- Historical background
苏轼 Sū Shì was born in 1037 AD. This was a peaceful time, which was rare in the whole history of imperial China. Since the Song signed a peace treaty with the Khitan in 1004 AD, the Song people had enjoyed over 30 years of peace by the time 苏轼 was born, and they continued to enjoy peace for another 90 years without major war.
As one might know, it was extremely rare for the Chinese people to have a peaceful time for such a long period. When they had a strong empire led by an ambitious emperor, the emperor always wanted to conquer more territory. Emperors such as the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty 嬴政 Yíng Zhèng or the Martial Emperor of Han 刘彻 Liú Chè brought huge casualties and suffering to their subjects by raising constant wars against neighbouring countries. When they had a weak emperor like 李煜 Lĭ Yù, they became the conquered people and were treated like slaves. This 120 years of peace during the Song Dynasty was extremely rare for the long history of imperial China.
- During this long time of peace the population and the economy boomed, and arts such as poetry, painting, and music flourished. The Song policies also encouraged education and granted scholars many privileges. The scholar class enjoyed a lifestyle that could only be dreamed about by scholars of earlier or later times in Chinese history. They had various privileges depending on the titles they obtained by passing various levels of civil service examination, including tax exemptions, and study stipends that were enough to support a small family. If they needed to travel to academies in other regions to study, their travel and accommodation with the state-run postal service were free of charge. The young scholar officials also enjoyed internships that consisted of a lot of partying, drinking, and touring around the county, on public funds. There was even a fund for the scholar officials’ entertainment, which was called 公使钱 gōngshĭqian or fund for communal use. The scholar officials enjoyed more power than military officials of the same rank.
- This is why there are so many lyrics or 词 cí composed by Song scholar officials describing parties, as well as romantic affairs with female entertainers or 伎 jì as such entertainments were part of their everyday life. In the capital, huge restaurants could sometimes host thousands of guests, and would entertain them with singing and dancing male and female entertainers. The scholar officials often composed poems on the spot and then handed them to the singers to sing with a fixed melody.
- Even at the emperor’s court, the scholar officials enjoyed a more or less equal status with the emperor when debating national policies. For instance, in a debate about a policy reform in March 1091, the emperor 赵顼 Zhào Xū supported a new policy by stating that it would not affect the interest of commoners, although it might affect the interests of the scholar class; the then 枢密使 shūmìshĭ or the military affairs commissioner 文彦博 Wén Yànbó argued that the new policy should not be implemented because 为与士大夫治天下，非与百姓治天下也. “[the emperor] was governing the empire with the scholar officials, not the masses”. Apparently, it was a matter of fact that the emperor was sharing the governing power with the scholar officials so that he should not implement a policy affecting scholar officials’ interests!
- 苏轼Sū Shì was born into a typical scholar official family. His father 苏洵 Sū Xún was a loving father, although he did not start studying for the civil service examination until he was 25 years old,. So after 苏轼Sū Shì and his brother 苏辙Sū Zhé were born, their father was working very hard on his preparation for the civil service examination while teaching his sons the Confucian classics. When 苏轼Sū Shì was 19, his father travelled to the Capital 汴梁 Biànliáng (which changed the name to 开封 Kāifēng and was located at 河南Hénán province) with his two sons for them to sit for the national civil service examination. Both brothers passed the civil service exam with excellent results. 苏轼 Sū Shì and his brother acquired instant fame and became eligible to join the bureaucratic ranks. Unfortunately, 苏轼 Sū Shì’s mother passed away soon after this, and he had to delay his political career for three years to mourn her passing according to the rules of filial piety. After three years of rather relaxed time at their hometown, the Sū family moved to the capital 汴梁 Biànliáng.
- By this time, the Sū father and sons were already known for their literary talent. Soon after they arrived at the capital, they were each appointed to a position. Sū Shì was appointed as the deputy magistrate at Fengxiang county in Shaanxi Province. His father got a position at the court and his brother declined his job offer and stayed with their father to look after the family.
- The three years at Fengxiang were peaceful and relaxed with few duties to attend to. Sū Shì filled up his time by reading extensively as well as attending a lot of drinking parties and composing poems. And Sū Shì was very happy during this time and on his way up. He subsequently was promoted as the governor of 杭州 Hángzhōu and other places.
- Unfortunately, Sū Shì’s father passed away in 1066 AD, and Su Shi left his post to mourn his father for another three years. By the time he returned to the capital in 1069 AD, the political scene at the court had changed into a brutal struggle between the conservatives led by 司马光 Sīmă Guāng and the reformist 王安石 Wáng Ānshi. Sū Shì was appointed as court historian and aligned with the conservatives. The conservative party eventually lost the emperor’s favour and many of the conservative officials were either sacked from their high rank positions or demoted. Sū Shì was among those demoted and assigned to be the governor of 密州 Mìzhōu in the north in 1074 AD.
- 密州Mìzhōu was a remote county close to the northern frontier during the Song Dynasty. From the warm and rich 杭州Hángzhōu in the south to the cold and deserted 密州Mìzhōu, Su Shi was depressed and turned to wine for comfort. The poem we translate expressed this feeling quite well.
寒食后，酒醒却咨嗟zī jiē 。
Spring has not ended: a moist breeze bends
the slender willow. Let’s climb up the Taoists’ platform
and gaze down on the neap moat,
a city’s-worth of flowers. Rain-haze darkens distant houses.
After the Cold Food festival, it’s back
to the straight and narrow. Sigh. Don’t get homesick
in front of old friends, now just light a new fire,
try some new tea. Fill your salad days with poetry and wine.
- The poem is made up by two parts. They are called 上阕 and 下阕 or the upper part and the lower part.
- 风 means wind; 细 means thin or light. But 细 here also implies light rain as in the phrase 细雨. As we can see that rain is mentioned in the last line of this part of the poem, it is clear that 细 here implies it is raining lightly with the breeze, so we translate 风细 as moist breeze.
- 斜 pronounce as Xie in modern mandarin, but it is pronounced as Xia in Beijing Opera so I would adopt the Beijing opera’s pronunciation to rhyme with the last character of the last two lines in 上阕. We also changed the structure of this and the next lines to make them read well in English.
- 超然 literarily means ‘transcendence’. It is a phrase often associated with Taoist practice as detached from the secular world for spiritual pursuit, so we translate the terms as Taoist rather than transcendence.
- 台 is a platform often attached to a tower as shown in this painting. Such buildings were often built to commemorate a victory or achievement, which would later be used for ceremonial activities. 超然台 was built to celebrate a flood control project supervised by 苏轼 at 密州.
- All Chinese nouns have a measure word preceding them such as 一张床 or a bed; 两只猫 or two cats. 一城 is used as a measurement unit here meaning a city’s worth of something.
- 寒食 is a festival to commemorate a loyal official named 介子推 of the Spring Autumn Period. 介子推 helped 重耳 to get the title of the duke of the state of 晋 in 636 BCE. However, 重耳 awarded everyone who supported him except 介子推. 介子推 left 重耳 and retreated to a mountain with his mother. 重耳found out that 介子推 had left and chased him to the mountain and tried to get him out of the mountain by setting fire to it saying that he would award 介子推 with titles and land. However, 介子推 refused to come out and died in the fire with his mother. 重耳 said he was very sorry and named the mountain after 介子推 and announced the three days around this time as a public holiday, and no fire should be lit and people will eat cold food, so this holiday is known as cold food festival. Some historians argue that the cold food festival has nothing to do with 介子推. It was an ancient custom that people would extinguish all the old fire seeds (火种)for three days and rekindle new fire seeds symbolizing the beginning of a new year.
- 酒醒 literarily means sober after drunkenness, but we think it might be better to interpret the term as back to the straight and narrow because it is followed by a sigh. Apparently, the poet would rather be drunk than sober up.
- 故国 literarily means lost homeland or just hometown. It is quite interesting that 故国 is used instead of 故乡. It is probably to rhyme with the character of 嗟, 茶, and 华. Although it does not rhyme with them in mandarin, it certainly did during the Song dynasty.
- 年华 refers to the youth days of one’s life. We translate it as the salad days.