19 September was the Mid-Autumn Festival or the Moon Festival. Beyond moon cakes, it is also a story of a woman who flew to the moon, a time for toasting a new full moon, and for me, a reason to taste good quality rice wine.
The moon and (rice) wine is a pair that inspires countless poems in classical China. Imbibing wine until lightly inebriated, the poets recite poems or improvise lines of poetry and admires the beauty of a perfect new (round) moon. The poets thought wine helped their mind to hold – to possess – lyrical plays of words and turns of phrase. In that ‘enhanced’ state of mind, they repeat and elaborate on particularly beautiful phrases or words, much as one may savour the aroma and palate of a well-aged wine. A group of eight famous poets in the Tang Dynasty are still known as immortals in the wine cup.
One of the ‘eight immortals’ is Li Bai, who wrote many poems that involve drinking wine. A well known one is about the poet drinking alone, in a moon-lit garden. Unusually, he is not drinking in the company of fellow poets. Instead, he turns to the moon and his shadow as drinking companions, turning one person into three. He raises his earthenware cup to the moon, and then dances (presumably poetically), although the moon and his shadow cannot join his drinking or dancing.
In that poem, wine prompts him to use his imagination to create his own social drinking circle. He and wine, worshipping the moon in his inimitable fashion.
The image of Li Bai (or his alter ego) dancing alone in the garden, with lines of poetry swirling in his head, and inviting the moon to join the fun, might be an early form of moon dance. It always makes me think of Coleridge in his wilder moments: “And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair! […] For he on honey-drew hath fed / And drunk the milk of paradise.” (Kubla Khan)
Wine and the moon also have another, more nostalgic place in tradition.