I have introduced Tao Yuanming's background, his life philosophy, and his political career.
Today, let's read his series of poems titled "On Drinking." Before looking into his "On Drinking" poems, we should read the preface which provides important clues to help us understand the meaning of these twenty poems. Although Tao Yuanming chose 'Drinking' as the title of this series of poems, these poems discuss not only drinking, but many issues of life.
In the Song Dynasty—the Zhao Song Dynasty after the Tang Dynasty—the scholar Su Shi (Su Dongpo) said: "I don't know how Sir Tao, after drinking so much, can possibly remember so many things." Many people called him Sir Tao to show their respect. Su Shi said he didn't understand how Sir Tao could recall so many things while he was drinking. This was the question Su Dongpo brought up when he read this series of poems.
It is rather peculiar that Tao titled this series of poems "On Drinking," when what the poems discussed had nothing to do with drinking. What then were the motives, background, and reasons that led him to write this series of poems? Tao Yuanming never explained his reasons, for his situation was not easily understood by others. Nonetheless, some clues are vaguely revealed in the preface. We should focus our attention on the preface and a few poems in particular, for they will enable us to understand Tao Yuanming's true motivation and background in writing these poems. The preface says:
I live in idleness with little to amuse myself. Recently the nights have gotten very long. Occasionally I acquire some fine wine, which I drink every night in the lone company of my shadow. Soon I am drunk again, and then I casually write a few lines for my own amusement. After using up a great deal of ink and paper writing incoherent words, I recklessly ask a friend to make a neat copy just for the fun of it.
Tao said, "I live in idleness with little to amuse myself." After he resigned from his official post, he had to till his fields since he had no job. Farming basically keeps a man very busy. He must have written these twenty poems at the end of autumn or in early winter, when there was not much to do in the field. After the harvest, he stayed home without any entertainment to pass the time. That's why he said, "I live in idleness with little to amuse myself."
That was not all, either. People usually say, "When I'm having fun, the night seems so short. When I'm lonely and miserable, the night is far too long." Usually when you are having fun, time seems to fly; when you are depressed, time seems to drag on.
To Tao Yuanming, the days were monotonous and boring, and "recently the nights have gotten very long." He said that not only did he have nothing to do and enjoy during the day, the nights were also getting longer and longer. In Vancouver, for example, the nights are short in the summer, but it gets dark early in the winter. From this, we conclude that he wrote this series of poems in early winter.
We must pay special attention to this important line, "Occasionally I acquire some fine wine." This line explains why he wrote these twenty poems and why he titled the series "On Drinking," although the content has nothing to do with drinking, but deals with many issues of life. According to Tao Yuanming's biography, he farmed after returning home. Since his family was very poor, he could not afford to buy wine though he liked to drink. There are many accounts in his biography concerning this issue. For example, although he did not like to socialize with government officials, he would not reject their invitation to have some fine wine on his way home.
One year, on the ninth day of the ninth month (Double Nine Day), everyone was drinking to celebrate, but Tao did not have any wine. Finally a man in a white robe, the magistrate of Jiangzhou, sent him some wine. On another occasion when his friend, Yan Yanzhi, gave him a large amount of money, he deposited the money at a bar and told the bar owner, "You keep the money so I can drink at your bar on credit." Thus we know that Tao Yuanming did not have much money to buy wine, but he always had wine to drink. In this case, he not only had wine, he had the best and most expensive wine.
How did he acquire this fine wine? Where did it come from? This is a real problem. If you want to understand why Tao Yuanming talked about so many issues of life in his poems, you have to study this line thoroughly. This line in the preface can be corroborated with the ninth poem of this series. The ninth poem mentions that someone sent him some wine. We have not gotten to that poem yet, so I'll just read it to prove that someone gave him wine.
To be continued