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.

Advertisements

The Year of the Stag

“Clocks are harbingers of funerals; knives mean you want to cut a friendship; ties and necklaces are considered intimate embraces and should not be gifted to casual acquaintances.” Over at the Times website, I explain why whisky is the ideal Chinese New Year Gift. Also ideal for any day with a “y” in it. I mean, you can give me socks if you like, but…

Wrapped at Christmas

After six weeks of shooting and over 1,500 miles of driving, I’m on my way home having wrapped on season five of Route Awakening for National Geographic, taking in two lost kingdoms, a forgotten emperor, several sets of grave robbers, and your correspondent trying to learn the steps to the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. Yes, I was working on Christmas Day. That’s the way I like it. Look out for more details on the topics of season five coming in spring 2019. Also coming in the New Year, my latest book: A Brief History of China from Tuttle Publishing, which begins with cavemen and ends with reality television.

Terracottas in Liverpool

DjEASR7XgAEvz3a

Back from the Liverpool World Museum, where I spoke this week about Chinese Bronze Age burial customs, the oddities of the Qin state in ancient China (including its most famous song), and the enduring mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors. The exhibition itself has lots of interesting and quirky pieces, including a cauldron like the one that Duke Wu dropped on his foot, a barbarian brooch from Qin’s contacts with the western nomads, and a statue of a goose from the First Emperor’s bronze menagerie.

I asked the crowd if they could remember what they were doing back in July 2005, when “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt was number one, because that’s the timespan, just thirteen years, that separates the coronation of the First Emperor from the fall of his dynasty. The museum at the Terracotta Army site near Xi’an has already stood for twice as long as the dynasty it celebrates.

Drawing on the materials in my book on the First Emperor (which was doing a roaring trade in the museum shop, I am pleased to say), it’s only when you set the archaeology in context with the textual evidence from Qin documents (themselves often as recent a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors themselves), that the reason for every soldier having an individual face becomes clear.

Judge Dee Fights The Power

From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and the US. Recommended reading if you want to get the most out of Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee movie, in which Empress Wu launches a vendetta against her former ally.

—-

Judge Dee was rounded up with a number of other officials, and escorted to the investigators’ head office by the Gate of Beautiful Scenery. Lai Chunchen informed his captives that they had one shot at mercy – under plea-bargaining terms that Empress Wu had recently approved, anyone who immediately pleaded guilty could have their sentences commuted from execution to banishment. With that in mind, Lai Chunchen asked Judge Dee if there was a conspiracy. Dee’s reply was blunt and sarcastic:

[Wu’s] Great Zhou revolution has occurred, and ten thousand things are changing. Old officials of the Tang dynasty like myself are soon to be executed. You bet there’s a conspiracy!

Lai Chunchen would have preferred a straight yes or no, but took Judge Dee’s response to be in the affirmative. Dee was locked up for processing, although his stance managed to impress some of his captors. One investigator, doubting very much that Dee would be detained long in exile, asked him if the judge would put a good word in for him on his return, to which the judge responded by literally banging his head against a wooden pillar while calling the investigator a series of rude names.

The Judge, however, was not going to go without a fight. Waiting for a moment when he was left alone, he wrote a letter to his son on the inner lining of his jacket, and then prevailed upon his captors to take the jacket back to his home, so that his family could take out the winter padding.

On finding the secret message, Dee’s son immediately applied for an audience with Wu herself, and showed the empress the accusing letter. Lai Chunchen was called to explain himself, but argued that the letter was a forgery, since he had no record of the judge’s clothes being sent back to his house. There, Dee’s case might have foundered before it could have truly begun, but for a slave who approached Wu himself. The ten-year-old boy was one of many palace servants who owed their position to the alleged misdeeds of their elder family members. Uncaring that his words could lead to his own torture or death, the boy announced that his family was innocent, and that he lived his life as a slave solely because of the persecutions and lies of the ‘cruel clerks.’

This dramatic turn of events forced Wu to summon Dee to the palace to explain himself. She asked the judge why he had pleaded guilty in the first place, to which Dee replied that it was the only way he could avoid torture and death”