eyes and drink in tower high.
Your writing's forcible, like ancient poets, while
Mine is in Junior Xie's direct and easy style.
Both of us have ambitions high;
We'd bring the moon down from the sky.
Cut running water with a sword, it will faster flow;
Drink wine to drown your sorrow, it will heavier grow.
If we despair in our lifetime of all affairs,
Tomorrow let us sail away with loosened hairs.

My mom summarized it to me as: What has happened is the past. There might be things that bother you right now, but take some time to look at how beautiful the world is - there's nature and there's literature to inspire us. You might want to drown your sorrows by drinking yourself silly, but in reality, that doesn't help at all. Instead, why not take a carefree trip and enjoy the world and to forget about the things that are making you unhappy?

Nicely done, Mom.

And it just stunned me all over again how brilliant classic Chinese poetry is, especially because of how much meaning and imagery can be captured in so few words, and with so much structure. Beautiful. I think I'm going to look into taking some Chinese lit classes when I go home.

No comments: