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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciaton: 8 _李白》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

Ten Talk 8

(8) Li Bai, International Poet

Li Bai was introduced to the West in the 18 Century with the translation of J. M. Amiot, a Jesuit. That set off a series of translations world wide. Today, not a few professors of world class universities study and teach Li Bai’s poems as a specialty. At the dawn of the 20 Century, the Austrian composer Guster Mahler pioneered a new trend of symphonic music with his Das Lied von der Erde (大地之歌). He integrated the German and French translations of four Li Bai poems into his music. Two singers alternatively express in grand scope the feelings of friendship and parting. Listeners can hear how these expressions shake the soul in cosmic references, sometimes disturbing and painful, other times gentle and enriching.

Li Bai (701-762) was born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan. Another source says he was born in Tiaozhi near Afghanistan. Both places are on the Silk Road which connected China to the Mid-east and onwards to Europe. A story said that when his mother was pregnant, she often dreamed of a comet trailing down the sky, leaving a brilliant white line. The white star was Venus, and the child was named Li Tai Bai (李太白) at birth. His father moved the family to Chengdu (成都) in Sichuan when he was four years old.

At Chengdu, the prodigious child loved to read and play with the sword. In a short time he had covered the Confucian classics, history, and Laozi. He loved, in particular, The Book of Poetry (詩經) and the poems of Qu Yuan(屈原) and Tao Qian(陶潛). By thirteen, he had entrenched himself in the rich tradition of Chinese poetry, and showed his mark as a talented poet. By the end of his legendary life of 61 years, he had written thousands of poems of which 1146 had survived for our appreciation.

Li Bai has a strong sense of self, but not self-centered. He is positive and optimistic most of his life, engaging with wine, moon, woman, Nature and, of course, poetry. He writes with effortless virtuosity, producing poems that are inimitable, philosophical and free. He is childlike and playful, submitting to neither convention nor authority. His imagination knows no bound. But the images he conveys are simple, and touching, reaching deep into the souls of people young and old. He has a total command of literary tradition and he loves his native home enough to feel nostalgic whenever he is away wandering. He is a lonely genius who treasures friendship. This is shown in his poems to Du Fu and the latter’s many poems to him.

He went to the capital Chang An(長安)when he was twenty five, willing himself to serve his country by Confucian ideals. He had a position in the King’s court, identifying good poems for the Hanlin Academy. But, he was so undisciplined at work that he was dismissed after he failed to respond to the King’s summon. However, the King respected his talent enough to give him a good sum of money to wander about in the country and write. He stayed at the Zhongnan Mountain for two years, mingling with Daoist priests to entrench himself in the spirit of being natural and free.

Back in the capital, a major revolt broke out in 755 led by An Lu Shan (安祿山), it hurled the Tang Dynasty from its summit into a sharp fall, marked by economic disaster and wide scale conflicts. Li Bai and Du Fu (712-770) met around that time and became bosom friends for life. They were both accomplished poets in the country. The impact of a declining dynasty influenced the direction of their poetry. Both saw the suffering of the people and called for justice and the check and balance of power. But Li remained romantic, always revealing his optimism with candor and passion, creating beauty. Du was a realist imbued with a high moral standard and strong sense of duty. His poems invariably condemned the nobles and their selfishness and show sympathy on the poor and weak. Together they were recognized, respectively, as the 詩仙 (Immortal Poet) and the 詩聖 (Sage Poet) of the Tang Dynasty.

Today, both poets have become a major subject for academic studies, with Li in international circles and Du within China. We can see the difference between them in these their famous lines:

Du Fu -- “Wine and meat scatter inside crimson doors  朱門酒肉臭

In streets the poor die frozen in frosts”  路有凍死骨

Li Bai -- “I will not stoop and bow to men of power 安能摧眉折腰事權貴

Not to deny myself of many a happy hour” 使我不得開心顏

It would take thousands of pages to present the wisdom and esthetic charm of all Li Bai poems. Here I shall show my appreciation of a few of his commonly known poems in this brief talk.

We begin with行路難The Road of Life is Difficult . It reveals the poet’s feeling of his unaccomplished wish for serving his country and lives an ordinary life. But, towards the end, Li announces his optimism of a sure bright future in cosmic grandeur:

“The time will come whence I ride strong winds to cleave the waves  長風破浪會有時

I will hoist my sail tall to triumph the high sea with ease  直掛雲帆濟滄

Li Bai values friendship very much. More than sixty of his poems are on the subject. Songs of parting often deal with time, space and movement, reflecting the beauty of Nature and the sorrow of separation. Both Song of Moon O’er O Mei  and Flute Music in a Spring Night at Louyang are popular in school textbooks. However, neither has the far fletching imagination and grand feelings as Farewell to Uncle Yun at Xuanzhou. It is long but almost every line carries a load of philosophy and wild actions. In the end, the poet is free. Like:

“What has deserted me yesterday I would not retain  棄我去者昨日之日不可留
What is disturbing me today its worry will not remain  亂我心者今日之日多煩

And like:

“We both share the same ambitions aiming high  俱懷逸興壯思飛
Wishing to pluck the moon down from the sky  欲上青天覽日月
I try to sever the river with my sward its torrents speed up the flow  抽刀斷水水更流

I try to drown my sorrows with wine more sorrows come on tow  舉懷銷愁愁更

Nostalgia (鄉思) is a common emotion among poets of bygone days in all cultures. Holderin, Cassirer, Frost, Li Bai and many others frequent nostalgia and dreams in their poems. But we now live in the postmodern world, marked by speed and fragmentation. Today, such beautiful things as motherland, childhood songs, old home gardens, and past experience, seem to be replaced by i-phone and internet information, which overload our senses, and clog up our souls. No one knows the price of change, except feeling untenable, being consumed in time by mundane life routines, in work, shopping, watching TV, and most of all, going online. Yet, some of us still enjoy poetry, dreams and music. We need quietude and its nurture. Remember the words of Earnest Cassirer: “The quietude of poetry is not static but dynamic. Poems lead people to see and feel the serenity and strivings deep in our souls.”

I taught Li Bai’s Thoughts on a Quiet Night to grade four pupils at Aberdeen Primary School in 1956. Half of them were local born. The other half had memories of their old homes in various places of China. They loved the poem because they were able to relate to the feeling of nostalgia. They had a steady place in life as in memory, which they valued. The first two lines of the poem painted a picture of the roaming poet returning to an inn where he was staying temporarily. His mind was not at ease nor peaceful. That is why he associated the flood of moonlight on the floor as frosts, cold and desolate. That mindset sent him to look up to the moon, a source of blessing. In turn, he pined for his motherland or home, wishing his folks to receive the moon’s celestial blessings. I read and explained the same poem to my grand daughter last year. (2016). She showed a blank face, and she did not have a clue what was motherland or old home. She and her parents had changed apartments three times in her ten years of life. She did not even remember the last place, which they were in just two years before.

Still, memory and nostalgia are parts of human nature. Human beings know their present from past experiences. The richness of their future could only be built on the foundation of factual and memorable events and understandings of today and yesterdays. I unexpectedly met one of those pupils I taught in 1956, Ru Xin, at a concert at Palo Alto, California in 1993. On the program was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, with its recurring famous nostalgic melody. She invited me to breakfast the following morning. She was then a professor teaching at Stanford University, specializing in medical research. She told me that she had kept a keen interest in poetry. To my pleasant surprise, she shared with me her love of many Chinese classical poems, and her love of Holderin. She recited for me, between omelet and coffee, the latter’s Remembrance:

“The northeast blows

My favorite among winds

              I remember well
How the crowns of the elm
Lean over the mill’s hem
And a fig tree grows outside the den

But where are our friends be

Like painters they gather the earth’s beauty

The sea takes and gives memory

And love fixes the eye diligently

Poets establishes that which endures”

I asked Ru Xin what was her most favorite Li Bai poem.

獨坐敬亭山》(Sitting in Solitude at Mt. Pavilion Adoration)” she replied.

“Have you been to Jingting?” I asked

“Regrettably, no. But I’ve always wondered what it was that captured the great poet’s heart.”

“Ah, it is the Princess that he was in love with. She also loved him. But they could not get married because of class differences.”

I told her that I had visited Jingting. It is a small pavilion below the peak, overlooking a downhill stream in a small valley. Sitting on a bolder below, I had imagined how much Li had been hurt by the episode, and how lonely he felt, to be sitting there, watching an empty pavilion. However, such is the force of love. In the poem (link), the birds symbolize love; the clouds drifting free and nigh symbolize the love process; and the peak symbolizes the Royal family authority. In the end, Li expressed his strong faithful feelings by saying that he could just sit and watch tirelessly what was so important but equally tragic in his life.

Some critics say that the poem in the tune of Buddhist Dancer is Li’s imagination of how his lover, the Princess was pining for him. But it could just be heresy. Nevertheless, the last two lines are heart rending:

“Where could her heart find a source for solace  何處是歸程
She searches far and near finding not a single trace”   長亭連短

Li Bai treasures friendship as much as love. His exchange with Du Fu in their friendship poems are among the best, showing mutual admiration and a deep and affectionate concern for each other. Here, we will read two others which incorporate the grand beauty of Nature in human parting: Farewell to Meng Haoran at Yellow Crane Tower , and Farewell My Friend .

The first poem features a feeling of vast emptiness left by parting, with the beautiful lines:

“His lone sail diminishes where the sky limits lies yonder  孤帆遠影碧山盡    

On the horizon only the Yangzi’s flow continues further”   唯見長江天際

The second poem uses the long distance and the sunset to denote the finality of parting, hurried by the neighing horse:

Howe’er you may roam following the floating clouds  浮雲游子意  
At every sunset your tender heart will be affection bound   落日故人情

Let’s wave so you can get on your way   揮手自兹去

Await not your steed so impatiently neigh   萧萧班馬” .

Li Bai’s poems are bound with wine and drunkenness, and moon in cosmic reality and wishful blessing. Ironically, an anecdote said that he ended his life in a playful cum tragically romantic manner. He was drinking merrily on a boat. Being tipsy, he was elated to see the moon in the water below. He tried to haul it up for company. He lost his balance and drowned. The truth might be otherwise. He might just die in a natural course, considering how much wine he had drunk. 

The famous poem《將進酒》Let’s Drink is in the course requirement of the final year of high school in my days. It has the grand opening lines:

“Behold Yellow River waters originate from high in the sky  君不見 黃河之水天上來
Torrens rush to sea will n’er return low or high  奔流到海不復”.

Yet, we high school leavers identified more with the expressions:

“Nature has endowed me with talents to usefully apply  天生我材必有用

Gold spent in thousands will be regained out right   千金散盡還復來
Being host one should spare not any money  主人何為言少錢

But to offer one’s best wines to everyone generously  須沽取對君酌”.

My own favorite is月下獨酌》Drinking Alone in Moonlight , the beginning four lines I taught in primary school as a whole poem. As it is, it shows the richness of Li’s poems. But, the whole poem says much more. It shows the poet’s playful nature, beneath which harbors an insight about life relative to Nature and happiness, in time and eternal perspectives. Above all, it registers the poet’s loneliness and his affinity with wine, which might be an escape. Let me explain.

“A bottle of wine in hand amid flowers plentiful  花間一壺酒

Drinking alone with no one dear to hold  獨酌無相

I raise my cup to invite the moon for my drinking mate  舉杯邀明月

Her light casts my shadow so we have a three-some date”   對影成三

               Looking at it as a whole poem, the first two lines expressed the poet’s being alone, with no human help at the time. It is despair. But, in the last two lines, he turns to his artistic being, riding his imagination to reach the moon for help. He got more than one drinking mate, but two.

What follows in the entire poem began, on line five, with the acceptance of reality, that the moon dose not drink and the shadow is just a flickering follower. Then, the poet turns again, to philosophize about time and enjoyment. Finally, Li’s cosmic optimism surface for sure again, when he sings:

“We pledge togetherness for eternity  永結無情遊 

To parallel the legendary lovers in the Galaxy”   相期邈雲

               Ru Xin told me that when she was doing her undergraduate studies at Hong Kong University, she was taught this poem by a professor using the translation of the famous sinologist and translator Arthur Waley (1889-1966). “There is no question of the signal contribution of this man in bringing about a confluence of Asian and European cultures and literature.” She said. “But his translation of poems was mechanical and at times misleading. For example, the first and fourth lines were presented respectively as:
A cup of wine under the flowery tree
For he, with my shadow, will make three men(對影成三人)
Furthermore, the last two lines were translated as: May we long share an odd , inanimate feast(永結無情遊)
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky

“Translation is not easy,” I replied, “and translation of poems much more difficult. In any case, considering that Mr. Waley taught himself Chinese and Japanese, and that he had never been to China, we should appreciate his dedication and contribution, especially when they happened so long ago.”

Ru Xin, perhaps being a scientist, was more insistent. She continued to complain: “I was also taught in the same course with Fr. Turner’s (1909-1971) translation of the Yellow Crane Tower as the Brown Crane Tower, and he has been in Hong Kong for a long time. The point is that those same translations are still being used as authoritative translations today.”

“We can take comfort that so many people are learning Chinese to-day, and there are so many new translations appearing in books as in the internet. However, we must accept that Li’s poems need be appreciated in their original language which is so powerful and inimitable.” I replied.

I also recited to her my translation of Li Bai’s山中問答》Conversation in the Hills, a poem which should open up boundless Daoist space and leave a romantic and narrative message about this Immortal Poet to conclude any meeting or Talk:

“I dwell in among green hills someone asks why   問余何意栖碧山

My mind at ease with a smile I give no reply   笑而不答心自閑
To watch the stream carrying peach blossoms past my window by   桃花流水窅然去
This place is too wonderful for man it is a paradise   别有天地非人”.

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