Saturday, January 21, 2012

Some wine beside the white clouds

Landscape can be a solace to the exile, but it can be hard to contemplate the beauty of lakes and mountains without thinking of home, or the bitter circumstances and long journey that have led from there.  When the An Lu-shan rebellion broke out in 756, the poet Li Po travelled south to Kiukiang to escape the turmoil and fighting.  There he made an ill-fated decision to join Prince Lin, the Emperor's sixteenth son, whose flotilla was making its way down the Yangtze.  Instead of heading off to fight the rebels, Prince Lin was aiming to set up his own independent regime.  According to Arthur Waley (in The Poetry and Career of Li Po) it seems unlikely that the rather unworldly Li Po knew what the Prince intended - he would later claim to have been virtually kidnapped: "I allowed myself to be deceived by false pretences and was forced by threats to go on board a transport."  At the time though, he wrote poems like 'Watching the dancing-girls at a banquet on board Marshal Wei's transport; written while with the Fleet', indicating that he was thoroughly enjoying himself on this adventure.  This pleasant time came to an end near Yangchow, where Prince Lin's forces were met by government troops and his generals abandoned him - Li Po probably jumped ship as well at this point (the prince was captured and executed).  On his return to Kiukiang, Li Po was arrested as a traitor and imprisoned for several months.  After being set free he made his way to Wu-ch'ang, near Hankow, where he stayed for a while, hoping for a pardon, before continuing again, north, to Yo-chou, near the famous Tung-t'ing (Dong-ting) Lake.  There he met two friends, both exiles like himself.  Chia Chih was a writer (he had actually composed the Emperor's deed of abdication in 756) and former Governor of Ju-chou who had been demoted after being judged to have fled south from the rebels too hastily. Li Yeh was a relative of Li Po's, banished to the south after being charged with perverting the course of justice.  One day, the three friends decided to take an evening boating excursion on the lake...

Hermit Fisherman on Lake Dong-ting, Wu Zhen, 14th century

'The bright moon, the autumn wind / the waters of Lake Dong-ting, / a lone swan, the falling leaves, a tiny skiff.'  Thus Chia Chih conveys the beauty and the underlying sadness of the occasion.  In his Anthology of Chinese Literature Stephen Owen provides translations of the poems that resulted from this outing.  Li Po 'wrote a series of five of his most famous quatrains celebrating the beauty of the moment.'  But Chia Chih's are 'every bit as memorable.  Both poets called to mind echoes of exile and death beyond the edges of the vast lake, places like Chang-sha, where the Han intellectual Jia Yi was banished.' Li Po imagines riding the currents in the water up into the night sky and buying 'some wine / beside the white clouds.'  In the centre of the lake there is a mountain called Jun-shan (the source for one of China's ten famous teas) which Li Po pictures on a 'mirror of jade' - the 'bright lake, swept calm and clear.'  Chia Chih describes more turbulent waters, swollen with autumn floods.  The friends let the waves guide their light boat, 'no care whether near or far.'

So in eight short poems we have a record of an evening in the autumn of 759, a moment of reflection before events, like waves on the lake, swept these men up again.  Climbing Pa-ch'iu Shan that autumn, Li Po glimpsed another fleet mustering and wrote in one of his poems of the rebel forces approaching Lake Tung-t'ing.  It was only near the end of the year that peace was restored to the Yangtze region and the poet was finally able to leave, making for Wu-ch'ang where he again expressed his hopes of one day being given a posting back in the capital.  But by this time Li Po knew that any such post would be his last.  He fell ill while traveling to Nanking and in 762 made his final journey to see the great calligrapher, Li Yang-ping near T'ai-p'ing.  Meanwhile Chia Chih had also made his way back and, a year later, on the accession of Emperor Tai-tsung, regained his former position, going on to serve as Vice Minister of War before his death in 772.  Li Po seems to have died at the home of Li Yang-ping, to whom the poet entrusted what writings he still had after his years of wandering in exile.  According to the well known story, he took another nighttime boat excursion, and this time, drunk on wine, fell into the river and drowned whilst trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

Note: As always the sources vary in spelling Chinese words and here I've generally stuck to the older Wade-Giles system - for me the poet will always be Li Po rather than Li Bai.  The pinyin version of Chia Chih is Jia Zhi.  As noted above, Lake Tung-t'ing is now generally called Lake Dong-ting.

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