Inebriation and the qin zither

Yao Shou

Yao Shou, Drinking and composing poetry, 1485. Source.

Inebriation (zui 醉) makes an intrinsic aspect of Chinese culture, even a philosophical position. It’s a major theme in poetry, best known through the Tang masters (see e.g. here, here, and here, as well as numerous discussions in Chinese, such as this).

Poets have long praised alcohol as a vehicle for transcendence. But they also evoke both the companionship of drinking and the pangs of drinking alone. For the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove sharing wine facilitated their oblivion of the mundane world; Ruan Ji also fed into the solitary ethos:

Looking down into my cup, much misery,
I think of friends in former times.
Facing the wine, I cannot speak,
Melancholy blends with bitterness.

Li Bai drinking

The Tang emperor Minghuang inviting Li Bai to drink. Ming dynasty: source.

By way of Tao Yuanming’s “Drinking wine” poems, we come to Li Bai, patron of drunken poets. Among numerous examples,

山中與幽人對酌 Drinking with a gentleman of leisure * in the mountains (in Arthur Cooper’s translation)

两人對酌山花開    We both have drunk their birth, the mountain flowers,
一杯一杯复一杯    A toast, a toast, a toast, again another;
我醉欲眠卿且去    I am drunk, long to sleep; Sir, go a little—
明朝有意抱琴來    Bring your lute ** (if you like) early tomorrow!

* youren perhaps rather “recluse”
** the rendition of qin zither as “lute” popularised by Robert van Gulik.

Gustav Mahler set Li Bai’s Chunri zui qiyan zhi 春日醉起言志 as The Drunkard in Spring, the fifth movement of Das Lied von der Erde, just before the final Abschied.

處世若大夢      胡爲勞其生
所以終日醉      頹然臥前楹
覺來眄庭前      壹鳥花間鳴
借問此何時      春風語流莺
感之欲歎息      對酒還自傾
浩歌待明月      曲盡已忘情

* * *

In the lore of the elite qin zither too, always inspired by poetry and painting, the role of alcohol is significant and well-documented—again, harking back to the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Quaintly, qin societies during the Republican era listed their (male) players’ drinking capacity, under “Refined proclivities”:

Jin Yu qinshe 1936

2nd row from foot: drinking capacities of Shanghai qin players,
from Jin Yu qinkan 今虞琴刊 (1936). Courtesy Bell Yung.

More recently, the Bacchic propensities of the late lamented Lin Youren were in line with this tradition.

Jiu kuang YBY

Wine Crazy, §1–2, a copy by Yao Bingyan of the Shenqi mipu.

Most celebrated of pieces on this theme is Wine Crazy (Jiu kuang 酒狂), attributed fancifully to Ruan Ji. John Thompson gives a typically thorough exposition (and for qin song versions, here). The piece seems to have been dormant even by the time it was included in the 1425 Shenqi mipu tablature. After many more centuries of silence, it has become firmly established in the qin repertoire since 1957 when the Shanghai qin master Yao Bingyan 姚丙炎 (1921–83) began recreating it through dapu—for Yao, note Bell Yung, “From humble beginnings to qin master: the remarkable cross-fertilisation of folk and elite cultures in Yao Bingyan’s dapu music”, in Lee Tong Soon (ed.), Routledge handbook of Asian music: cultural intersections (2021), and for his Shenqi mipu realisations, Celestial airs of antiquity (1998).

YBY 1982

Yao Bingyan, 1982 (photo: Bell Yung).

Despite the surface technique, the melody is doggedly pentatonic, ambling innocuously up and down the scale with short repeated motifs (cf. my comments on Pingsha luoyan). The originality of Yao Bingyan’s version hinges on his use of triple time, most exceptional in Han Chinese music. After the end of the Cultural Revolution he published an article as early as 1981, “in discussion with visiting student Raffaella Gallio”. Here’s his 1960 recording, included on the “Eight Great Discs”—befuddled rather than virtuosic:

The instrumental version in the Shenqi mipu has only one caption for the coda, “The immortal exhaling his wine”; but the sung version in the 1589 Taigu yiyin provides titles for the previous short sections, each with poems;

  • Enjoying wine and forgetting troubles
  • Drunkenly dancing like a flying immortal
  • Singing loudly to earth and heaven
  • Loving wine and forgetting the body
  • Dashing off calligraphy on art paper
  • Bending over to exhale wine
  • Holding up wine and feigning madness.

Jiu kuang 1

Jiu kuang 2

Yao Bingyan’s rendition of Wine Crazy, transcribed by Xu Jian in Guqin quji vol.2 (1983).

Despite Yao’s reluctance to fossilise his realisation, already by the late 1980s Jiu kuang was becoming something of a cliché on the concert stage, fixed in his triple-time realisation. So it’s worth listening to John Thompson’s duple-time version:

Other qin pieces celebrating inebriation include

* * *

Of course, beyond the confines of literati culture, and without such philosophical underpinnings, alcohol is a trusty lubricant of social singing in rural society. §C2 of the DVD Notes from the yellow earth (with my Ritual and music of north China, volume 2: Shaanbei) has a vignette of a lunchtime drinking session with a group of village men.

The singers were perhaps mediocre even without the prodigious amounts of baijiu liquor they were knocking back; with empty bottles strewn about the floor, one of the singers passed out on the kang brick-bed.

Opium was a vice of both shawm bands and Buddhist monks until the 1950s; shawm bands still take amphetamines as fuel for their labours during rituals. But that’s another story…

Meanwhile in Western culture, intoxicating substances are commonly associated with the heyday of jazz; and in WAM, alcohol makes a strong underground theme, part of the “deviant” pastimes of the lowly rank-and-file. Such behaviour may be an emblem of non-conformity, but it’s rather far from the lofty predilections of Chinese poets and musicians. Another sherry, vicar?

One thought on “Inebriation and the qin zither

  1. Pingback: Inebriation and the qin zither – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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