Lecture IV — The PoetWe have a kind of poetry sketch-book which usually goes by the name of Shi Hua, the lore of poetry, or poetry gossip. This lecture may easily be taken as a chapter from that sort of tittle-tattle.
Many times in these lectures we have referred to the names Tao Qian, Li Bai, and Du Fu. The light of these men will shine forever, as we Chinese often flatter ourselves. I have introduced you to at least one king who was a master word painter, but who lost his kingdom and died ignominiously. The poor man was born a king, much against his own inclination. I could have cited the names of scores of emperors and empresses who dabbled in poetry. In fact, most of our royal potentates could not resist the infectious disease of versification, excepting of course the perfectly innocuous and the imbecile. Even Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, who began his career as a sheriff in a little town, has been credited with twenty-three syllables of good poetry.
The emperor had then killed off all the good fighters who rose with him from the ranks, and had begun to have trouble with the nomadic Huns of the northern desert.
To speak of more recent times. Emperor Qian Long, of the late Qing Dynasty is a notorious example of an imperial poet. He ruled for sixty years until about the end of the eighteenth century. Being somewhat versatile in versification and calligraphy, he behaved like a patron of the arts, yet was at the same time as vain as a rich man's only child. Surely no other emperor ever wrote a tenth of his stuff with a twentieth of his abominable taste. What a fool this Son of Heaven made of himself! He ruined a whole collection of Song and Ming paintings by smearing them all over with his own doggerel verses, which compare rather favorably with your Mother Goose in dignity, but sadly lack the humor and the rhythm. Everywhere you go in northern or middle China, you find monuments and frescoes inscribed with his code verse in his own handwriting. And he wrote a hand that smells of wine and pork. So the emperor is everywhere. No Buddhist temple of any legend or prestige escapes the pestilence. Power and poetry – the two should never have appeared together on the comic stage.
And have you heard of the poetry of the late Empress Dowager? Can you imagine a vain, treacherous, sensual woman like her, writing poetry? Well, she did. All one can say about her poetry is that her handwriting is really pretty good for a woman. Realizing her limitations more keenly than Qian Long, she never made a fuss about her scholarly achievements.
I mention these royal celebrities merely to remind you that with us versification is an everyday social accomplishment. It reaches out in all directions, like the tentacles of an octopus, the roots of a banyan tree, the germs of a devastating disease. It takes time and machinery to find the two grains of wheat in a whole bushel of chaff; but once they are located, they may germinate and yield a thousandfold. Then we have poetry. The essential point is not that the emperors and empresses themselves took to versification. Wipe away all the contributions by royalty and one misses only the score or so of poems left us by Li Hou Zhu and possibly some of the Musical Academy songs of the brief Liang Dynasty. It is the influence of royal patronage I am emphasizing, a patronage which not only enhanced the prestige of the common versifier and provided for leisure, but also measured out the very rice and thin wine most of our poets had to live on.
Some of you must have been wondering why the poets we have become acquainted with in these lectures were practically all servants of the state, or court parasites of some sort. Tao Qian served as the magistrate of Peng Ze, then a small district. For that, his salary was five pecks of rice, and failing that, «hunger comes and drives me along». When government donations became irregular, one of Du Fu's children actually died of starvation while he himself gathered fuel and lived on acorns together with the monkeys. Li Bai's official title was Han Lin Gong Feng, nominally a member of the Academy of Literature. Gong Feng literally means a valet whose duty was to wait on the emperor and to humor him with poetry. Once at the Feast of the Peony, Emperor Ming became so fascinated with the beauty of Yang Gui Fei his consort, that he ordered Li Tai Bai to be summoned in order to celebrate the occasion with verses which, as the emperor might have presaged, would remain immortal. Just then the poet was drunk. According to legend, Yang Gui Fei herself ground the ink for him. With his usual nonchalance he began to sing of the luxuriant beauty of the peony, dew-laden fragrant. Yang Gui Fei was compared to the fairies of the Yangtze River gorges who once broke the heart of a vagabond king.
Her majesty was greatly pleased until one of the court intriguers intimated to her that Lady Flying Swallow began her dazzling career as a notorious sing-song girl of the capital. Furthermore, Flying Swallow spells fragility. So slim and slender was her dancing waist that she could poise herself on the palm of your hand. But look at yourself, my Lady Yang Gui Fei, you are taking reducing exercises. Even to this day we contrast thin Flying Swallow with plump Yang Gui Fei – yan shou huan fei . Our lady could not stand that sort of insinuation. So ended Li Bai's court career. Sick and tired of gossip and intrigue, he took his leave.
Fortunately for us, royal patronage did not as a rule involve courtesans and eunuchs. We have had poets among our premiers and ministers, men of sterling virtue. Yuan Zhen's salary was one hundred thousand cash, as you know. That did not ruin his simplicity, nor his integrity and devotion to the common people when he served as a deputy governor.
The crux of this strange relationship between official and literary life lies in the nature of our old civil examinations. Success or failure was entirely based on literary refinement. The Tang (T'ang) Dynasty emphasized poetry in the same way as the Ming and Qing (Ch'ing) emphasized the «eight legged essay». Premiers, generals, ministers of public works or of foreign affairs, all had to go through the royal road of versification. Du Fu obtained royal favor and a starvation salary on the strength of three descriptive poems which nobody cares to read nowadays, yet I imagine we might have lost a great master if he had not been driven by hunger to present those poems. He was then selling herbs in the capital like a quack doctor and «parking out his stomach» on friends, as we ieam from the preface to those poems.
I presume the Tang Dynasty poets took the examination poems just as seriously as our contemporary literary men. I still vaguely remember how the schoolmasters used to grind the examination candidates and polish them up for the emperor. Let the theme of the poem be «flying kites» or any other trivial allusion. «Children fly kites in the spring, in the early spring when the breeze is soft and caressing. The peach trees are in blossom. The willows have turned yellow. God is in heaven and the emperor rules this glorious universe.» Our rhyme books and word books were compiled mainly for students preparing for such examinations. In all seriousness, however, it would not be fair to consider such training an unmitigated evil. It simply was the tail-end of thirteen centuries of formal education. The Tang poets stood at the fountain head of the tradition when the system was not so dull and stupefyingg. I venture to say that royal patronage and its concrete machinery, the examination system, together gave just that impetus without which Tang Dynasty poetry could not have flourished. Poets are born, not made, as you say.
So we also imagine Li Bai was a banished fairy from the heavens. But while on earth, Emperor Ming and later the feudal lord Yong kept his body and soul together so that he might write poetry.
Creative work usually developed after the examinations were all over. The situation may perhaps be compared to your examinations for the doctorate. In the majority of cases, the candidate's thesis is mere piffle. One may then die a doctor of science or philosophy. That was also true with our would-be poets. The examination was passed. The degree and the insignia were conferred. One could then go on and be an official, be as big or as little as circumstances would permit, be faithful and poor, be venturesome yet rich – by any means but the poetic.
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