I attended Shaanxi Normal University, located in Xi'an, the old capital of ancient China. The day after I landed, I began daily courses in both ancient Chinese history and Mandarin Chinese. Before stepping into the Xi'an airport, I knew almost no Chinese. Through the classes and cultural immersion, the basics of the language have stuck with me. For example, I still remember the phrase "太贵了“ (That's too expensive!)” and other bartering phrases. I actually have started to re-immerse myself in the Chinese language, with the hope of going back to China in the not-too-distant future (after the coronavirus is no longer a worry).
I had always had an interest in Chinese and Japanese history, but I didn't realize how little I actually knew about it until I started taking courses as a freshman in college, and especially once I began exploring the city with the amazing history of Xi'an. As part of our trip, we were each assigned 'language buddies' to help show us around town and give us opportunities to practice and refine our language skills. My language buddy went by the western name of Aeo, a name I've never heard anyone use in the west, but which nonetheless was an easy name to remember. On the first available night, her and a friend took me and my roommate on a bus across town to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda Square. Within this square, the architecture is built to resemble what ancient Xi'an may have looked like back in Tang dynasty China, between 618 - 907 C.E. One of the things that you'll notice, should you ever get the chance to visit, are the statues and pictures of the mysterious poet, Li Bai, and other famous poets throughout the square.
At the time, I had no idea who Li Bai was, or why he was featured so prominently in one of the top historical, cultural, and tourist sites in China. I am ashamed to say I didn't take the time to really learn more about him until very recently, when the announcement of a new biography by Ha Jin came into my inbox and presented the perfect opportunity to learn more.
Bai's friendships with and observations of the underclass of society would be a major subject in his poetry, as Bai romanticizes their life in his early career. This connection to traveling, to being poor, and to enjoying the company of strangers, made Bai an major influence on the Beat generation of poets in America, chiefly inspiring Jack Kerouac. Yet Bai's poetry isn't just a reflection of society at large. His poetry sometimes brings a sense of melancholy with it, as in this poem about saying farewell to a group of friends.
Avoiding Farewell in a Chin-ling Wineshop*
Breezes filling the inn with willow-blossom scents,
elegant girls serve wine, enticing us to try it.
Chin-ling friends come to see me off, I try to leave
but cannot, so we linger out another cup together.
I can't tell anymore. Which is long and which short,
the river flowing east or thoughts farewell brings on?