As I read Ha Jin’s biography of Li Bai, regarded as China’s greatest poet, I was reminded of a literary character from the Western tradition: Don Quixote de la Mancha. Both men were confused romantics, wielding both the pen and the sword; both were restless and itinerant; both tilted at windmills.
Ha Jin already has a place on my bookshelf, two of his novels in the H section. Waiting is a masterpiece that tugged at my heartstrings again and again, and which I plan to re-read. His more recent novel, The Boat Rocker, has a comic-ironic “Spy vs. Spy” theme in which a divorced Chinese-American couple get caught up in their countries’ political and social differences.
Both of these novels pit the individual against society, and in Ha’s The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, that leitmotif emerges again in a true-life story. It captivated me from the first pages and never let me down. Li Bai, also known as Li Po, who lived from 701 to 762 CE, was a study in contradictions. He had a family whom he loved but could not keep himself at home, endlessly roaming China and writing thousands upon thousands of poems about what he saw and felt. He was an iconoclast who felt a need, a duty, to serve his country but could not stomach bureaucracy. He saw holding a public office as a way to enhance his popularity as a poet, but clearly lacked the skills or the temperament to serve. People loved his poetry, but few cherished him as an individual – that fell mostly to other poets.
Li was married twice; his first wife passed away, as did his eldest child, a girl in her teens. His son lived and thrived. He remarried, but his restless spirit could not let him stay home. The man was often on the road, from town to town across China, for years at a time, seeing neither his wife nor son.
His life was writing, and through Ha’s wise biographical narrative we learn that Li Bai actually held (although he seemed to be unaware of it) the highest and most esteemed role in Chinese society: that of a poet. Bureaucrats were a dime a dozen (and still are) and therefore a man of letters – a writer – was, and remains, the most respected individual in Chinese society.
Li Bai personified the man who had it all and didn’t appreciate it. He rejected Confucius’s teachings and in later life became a Daoist (Taoist), not so much for its spiritual beliefs but to enhance his social (and perhaps political) status.
He lived through turbulent times: China was undergoing a unification under the Tang dynasty that created a more orderly governance, and thus society, and which revered poets as mentioned earlier, but was not without its internecine conflicts. The Don Quixote in Li wanted to be a soldier, to wield his sword in battle, but it didn’t happen. That was probably for the better; he was much more adept with the pen and ink.
Li Bai had an Achilles heel which would not have gone unnoticed as he wandered China: his craving for alcohol. The man loved to party. It pointed out a manner of being in the world that put many at odds with him and made political would-be benefactors dubious about giving him office. Moreover, it would have put him in grave danger on the battlefield. Li Bai was apparently a habitual sot and, if we are to believe Ha Jin’s account, spent a significant portion of his life “in his cups,” as is said in polite company.
What’s immediately evident to the reader is how utterly unsuited Li Bai was for holding office, and it makes one wonder why it held such allure for him. The sole time he was given an appointment he spent two months at it and tendered his resignation. Then regretted it for years and years. The man was a study in contradictions.
Yet all this chaos, whether inner or from life’s circumstances, seems not to have affected his poetic output. He’s rumored to have written over ten thousand poems, most of which he gave away to those whom he wrote about. (About a thousand are extant today.) In Ha’s translations, they seem rather more didactic than poetic in the Western sense, but clearly the man saw things in the people, places and things around him that he turned into slight but lovely turns of phrase. The poem he is best remembered for is this one, which was translated by another poet who was one of his Western admirers, Ezra Pound:
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter
BY EZRA POUND
After Li Po
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.
No one knows with certainty how Li Bai died. He had been quite ill and seemed to have recovered, but he was sixty-one years of age, quite an old man for those times. And he was traveling and could have fallen out of a boat or off an oxcart. Ha, in his Prelude, writes:
“By the time of his death, he had become known as a great poet and was called shexian, or Banished Immortal, by his admirers. . .. Because he was an excessive drinker, he was also called jiuxian, Wine Immortal.”
As I turned the last page, what became very clear is this. Whatever Li Bai was – or perhaps was not – he lived his life pretty much as he saw fit and never gave a thought to redemption. For that alone he has my respect.