- Historical background
苏轼 Sū Shì composed this poem in 1076 AD, the third year as the governor of 密州 Mìzhōu. There is a preface to this poem stating that “it was 中秋节 Zhōngqiūjié or the mid-autumn festival. I was drinking happily until dawn. I got very drunk, composed this poem, and missed Zi You”. 子由 was the style name of 苏轼 Sū Shì’s younger brother 苏辙Sū Zhé. Three years earlier, Su Shi pleaded with the emperor to be appointed at a post close to his brother 苏辙, so that they could see more of each other. The Su brothers were very close, they shared similar ambitions and interests. 苏辙, although not as famous as 苏轼, was also a quite accomplished poet. They often exchange poems with each other and enjoyed each other’s company. In one of Su Shi’s poem Su Shi said they used to chat all night long without getting tired, and they planned to retire together. Unfortunately, due to the court politics, Su Shi died on his way back from his last exile, and never had a chance to retire together with his beloved brother. How sad! By the time he composed this poem, Su Shi was still hopeful, and he would contact his brother and try to see him whenever possible. So this is a poem dedicated to his brother 苏辙.
This poem is divided into two parts following the same structure. The first part is called 上阕 shàngquè, and the second part is called 下阕 xiàquè in Chinese.
When did the moon come into being?
I hold up my cup and ask the dark blue sky.
I don’t know what year it is
up there in the Heavenly Palace.
I want to ride the wind up to the moon.
but I’m a little afraid I’d be too cold in the high jade pavilion.
I get up and dance and play with my shadow,
as if I’m no longer in this human world.
The moonlight shines through the beautiful low window of this red pavilion
on this sleepless person.
It should not bear any ill-will towards me,
but why does it come so whole when I am not, apart from my brother?
Humans have sorrow, joy, separation, and reunion,
the moon can be covered or clear, round or not,
since ancient times it has been difficult to have wishes fulfilled.
I only wish we can live very long lives,
and share this beautiful moon a thousand miles apart.
“明月几时有?” or “When did the moon come into being?” There is a poetic tradition asking this kind of question started by the poet 屈原 from the Warring States Period of the fourth century BC. The great Tang Dynasty poet 李白 also asked the same question “青天有月来几时? Or, How long has the moon been on the dark blue sky? ” Since ancient times, Chinese people believe that the cosmos is conscious of human behaviours, especially those with power. If they abuse power, they would be punished by heaven. So asking or pleading to heaven when suffering injustice has been a common practice among Chinese people including the educated scholars. Poets like 屈原, 李白, and 苏轼 were not asking an astronomical question about when the moon came into being, but an astrological question, “what did I do to deserve suffering injustice, or in this case, being separated from my extended family?” A few weeks ago, the Chinese premier, 李克强 Lĭ KèQiáng, did something similar when he said, 人在干，天在看，苍天有眼 meaning “heaven has eyes, it is watching what people are doing” implying an injustice was committed against him.
宫means place; 阙 refers to the watch towers by the sides of a place. 宫阙 together refers to a cluster of palaces guarded by watch towers.
琼 refers to red jade; 楼 means tower; 玉 refers to jade, especially the white jade; 宇refers to the eaves or the roof. 琼楼玉宇 just means a pavilion constructed with colorful jade.
高处 means a high place, referring to the palace on the moon.
绮 means silk fabric with patterns on it; 户 means window. 绮户 refers to windows covered by beautiful silk.
有is an abbreviation of 有时 meaning “there are times”.
阴 means cloudy; 晴 means clear; 阴晴 here refers to the times when the moon is either covered by clouds or clear of clouds, so we translated 阴晴 as covered or clear.
缺 literarily means broken, it also refers to the moon when it is not a full moon. A full moon is round or 圆 and is the same character as in 团圆 meaning family reunion. For a Chinese, a full moon represents family reunion. So when Su Shi saw the full moon, he was missing his extended family especially his brother because he requested specifically to be assigned a post close to his brother’s post, but still he could not join his brother to celebrate the special day for family reunion. For him, the moon was broken, so was his heart because he missed his brother terribly.
此事 literarily means this thing or this situation. But here it refers to his wish to be with his brother and the extended family. So we interpret this term along with other terms in this line as to mean having wishes fulfilled.
人 literarily means person but here it is clear that Su Shi refers to his brother and himself.
长久 normally can be translated as an adjective meaning very long, but it can also be used as a verb as in here meaning long lasting. So we interpret the term as living a very long life.
婵娟 initially meant beautiful women. However, since there is a beautiful goddess on the moon according to Chinese mythology, 婵娟 is also used to refer to the moon or bright moonlight in poetry and other forms of literature. Here it is clear it refers to the full moon.