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?
This kind of weaving together of themes that speak to wide swaths of Chinese impressed audiences throughout the country. Not only was Bai's poetry thoughtful and relevatory, but with his ability to create lyrical brilliance at the spur of the moment, he could gift his poetry to government officials and friends while traveling (in hopes of being referred to a government posting, which would secure a stable income for him and his family). Despite his striking poetry, he was never referred to a posting because Bai was also seen as rash, quick to anger, and irresponsible. If anything went wrong with Bai's appointment, it would reflect poorly on whoever referred him.
Li Bai had a conflicting image of himself. While his poetry took off and soared through the country, his true desire in life was to become a government official, accomplish something grand, and then retire to a quiet, hermetic existence in the countryside. This ideal life combined his Confucian desires to be useful to the country, but also the more spiritually significant Daoist orientation he held throughout his life.
Bai never had much luck pursuing government posts, although he was eventually called to the imperial court of Emperor Xuanzong, the ruler of Tang dynasty China, due to his reputation as a poet. While at court, he tried to gain political leverage to offer proposed policies, but much of Bai's political education came from those in the Three Kingdoms era, close to 400 years before the Tang dynasty. Bai's ideas were seen as outdated and not well suited to the world of Tang China, and was dismissed as a naïve poet. After it was made clear he would not have a meaningful political impact, and would only ever be seen as an entertaining poet, Bai resigned from the court after less than two years.
Bai was full of contradictory desires. When reading the biography, one can feel the conflict between wanting to travel and see friends and staying home with Bai's wife and children. Bai was not a man who could stay in one place too long. If stuck in one place too long, his heart would long for travel, and he would find any excuse he could to go out and explore his favorite cities, Nanjing and Luoyang. Yet when he traveled, he sorely missed his wife and son, even writing a few poems about them. This was not generally accepted as an appropriate subject of poetry at the time, but Bai was an innovator and introduced the idea into mainstream poetry in Tang China.
Seeing all of these contradictions is part of what makes Bai's poetry so humanistic. Bai doesn't hide from contradictions, both in himself and others, and touches on some of those subjects that matter most: life, death, nature, politics, family, togetherness, emptiness, longing, satisfaction, and more. One need only have a cursory understanding of ancient Chinese society to be able to grasp the deep meanings within Bai's poetry, which must be why he was so influential to the Beat poets.
It is difficult to capture the life of an individual who lived over 1200 years ago. Yet Ha Jin, with his imaginative prose, has accomplished this amazing feat. Despite having incomplete historical records to work from, Ha Jin takes his reader on a journey through all of the love, hope, and despair experienced by Bai during his lifetime. Moreover, Ha Jin uncovers and shares the psychology and emotion behind Li Bai, reconstructing important personal moments in Bai's life using history, letters, poetry, and more. This biography is an honor to the poet, and I think Li Bai himself would be pleased with it. In honor of Bai, pour a drink, recite a poem at a party, and enjoy the time you have with your friends.