First it introduces baijiu 白酒, “the Chinese king of liquors … made primarily with sorghum, although other bases like wheat and rice are often added to the mix.”
Then it asserts:
Some of China’s finest poets — perhaps even the finest — were admirers of the merry drink. Let’s take a look at Li Bai 李白, whose immortal poetry is learned by heart in every classroom across China … Li Bai lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), often known as China’s Golden Age. His poems were often about the beauty of friendship, the wonders of nature, and wine … One of Li Bai’s poems, “Drinking Alone Under the Moon” (月下独酌 yuè xià dúzhuó), is a particularly beautiful ode to the beloved drink.
The entry then quotes an “artful translation” by John Derbyshire, with the poem in simplified Chinese characters and pinyin transcription.
Among the flowers with wine beneath the sky
Alone I drink — no friend or kin, just me
I raise my cup to toast the moon on high
That’s two of us; my shadow makes it three
But… is there any evidence (other than a tipsy inference from Li Bai’s name) that Li Bai was drinking baijiu when he wrote his poems about drinking?
There’s a long tradition of referring to jiu 酒 as “wine” when translating classical Chinese poetry, and because of decorum, zui 醉, which means drunk, has often been translated euphemistically with phrases like “rapt with wine.” It’s good that SupChina isn’t passing on that misconception, but my understanding is that the archaeological record of medieval Chinese drinking vessels is that they were goblets, and that they were drinking something pretty much like what we refer to today as beer.
See what Stephen Owen has had to say about it:
“Do you really think [those warriors] are running around drinking out of little sake cups?” Owen asked his colleague. “These guys drank from huge flagons made of metal”–he has actually seen one–“and sloshed their ale down by the gallon.” Owen objects to the old “translation language,” partly because it creates a false image of a very effeminate, aged, and weak China, but also because it makes no distinction in language between the “high-sensibility” people and “the guys that ride horses, assassinate people, and drink flagons of ale.”
Take a look at the back pages of The True History of Tea, by Erling Hoh and Victor Mair, for more on medieval Chinese jiu.
Click the image for the SupChina article.