Although Li Po is recognized as one of the greatest poets in all of Chinese history, very little biographical information is available. He was born in the year 701, and was raised in Szechwan, a south-western Chinese province now recognized mostly for its spicy food. Through his reputation as a talented poet, and some well connected friends at court, he gained favor with the Emperor Hsüan-tsung in 742 and was appointed to a position as a scholar in the Han-lin academy. In spite of these auspicious beginnings, however, his fortunes never remained stable for any long period of time. He was exiled from court on several occasions because of questionable political connections, rumors, and his distaste for tradition and authority.
In his personal life, he was known as a rebel and a free spirit, an image he enjoyed and furthered through riotous living and blatant disregard for social norms of the times. Anecdotes abound which deal with his escapades such as appearing drunk at imperial functions and wasting fortunes on wild parties. He was known as an eccentric and a romantic, and these tendencies found expression in his poetry as well as his lifestyle. In his personal life as well as in his poetry, he followed the example of Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju, another Southerner noted for his love of wine, women, and bawdy adventures.
Li Po's talent lay in presenting old themes, many of which might even be considered cliches, in original ways. His genius lay in his ability to introduce in his poetry an element of fantasy--his willingness to describe vistas, characters, and sensations that exist only in the imagination. He accomplished this by manipulating the imagery of his poems, using traditional symbols and characters to set the scenes and then going on to create new images as vehicles for expressing his romanticized view of the world. He painted everything larger than life. His hallmark was the exaggerated proportions of the characters and events in his poetry.
In a series of poems, the "Heng-chiang lyrics", Li Po demonstrates his mastery over the creation of romanticized characters of many types as he describes the same event, (the crossing of a river) in different ways:
Everyone says that the Heng-chiang's great,
I say that Heng-chiang's awful--
Three days of steady wind blows the mountains over,
And white waves higher than Wa-kuan Tower.
In front of Heng-chiang Station
the ferry master meets me,
Faces me, points east where clouds
are rising from the sea.
Mister, why on earth
would you want to cross today?
With wind and waves like this
we just can't go.
Ring around the moon, wind from heaven,
The sea's leviathans crush eastward;
rivers run back in their courses.
Waves shaken rise together,
Three Mountains moves.
My lord, cross not the river,
turn back home
(Translation by Stephen Owen)
The poet's character goes through distinct changes in these three poems, all of which are about a man who wants to cross the river. He begins as an ordinary person, conversing with a bucolic local on the state of the weather. In the second poem, the setting becomes much more dramatic, and by the third poem, he is a wild, mysterious figure reminiscent of King Lear, challenging a river filled with natural and supernatural menace.
Li Po's descriptions of his own activities are no less romanticized than are those of his completely fictional creations. In his poem, "Summer Day in the Mountains" Li Po describes himself in a way befitting an eccentric genius:
Summer Day in the Mountains
Too lazy to wave the white plume fan,
stripped to the waist in the green wood's mist,
I loose my headcloth, hang it on a stony wall,
bare my top knot for pine winds to riffle
(Translation by Burton Watson)
The mountain setting, the pine trees, and the air of indolence are all images associated with the
Taoist sage and the immortals of heaven, two character types that Li Po was fond of imitating.
The picture painted by this poem is that of a man of leisure, who spends his time in restful
contemplation of beautiful surroundings. In poems where he was the subject, he tried to project
the image of himself as a a person unlike (and above) others--capable of experiences and feelings
that were on a different scale from those of ordinary people. He liked to portray himself as a
transcendent Taoist genie temporarily banished to earth. Drinking heavily was also an important
part of the image that Li Po created for himself. In his poems, Li Po professes a love of wine
surpassing even the modern college student's love for beer and Jack Daniels. He writes of wine as
his companion when he is alone in this poem entitled "We Three."
Amid the flowers, a jug of wine
Alone I drink and none with me
The cup I lift the Moon invite
Who with my shadow makes three
(Translation by W.J.B. Fletcher)
Li Po's poems also describe riotous bacchanals with his friends as in these lines from one of his most famous poems, "Bring in the Wine" from Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry:
Bells and Drums, food rare as jade--these aren't worth prizing;
all I ask is to be drunk forever, never to sober up!
Why does my host tell me the money has run out?
Buy more wine at once--my friends have cups to be refilled!
My dappled mount,
my furs worth a thousand--
call the boy, have him take them and barter for fine wine!
Together we'll wash away ten thousand years of care
Wine also figures in this poem about love and sadness:
Song Of The River
My boat is of ebony
the holes in my flute are golden.
As a plant takes out stains from silk
so wine takes sadness from the heart.
When one has good wine,
a graceful boat,
and a maiden's love,
why envy the immortal gods?
(Translation by D.J. Klemer)
Li Po's poetry about himself, like his poetry about fictional characters, is calculated to create a romantic image in the minds of the reader. His success in "creating himself" can be seen in this poem by Tu Fu, a contemporary of Li Po.
A hundred poems per gallon of wine--
that's Li Po,
Who sleeps in the taverns
of the market of Chang-An.
The Son of Heaven summoned him, and he
couldn't stagger on the boat,
Said, "Your servant is indeed
an immortal in his wine"
(Translation by Stephen Owen)
Li Po's poetry is not concerned with portraying the world as it is or as it should be. His poetry paints pictures of the world as he imagined it could be. His poetry is romantic and vivid. Like a painting by Delacroix, it shows us what we would like to see, rather than showing us the world as it really is.
Li Po is not well known for his poetry in the fu style. Perhaps this is because his fu are not
comparable in quality to his other poetry, but more likely it is because the T'ang fu in general has
been repeatedly disparaged by traditional Chinese critics. In spite of this neglect, the fu style is
the perfect vehicle for the expression of a poet with romantic tendencies and a penchant for
exaggeration. The genre of the hunting fu, with its recounting of super-human exploits of
prowess, mythical creatures, and fantastic places is a medium that is well-suited to Li Po's
temperament. His treatment of the traditional Han theme of the imperial hunt gives us a view of
the consummate romantic writing in the genre which gives him the ultimate freedom to use his
Introduction to the Fu Genre
In his masterpiece of literary criticism, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, Liu Hsieh defines fu: "The Book of Poetry contains six elements, the second of which is called fu. Fu means to arrange; it signifies arrangements of the patterns that give form to literature, and express the feelings that conform to objective things". This definition of fu is somewhat vague and gives the impression that even traditional Chinese literary scholars had a difficult time in delineating the fu style with great precision. A definition for fu has troubled English speaking students of Chinese literature as well. The word "fu" has been rendered "rhyme-prose", "prose-poetry", "poetical description", "verse essay", and "rhapsody". I will refer to fu as "rhapsody."
In general, fu are characterized by ornate, florid, descriptive language and their combination of both rhymed verse and prose. They tend to be lengthy and full of esoteric terminology and catalogues of numerous minerals, flora, and fauna. The prose sections of fu often take the form of a dialogue or debate between two or more fictitious characters which sets the scene for the verse descriptions of places and events. The verse sections of the poem were meant to be chanted, unaccompanied by music. Fu tend to be highly exaggerated and fantastical, along the lines of tall tales. There are fifteen traditional themes of fu, ranging from descriptions of capitals and royal hunts, to music, animals, literature, and passion.
The fu genre had its origins in the sao style of the "Elegies of Ch'u," a collection of poems reputedly written by the minister/poet Ch'ü Yüan. The sao, like the fu, were lengthy and ornate. Descended from the music and shamanistic chants of the South, they were highly rhythmical and used lush, fantastic verbiage. Early fu borrowed heavily on the poems of Ch'ü Yüan, and the poets of the early Han made no distinction between the fu and the sao forms. The fu genre uses some of the images and themes of the shamanistic "Ch'u Elegies", notably the shaman journey motif evident in the hunting fu. The early fu poets, the majority of whom were from the South, expanded on the sao tradition, combining it with other influences, and created a distinct new genre.
Fu poetry originated in the Han dynasty. Of all the fu writers of the Han, the poet Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju (179-117 B.C.) contributed the most to the genre. Hsiang-ju, who is considered the greatest of the Han fu poets, popularized the fu form and his style became a model for writers after him. In many respects he is the creator of the fu genre. His most famous fu, "Sir Fantasy" and "Shang-lin", are the direct models for later fu on hunts and on capitals. Because of his fu, Ssu-ma Hsiang Ju was catapulted into the limelight of the imperial court and was given a prestigious position as court poet. His fortunes inspired others to emulate him and there ensued a frenzy of fu writing by every poet who aspired to an official position.
Fu on Hunts and Capitals
Although the Wen hsuan divides the fu on hunts and capitals into two separate groups, the fu on capitals all contain descriptions of hunting, some which rival those of the hunting fu. They describe the ritual hunts of the emperor, which were more akin to military maneuvers than what we think of now as "hunting." These fu all follow a distinctive pattern: The emperor prepares for the hunt by massing his armies and setting up nets and barricades to pen in the animals. Then there is a description of the hunt itself, often giving graphic details on the killing of the animals. The slaughter is tremendous and does not cease until all of the animals are dead. The emperor then stages a feast, and the hunters relax and enjoy the meat taken in the hunt. The piece often ends with the emperor lost in introspection. He usually makes some statement or performs some action with moral connotations, such as renouncing the excesses of the hunt, or expounding on the virtues of benevolence. This format is the traditional style for the Han fu on hunting, probably because it was used by Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju in his original and highly successful hunting fu. It is the format used by Li Po in his "Great Hunt fu."
Interpretations of Fu:
Theories of interpretation vary concerning the primary purpose of the fu. Some critics believe that the fu are primarily vehicles of persuasion. In support of this, they point to the overt didactic elements in the fu, and also to the distinctive elements of the fu style (the combination of prose and rhymed verse, and the repetitive listing of examples) which were also traits of Han court rhetoric. Through these devices, the poet generally advocated temperance or urged the monarch to take some course of action which the poet believed to be beneficial.
On the other hand, even though traditional Chinese literary criticism does not recognize the concept of "art for art's sake", there is much in the fu style to persuade the reader that the fu were not primarily tools for promulgating the moral views of the author, but were first and foremost exercises in beautiful language and artful use of allusion.
In addition to the didacticism of court rhetoric, the shamanism which is evident in the "Ch'u
Elegies" also influenced the fu genre, particularly the hunting fu. Because of this, an
understanding of some of the shamanistic beliefs can aid in one's interpretation of fu. The vast
itinerary described in hunting fu are similar to the descriptions of shamanistic journeys in the ritual
poetry of the Ch'u Elegies. The emperor in the hunting fu was not simply hunting, he was on a
magical journey in an attempt to augment his powers. This is one explanation for the multitude of
place names which are mentioned in hunting fu; they are destinations on the power-seeking circuit
of the cosmos. The protagonists of the hunting fu often take to the sky in a magical chariot. This
is another theme that these fu share with descriptions of shaman journeys.
Li Bo's "Great Hunt Fu
This work is similar in theme and outline to the many hunting and capital fu found in the Wen hsüan (the standard anthology of early literature that every T'ang scholar was familiar with). Like these works, the "Great Hunt" has a preface which outlines the poet's ostensible agenda, and the poem itself is very similar in its florid language and cataloguing. Notable for its absence, however, is the lack of any ficticious characters involved in a debate or dialogue. Li Po does some editorializing, but he does it without the quaint verbal sparring of "Sir Nobodys" and "Master Not-reals" that is ubiquitous in Han fu.
The nature of the debate is different as well. Instead of being an argument supporting one of two contemporaries, the "Great Hunt fu" pits the (then) present dynasty against all the preceding dynasties and rulers. The corollary to this argument is that the poet (Li Po) is better than his predecessors as well. In his preface, he gives some clues to the "one-upsmanship" he intends to perpetrate on the authors of the classic Han hunting fu; he will "complete their narrowness." Indeed, many of the allusions to the Han hunting fu have been altered slightly to make Li's rendition stronger than the original. An obvious example of this is in line 78 where the hunters do not rest even though they have slaughtered countless animals. In the "Western Capital Rhapsody", which is the source of this allusion, the hunters rest after killing. In line 105, the hunters kill the celestial animals, whereas in the original, they are only captured. The emperor's virtue is openly compared to that of past emperors and they are found lacking, and the "Great Hunt" is compared to earlier fu and these also are found to be inferier. This sort of flamboyance and nerve was what Li Po was known for and he certainly was one of the few who could get away with such open challenges to the Han geniuses.
The overtly didactic elements of other hunting fu are obvious in the "Great Hunt", but their emphasis on Taoism is a twist that is one of Li Po's trade-marks. Li Po's Taoist leanings are well known and he uses a great many Taoist terms in this fu. The final section is especially replete with Taoist terminology and allusions to the Taoist canon.
Just as obvious is the shaman-journey motif. The emperor flies in a chariot drawn by dragons, visits mystical places, controls natural phenomena, and line 125 even suggests that he finds immortality unlike the unfortunate King Mu.
An important motive of the poet also seems to be flattery. It is possible that Li Po hoped that this fu would be a vehicle for obtaining the favor of the emperor. As a result, the "Great Hunt" contains many lines calculated to flatter the reigning monarch, Hsüan-tsung. Lines 2, 3, 118, 132, and 137 all contain references to specific events or actions in Hsüan-tsung's life. Perhaps even more telling is the inference in the final line of the poem that the emperor has surrounded himself with inferior people. Li Po presumably would wish to replace them with himself. The allusion in the last line is very clever, however, because it ascribes the ruler's poor taste in servants to virtue rather than stupidity. Although it was possible that he might catch the emperor's attention with inferences such as this, it was this rashsness that insured Li's difficulties and unpopularity among the established cliques at the capital.
It would be impossible to detect all of the myriad workings and hidden meanings of this work. Even if one were to study it for a year or more it would difficult if not impossible to analyze it completely or with any great surety. As Li warns the reader in his preface to this work, "(The fu's) meanings belong to the erudite and wise." Its beauty and enchantment, however, are readily accessible to anyone willing to study this fascinating genre of poetic expression.
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