“The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai” by Ha Jin

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If it hadn’t been for Ezra Pound and a 20th-century literature course at university, I would never have heard of Li Bai, and even then I thought his name was Rihaku, because in 1915 Pound, who knew absolutely no Chinese at all, published a number of “translated” poems by Rihaku in a collection entitled Cathay.

Fortunately, he had the help of Ernest Fenellosa, who was primarily an expert on Japanese art (hence the use of the Japanese version of Li Bai’s name) but also a student of Chinese and particularly interested in pictographs.

The poem which struck me at that time was “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” particularly the lines (in Pound’s version)

 

The paired butterflies are already yellow in August
Over the grass in the West garden.
They hurt me. I grow older.

 

There was so much there in so few words and images: the poignant contrast between the paired butterflies and the lonely narrator who’s “hurt” at the sight of them (reminiscent of Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole”), the passing of time and the realisation that age is slowly advancing on her as it does on them, but at least they are “paired.”

 

Later on Rihaku changed into Li Po, and now, as in Ha Jin’s biography, his name has finally been properly restored as Li Bai.

Within a few years of Pound’s book, the eminent translator Arthur Waley issued his biography of the poet, The Poet Li Po, 701-762 A.D. (1919), and, at least as far as I know, there has been no other biography in English, although Ha Jin lists three Chinese ones in his bibliography, all of which appear to have been translated.

In a curious twist, we first have an English scholar, Arthur Waley, writing in English about a Chinese poet, and now we have a Chinese novelist, Ha Jin, also writing in English about a Chinese poet. Ha Jin has the advantage of being able to use new research from Chinese scholars and of being a poet himself as well as a distinguished novelist. In 1985, he left China and now works at Boston University as a professor of creative writing.

Ha Jin is probably the one person best-suited to helping English-speaking readers to fully appreciate the work of one of China’s greatest poets. Li Bai was a physically-impressive man of supreme intelligence, passion and sheer love of life, whose poems were known in China to high and low alike, and whose capacity for drinking was legendary.

Sometimes loud, arrogant and overbearing, but capable of loyal friendship, he was a soldier, traveler and part-time Daoist monk, a man who sought permanent employment in the civil service all his life, yet sometimes rejecting it when it was within his grasp. He was politically active towards the end of his life, but found himself on the wrong side as a rebel, ending up in prison, where he stayed until 757, after which the Emperor banished him to the far south-west. Li Bai was pardoned before he reached his destination and died in the Dangtu area, now in Anhui province.

Ha Jin comes up with an adventure story where the poems form flesh out the biographer’s text.

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, Ha Jin (Pantheon, January 2019)
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, Ha Jin (Pantheon, January 2019)

Ha Jin takes an wide-ranging approach to literary biography. He uses every available source, both historical and literary, and essentially comes up with an adventure story where the poems form part of the subject’s development and admirably flesh out the biographer’s text.

Li Bai lived an astonishingly restless life, moving from city to city, desperately networking to find himself a job as a civil servant. He did a lot of self-destructive things during his life (exacerbated by his love of drinking), which make for interesting reading and certainly indicate why his pursuit of conventional employment bore little fruit. He was always a square peg trying to insert himself into a round hole, and he knew it:

 

How could I drop my eyes and bow
To the rich and powerful
Not letting myself smile and laugh at will?

 

Indeed, a large part of him liked it that way, which explains the non-stop drinking, fighting and womanizing which characterized his erratic journey through life. “Bai,” Ha Jin tells us, “had a strong sense of class,” and

 

felt so proud of belonging to the royal clan despite the fact that, obscure and disadvantaged, he had to continue to hunt for office. There was simply no other outlet for his energy and gift.

 

Li Bai, 13th c. scroll (National Museum of Tokyo, via Wikimedia Commons)
Li Bai, 13th c. scroll (National Museum of Tokyo, via Wikimedia Commons)

He married twice and had children, but he could never settle down in one place and be a “regular” father, bringing home a salary and helping to raise his family, any more than he could have settled down and become a civil servant. “So long as the host can make me drunk,” he declared, “I’ll have no idea where my hometown is.”

Yet he deeply loved his family; of his daughter Pingyang, who would die at about sixteen, he wrote on one of his numerous travels that she

 

picks flowers next to the peach-tree.
As she goes, she cannot find her dad
And her tears flow like a spring.

 

His poetry reflects all these contradictions and more; Li Bai can be lyrical or descriptive, wildly celebratory or somberly self-revelatory, and this range of emotions is what made him popular in his own times and what makes him popular now. As a biographical subject, he’s a real joy, because he completely destroys the stereotype some Western readers have of the Chinese poet sitting quietly in his study, cerebrally contemplating the state of his circumscribed world.

Ha Jin has written a moving, compassionate and comprehensive, yet measured biography of a major Chinese poet who needs to be better-known.

Ha Jin wisely gives readers a very liberal sprinkling of Li Bai’s poetry during the course of the biography. Many of his poems are quite short, which means that we can have them complete, and, as noted above, they highlight the complex personality of the man who wrote them.

For my part, I ended up seeing Li Bai as rather a lonely man, someone who is able to give so much yet take so little, and who obviously felt under-appreciated, although his lust for life, so obviously genuine as it bursts out in the poems, likely compensated to a considerable degree for this.

On the other hand, his legendary friendship with the other great poet of the age, Du Fu, had a profound effect on both of them. Du Fu, like Li Bai, was unsuccessful in his pursuit of a civil servant’s job, and, again like him, was often quite poor. Du Fu, unlike the Daoist Li Bai, was a conventional Confucian, whose “imagination and moral vision,” Ha Jin tells us, “[were] confined within the social and dynastic order, his mind occupied by the empire and history.”

Li Bai’s poetry came straight from his heart, while Du Fu worked hard to get it just right, and each seems to have appreciated the other’s methodology. “After drafting a new poem,” Du Fu confessed in verse, “I must keep humming it./ If the lines don’t surprise, I will revise them as long as I’m alive.”

Du Fu was one among many poets with whom Li Bai came into contact during his peregrinations, but he held a special place in the older poet’s affections. It was these connections, along with his extended family ties, which probably helped Li Bai through the various vicissitudes of his turbulent life:

 

Happily we chat, completely relaxed
And raise our cups now and again.
And when we’re done, stars turn sparse.
The host grows more delighted, seeing me drunk—
Together we have forgotten this world.

 

Unfortunately, it was also his connections, together with his unrealized ambitions, which caused Li Bai to join a rebellion against the central government at the end of his life, which ended in poverty and pathos.

 

Ha Jin has written a moving, compassionate and comprehensive, yet measured biography of a major Chinese poet who needs to be better-known in the West; the warm accessibility of the writing and the first-class research behind the book make it essential reading for anyone interested in Chinese culture.

Some reviewers have even suggested that Ha Jin, himself an exile, may have incorporated some autobiographical elements into this study, but if they are there, it is because the shared experience of an exile who leaves his home behind for whatever reason gives the two writers, even at this vast distance of time, a very real connection and a shared desire to find a better world somewhere.

Li Bao wrote in one of his last poems

 

I draw my sword to cut water which won’t stop flowing
And I raise my cup to douse my sorrow, which grows stronger.
Ah, life is such a sad thing that tomorrow
I will undo my hair and sail away in a little boat.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.