Li Bai’s ‘Looking Toward Heaven’s Gate’2 November, 2011 at 07:39 | Posted in China, Chinese culture, Tang Dynasty | Leave a comment
Tags: ancient chinese poetry, China, Chinese culture, poem of Tang Dynasty
Editor’s note: This is a series of translations of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty being published on The Epoch Times website. Each piece will be accompanied by its Chinese original, an interpretive English translation, and a small essay of introduction, contextualization, and appraisal.
Last time I wrote about Li Bai and Du Fu, how together they are the twin giants of Tang poetry. Not only are they both great poets, but they are each archetypes who represent a distinct poetic response to the world, somewhat the way the Beatles and Rolling Stones are archetypes for all subsequent rock and roll bands.
To give you a better idea of the archetypes they have come to be, this week I am going to concentrate on Li Bai, starting with a small part of what has been passed down as official biography; then I’ll give you translations of a few more poems. After that, I’ll do the same with Du Fu and then we’ll return to the subject of their relationship, as reflected in some of the poems they wrote to each other. Part of what makes their relationship so interesting is how it is documented by their own work.
* * * *
Here is a portion of Li Bai’s biography taken from the New History of the Tang Dynasty, which was written in the 11th century. I am borrowing here from a translation by the great sinologist Arthur Waley which appears in his monograph The poet Li Bai. I think this is worth quoting at length if for no other reason than to show the richness of the Chinese poetic tradition – from a distance of more than 1300 years, a distinct picture of Li Bai emerges, much more detailed than we have in fact for either Shakespeare or Chaucer.
Li Bai, styled T’ai-Po, was descended in the ninth generation from the Emperor Hsing-sheng. One of his ancestors was charged with a crime at the end of the Sui dynasty, and the family took refuge in Turkestan. At the beginning of the period Shen-lung, the family returned and settled in Szechwan. At his birth Li Bai’s mother dreamt of the planet Venus and that was how he came by his name.
At ten he had mastered the Book of Odes and Book of History. When he grew up he retired to the Min Mountains, and even when summoned to the provincial examinations he made no response. When Su T’ing became governor of I-chou, he was introduced to Li Bai, and was astonished by him, remarking on his conspicuous natural talents… However, he was interested in politics and fond of fencing, becoming one of those knight-errants who care nothing for wealth and much for almsgiving.
Once he stayed in Shantung with K’ung Ch’ao-fu, Han Chun, P’ei Cheng, Chang Shu-ming and T’ao Mien. They lived on Mount Ch’u Lai and were dead drunk every day. People called them the Six Hermits of the Bamboo Stream.
At the beginning of the T’ien-pao period he went south to Kuei-chi, and became intimate with Wu Yun. Wu Yun was summoned by the Emperor, and Li Bai went with him to Chang-an. Here he visited Ho Chih-chang. When Chih-chang read some of his work, he sighed and said: “You are an exiled fairy.” He told the Emperor, who sent for Li Bai and gave him an audience in the Golden Bells Hall. The poet submitted an essay dealing with current events. The Emperor bestowed food upon him and stirred the soup with his own hand. He ordered that he should be unofficially attached to the Han Lin Academy, but Li Bai went on drinking in the market-place with his boon companions.
Once when the Emperor was sitting in the Pavilion of Aloes Wood, he had a sudden stirring of heart, and wanted Li Bai to write a song expressive of his mood. When Li Bai entered in obedience to the summons, he was so drunk that the couriers were obliged to dab his face with water. When he had recovered a little, he seized a brush and without any effort wrote a composition of flawless grace.
The Emperor was so pleased with Li Bai’s talent that whenever he was feasting or drinking he always had this poet to wait upon him. Once when Li Bai was drunk the Emperor ordered the eunuch Kao Li-shih to take off Li Bai’s shoes. Li-shih, who thought such a task beneath him, took revenge by affecting to discover in one of Li Bai’s poems a veiled attack on the Emperor’s mistress, Yang Kuei-fei.
Whenever the Emperor thought of giving the poet some official rank, Kuei-fei intervened and dissuaded him. Li Bai himself, soon realizing that he was unsuited to Court life, allowed his conduct to become more and more reckless and unrestrained.
Together with his friends Ho Chih-chang, Li Shih-chih, Chin, Prince of Ju-yang, Ts’ui Tsung-chih, Su Chin, Chang Hsu and Chiao Sui, he formed the association known as the Eight Immortals of the Winecup.
He begged persistently to be allowed to retire from Court. At last the Emperor gave him gold and sent him away. Li Bai roamed the country in every direction. Once he went by boat with Ts’ui tsung-chih from Pien-shih to Nanking. He wore his embroidered Court cloak and sat as proudly in the boat as though he were king of the universe.