So the significant question is why the successful candidates continued to write poetry at all when there was no further royal demand for it. Was it for an appreciative reading public? But there existed no story magazines, no daily news to carry poetry columns, no literary supplement to the royal gazette. Printing was not yet invented when the splendor of the Tang Dynasty reached its zenith. In more recent centuries it has been sadly true that the worthless examination paper was about the only literary work that a scholar of average means could afford to publish. That was done with the finest block printing, and copies of it were sent to relatives and acquaintances, who in turn contributed something toward the publication and then consigned the effusion to the waste basket. I do not know whether the Tang poets announced their degrees in the same brazen way as the candidates of the Qing Dynasty or not. As a child I used to watch the stream of printed examination essays delivered to our home during a certain season of the year. My father paid dearly for every sheet of paper, which we children used for wrapping toys.
Printing was very expensive not so long ago. To carve two or three characters cost as much as a substantial meal. So our poets almost never published their own works. To finance the publication of one's own poetry was supposed to be extremely bad taste. They would rather cover the temple walls with autographed masterpieces.
In fact, many of our poets never even cared to keep a copy of their own writing, still less to arrange it in chronological order. Occasion comes and occasion goes, so goes the poem. A great deal of our poetry is merely occasional anyway. Even our prophetic poetry did not appeal directly to any specific group. Assuredly the message was not meant for the toiling masses to incite unrest and revolution. Was it then for the court, the nobility, the hirelings of the court and of nobility? Or was it a voice in the wilderness, an outburst of the poet's intense feeling of injustice, a warning to whomsoever it might concern, but above all a release for the poet himself? I am of the opinion that his social message too was only occasional. This attitude of not taking life and doctrine too seriously, of living for its own sake, by incident and intuition, applies also to the trouble one takes about one's own writings.
When Li Bai died in 762 A.D., his remote cousin, Li Yang Bing, gathered together the remnants of his works in ten sections under the title of The Thatched Roof . He bemoaned the fact that nine-tenths of the poet's writing had been lost. It took three centuries to collect the eighteen hundred poems now contained in the so-called complete works first published in 1080. For a few decades after the death of Du Fu in 769, he was known to have left with his ne'er-do-well children, sixty sections of his poetry and prose. For a time the various collections differed greatly in content. It was not until 1039, two hundred seventy years after his death, that the present edition of about fourteen hundred poems was first published. These were the men who could write:
For a man who knows for sure that his writings are to be immortal, the careless way he disposes of them seems inconceivable. While living, our poets subsisted on charity. Dying, they trusted their immortality to the good memory of their friends. Old men of the last generation, i.e., up to the beginning of the present century, could still recite verse after verse from the writings of their associates. Western civilization has discovered for us what is known as the self. Nowadays our versifiers worry themselves to death, disseminating, propagandizing, splitting hairs and pulling hair. To be sure, we have had poets who looked more pessimistically toward posterity. Lu You, who during sixty-seven years wrote eleven thousand of the most monotonous poems, left nothing to chance. The whole collection was neatly arranged and annotated. But he was only a second-rate poet. Most of his code verse or curtailed verse might well have been consigned to oblivion.
On the whole, our poets did not try to make an impression on the sands of time.
And if there were any contemporary group the poet was specially interested in, if he ever did try to fix and crystallize his fleeting impressions for the sake of touching other souls, they must have been in the limited circle of his intimate friends. In the words of Arthur Waley, «Poems describing with ingratiating gusto the delights of revelry with friends alternate with poems of grief over the absence of these same friends, or poems of the bitterness of parting».* Yet to meet or to separate must have been but trivial incidents in themselves. Too often our parting song or the song of greeting, degenerates into cold verbalism, just like a mere perfunctory touch of the hand. Said Bai Ju Yi to a prostitute playing the guitar:
* 170 Chinese Poems, p. 4.
In the same poem Bai Ju Yi told us that when the music ceased, everybody wept and he himself shed the most tears until his blue robe was wet. A childlike heart reaches out for sympathy. Failing in the quest, it may at the very next moment reek with the venom of resentment. You will have to enter deeply into the solitude of those simple souls before you can understand how, amid oriental etiquette and reservations, they could laugh and weep so easily.
Li Bai was banished. For three nights in succession Du Fu dreamed of him. He was worried. For
My translation has perhaps made the pathetic poem more puerile than it is in the original. Du Fu did write like a child though. The belief in wandering souls, the allusion to homed dragons which may have been just a figure of speech, the doubt whether a soul can leave a fettered body, these our poet inherited from the lore of the people. Du Fu was then forty-eight years old and Li Bai sixty. They were no longer children. Du Fu's friendship for the senior poet was indeed most touching.
He remembered him in spring.
He remembered him in winter.
Nevertheless this ardent desire for companionship did not make him blind to the wide difference in temperament between them. Li Bai, as I said, was a banished fairy from the heavens, while Du Fu had to struggle up from the earth. Once the latter wrote, as if to admonish,
Du Fu never could drink heartily. A few cups of weak homebrew seemed to be all he could afford to give or take. He always wrote with restraint, even when his child died of hunger. On the contrary, Li Bai, according to Du Fu, was one of the eight immortals in Wineland.
The dashing, drinking Li Bai, twelve years his senior, apparently entertained a different attitude toward him. Li could resort to wit and humor, to satire, for anybody, for himself.
* After Obata with slight changes.
In other words, he could not tolerate Du Fu's painstaking code verse. These doggerel lines did not appear in the earlier editions of Li Bai's works, but there is no question as to their authenticity. Du Fu himself was not the least offended, as you can judge from his later writings. Our critics and compilers simply were not big enough to appreciate the humor.
Here in the friendship between China's two most venerated poets we can catch a glimpse of the life of the inner circle. Understanding this, you will be able not only to estimate what Chinese poetry is mainly for, but also to make allowance for much that is actually written. I am referring to the extravagant and exaggerated manner in which our poets have dealt with wine, women, and tears.
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