Elegantly Wasted

Had he been born in our era, Li Bai (701–762) would have surely been a rock star, wrecking hotel rooms and bedding groupies he met on a drug-fuelled stage-dive. In Tang dynasty China, he still enjoyed a reputation as a wild-child poet, lionised for his quick couplets and witty juxtapositions, summoned even to the Xuanzong Emperor’s entourage.

That was when he blew it. After dithering for days among a crowd of hangers-on, he got his moment to shine, called in as a script doctor on a court performance that needed punching up. Instead, he drunkenly tried flattering a prickly consort. With all the self-destructive tendencies of a heavy-metal frontman, Li Bai dissed the chief eunuch and back-handedly complimented the famously plump Yang Guifei for being as gracile as a legendary stick-thin kingdom-wrecker. It took a while for courtiers to unpick his cheeky insults, but his career at court was essentially over before it had begun.

In his new book, The Banished Immortal, poet and novelist Ha Jin offers a slick and readable biography of China’s most famous poet – his wives and concubines, his dissolute life, and his flirtations with power and politics. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal that both evokes Li Bai’s talent and his ghastly, narcissistic disregard for others. “So long as the host can get me drunk,” he slurs in one epigram, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.” We’ve all got a friend like Li Bai… we just wish he’d warn us before he rings the doorbell and asks if we’ve got any booze.

Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away – one gets a strong sense with Jin’s text of the sheer, daunting size of China. A man of privilege who never seems to have to really work, Li Bai’s travels separate him from his wife for years on end, and he only writes to her on a couple of occasions. Her own letters never find him, defeated by the sheer length of lines of communication. In one amusing incident fit to fill an entire episode of Star Trek, a communiqué arrives from a people so remote that nobody at court understands it. Only Li Bai, who grew up in western China and may even have been born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, can decipher it, and reveals that it is a declaration of war.

Jin is at his best when dealing with Li Bai as a fellow creative – he makes no boast to be his equal, but has an informed insider’s grasp of the perils of poetry. He is not afraid to point out those places where his subject is just phoning it in, and is ready to suggest when certain “off-the-cuff” couplets have been composed in advance. This poet’s-eye view of another poet is Jin’s greatest contribution, cutting through the hagiographies and unmitigated praise of other authors to the heart of Li Bai’s true talent. The author, an exile who has spent much of his adult life in America, clearly identifies with the peripatetic Li Bai, excluded from high office and ever unsure of his situation, “a fish trapped in a roadside puddle, dreaming of returning to the ocean.”

Jin makes a strong case for Li Bai as a man of letters ousted from what might have been a more productive calling, an alcoholic genius who inevitably puts a foot wrong in the Tang court, and a late-life careerist who disastrously backs the wrong horse. We share in Li Bai’s elation when he hears that the new emperor, Suzong, has pardoned him, and in his disappointment when he tardily realises this was not a recognition of his eloquence, but a blanket amnesty. Jin digs down into the hidden messages of love poems, and the subtle asides contained in what first appear to be fawning songs of praise.

There are, nevertheless, some odd missteps in the prose. Jin writes at one point of the “Nan dynasty”, which never existed – any Chinese speaker can see that he is referring to the “Southern Dynasties”, but this error has been allowed to stand. The Xianbei tribe is archaically referred to as the Sien-pi. Jin bafflingly recounts the death of the concubine Yang Guifei as suicide, when most accounts agree that she was strangled. In what I can only assume is a sop to the American market, Jin praises the work of Ezra Pound, who spoke no Chinese and left scraps of Japanese gibberish in his “translations” from where he copied out a crib sheet. He guardedly acknowledges the earlier work of Arthur Waley, conceding that while dated, it still has weight – I would suggest that many of Waley’s translations retain a majesty and harmony that is often lacking here. But this is not Ha Jin’s fault – all but truly bilingual translators usually work into their native language, not out of it.

For the reader unfamiliar with Chinese, Jin’s explanations can open whole new worlds between the lines, although sometimes only patchily. He notes, for example, the allusion in the last line of the poem “Zhan Chengnan” to an epigram from the Dao De Jing, but omits to mention that the opening lines are obviously a nod to “We Fought South of the City Wall”, a famous protest song from the Han dynasty. When examining “A Lament of the Leaving Woman,” Jin interprets it as a poem that reaches out to Li Bai’s disenchanted live-in lover. But considering the hostility with which other poems rail against “that stupid woman,” it is surely more likely that this poem is a toxic masterpiece of passive-aggression, taunting her for losing her looks and having nowhere else to go, a “cheap concubine.” Jin flinches at pointing out just how good his subject was at being bad.

However, these are discussions to be had, rather than outright statements of incontrovertible fact. Jin has consulted a number of Chinese-language books on Li Bai, and his text valuably distils much of their arguments for an Anglophone audience. While he often quotes trenchant third-party observations, beyond his intuitions as a jobbing poet, he rarely gives evidence of a source-critical reading of these other authors – he is insightful on Li Bai’s poetry, but hands-off regarding his historicity. Repeatedly, he refers to these other works as if they are a unanimous chorus of approval, whereas a more historically minded author might have tried a little forensics to make sure these other sources weren’t largely citing each other.

Regardless, the field of popular biographies of medieval Chinese figures is shockingly small. Li Bai’s life spanned a rich, transformative period in the 8th century, the height of the Silk Road and the brief florescence of a truly diverse China. Ha Jin’s biography will introduce this poet to a whole new generation, suffused with examples of his philosophy and verse.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

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Vital Statistics

Continuing to make a mockery of the supposed four-panel format is I Love the Best Boobs in the World by Wakame Konbu. Yes, that’s a pseudonym, since it means Seaweed Seaweed, and you’d probably want to hide your real name if you were writing a comic about a kind-hearted teenager, Chiaki, who is best friends with classmate Hana, whose mammary glands are apparently the top of the tit tree. In this month’s instalment, our two heroines go shopping for bras, which allows the implied male reader a delicious, erotically-charged peek at what goes on in lingerie shop changing rooms. Chiaki, in fact, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – as a girl, she gets a free pass into such inner sanctums, although she secretly has a fetish for large breasts, and loves to be around them.

Because NEO leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of Japanese culture, it’s time to talk boobs. The Triumph company has been logging Japanese bust-sizes since 1980, allowing statisticians to plot a curve of Japanese… curves. The story it tells is a compelling one born from changes in Japanese dietary habits (particularly dairy products containing bovine growth hormones) and trends, suggesting that A, B, and C cup sales have been dropping for a generation. Whereas A-cups in 1980 were worth 58.6% of all Japanese bra sales, now they’ve fallen to 4.1%. 2016 was the tipping point – the first year in which D, E and F cup sizes represented more sales in Japan than A, B, and C.

However, before you rush off to impress your friends with this news, some things to bear in mind. Firstly, Japanese bra sizes are not the same as other countries’. A Japanese E-cup, for example, is the same size as an American D-cup or a British DD.

Even allowing for these differences in definition, there is still a palpable change in bra-buying in Japan since 1980, but this does not necessarily mean that Japanese women are suddenly bustier. Triumph cautions that it may simply mean that women with bigger chests buy more bras, either as a feature of their struggle to find one that fits properly, or possibly because they are more likely to work in a sector that requires what we shall gingerly call performative lingerie exhibition.

University undergraduates who have suddenly decided on their final essay topic while reading this page are also advised to bear in mind that many Japanese bras are also aspirational – you might be a humble A-cup, wearing a padded C-cup because you think it will get you noticed. In that regard, the changing statistics may have less to do with changes in body type, and more to do with 21st century standards of beauty.

Jonathan Clements is the author of  A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared as part of the Manga Snapshot column on Comic Cune in NEO #180, 2018.

An Unhappy New Year

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On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.

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Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.