Bái Jūyì 白居易 772–846 ce—Poet and official; “middling hermit” Alternate name: courtesy name: Lètiān 乐天
As a poet, Bai Juyi was best known for his accessible style and his two long sentimental ballads. His poems about his private life also exerted a lasting influence on Chinese literati. As an official, Bai Juyi was appointed to different administrative positions of varying authority; one of these required speaking up when a decree issued by the emperor was in some way inappropriate. He was admired both for his erstwhile outspokenness and for his later disengagement from partisan politics. His greatest happiness came from his life as a “middling hermit,” a phrase he coined to distinguish from the “great hermits” who held positions at court while remaining spiritually detached, and from the “petty hermits” who physically hid in the mountains.
Bai Juyi was born into a scholar-official family on 28 February 772 ce, in Xinzheng County of Zhengzhou (in modern Henan Province). His grandfather Huáng 锽 was the District Magistrate of the neighboring Gong County. His father, Jìgēng 季庚 (729–794), was the Administrator of the Revenue Department 司户参军 in Songzhou (modern Shangqiu, Henan Province).
By his own account Bai was a precocious child. When he was just six months old, he learned to recognize two characters: zhī 之 (of) and wú 无 (traditional Chinese 無) (no). At the age of five, he began to learn poetry. When Bai was about eight, he already understood the technicalities of tones and rhymes. At fifteen, when he learned about the literary examinations 进士科, he was already capable of writing elegant compositions (Zhu 1988, 2791–2792).
The death of Bai’s father in 794 left the family in poverty. Thanks to his diligence, intelligence, and occasional good fortune, however, he performed very well on the civil service examinations, in contrast to some of his well-known contemporaries who had to endure repeated frustration and humiliation. Bai took the examination at the prefectural level in Xuanzhou (modern Anhui Province) at the relatively late age of twenty-seven in 799. His success earned him a recommendation for the literary examinations in the capital Chang’an (now Xi’an). There, in 800, he became the youngest of seventeen successful candidates (Wang 1960, 43). Bai’s success was certainly well deserved, but luck also played a role. For years the results of the examinations had been heavily influenced by favoritism. That year, however, the chief examiner was Gāo Yǐng 高郢 (740–811), a man of high integrity. Gao opened the door to talented men like Bai whose chances otherwise would have been slight for lack of connections with powerful officials. Bai would hold a lifetime gratitude to Gao.
For all the prestige it carried, success at the literary examinations generally did not lead to an immediate government appointment. The waiting period could be excruciatingly long, leaving the candidate in limbo in terms of his career prospects and financial well-being. The direct track to a government post was to take the placement examination (xuǎnshì 选试). In winter 802–803, Bai took the examination for the Selection of Outstanding Candidates through the Writings of Judgments 书判拔萃科. In spring 803, he was declared to have passed. After he was further vetted by the Department of Personnel 吏部, he was appointed Editor in the Imperial Library 秘书省校书郎. The appointment, although low in rank and involving little work, was given only to men of high literary talent and was viewed as a starting point for a promising career.
In 806, Bai retired from office to prepare for the Palace Examination (diànshì 殿试), in the category of Selection of Candidates Possessing Both Talent and Good Judgment with Understanding of Both Fundamental Principles and Actual Practice 才识兼茂明于体用科. The emperor himself was supposed to designate the question on which the candidates would write a long disquisition (cè 策) about current affairs. In the fourth month, Bai won the second place in the exam. (The top honor went to his friend Yuán Zhěn 元稹 [779–831]). Bai was thereupon appointed District Defender 尉 of Zhouzhi, about fifty miles west of the capital. In early 807, Bai and two friends took an excursion to Xianyou Temple, just south of Zhouzhi. As their conversation turned to Emperor Xuánzōng’s 玄宗 (685–762, r. 712–756) fatal infatuation with his prized consort Yáng Guìfēi 杨贵妃 (719–756) and its dire consequences, it was suggested Bai write a poem on the subject (Zhu 1988, 658–659). This was the genesis of Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Regret” 长恨歌, which, with its mixture of moral satire and romantic sentimentalism, turned out to be everlastingly popular.
Active Government Official
Bai’s tenure in Zhouzhi, which he did not enjoy, did not last long. In late 807 he returned to Chang’an. He was first appointed Subeditor in the Academy of Scholarly Worthies 集贤殿校理 and soon afterward became a Hanlin Academician 翰林学士. In the fourth month of 808, he was appointed Reminder of the Left 左拾遗 and remained in that position until the fifth month of 810. These two years were the most active political period in his life.
The primary job of the Reminder was to speak up when, in his judgment, a decree or order issued by the emperor was in some way inappropriate. To bring the emperor’s attention to the problem, the Reminder would submit a memorial (and sometimes also follow-up memorials) to the throne. In the case of a serious matter, he would voice his opinion in front of the emperor and often debate with other court officials. Bai, however, did not seem to feel any constraint and frequently went beyond remonstrating the emperor’s actions. His numerous memorials dealt with a wide range of issues, including the abuses and crimes in the provinces. He found it heartening and encouraging that the emperor adopted many of his proposals.
The years 808–810 also saw Bai Juyi as a socially engaged poet. He wrote his famous “New Yuefu Poems” 新乐府, which consisted of fifty political ballads purporting to imitate ancient yuefu poetry (typically composed in folk-song style) in criticizing social injustices. Written in the same vein was a group of ten poems entitled “Chantings in the Midland” 秦中吟. He considered these to be among the most valuable poems in his oeuvre. He was keenly interested in the old office of Collector of Poems 采诗官 (Zhu 1988, 2790–2791). Tradition stated that the holder of this office during the Zhōu 周 dynasty (1045–256 bce) would collect poems from among the people so that the ruler could learn about their true feelings from those poems and improve the government accordingly. Bai’s wish to revive the old office might have appeared a bit antiquarian, but he certainly believed his poems served as the voice of the people.
In the fifth month of 810, after Bai’s term as Reminder came to an end, he was appointed Administrator of the Revenue Section of the Metropolitan Prefecture 京兆府户曹参军, a less influential but better paid position. In 811, following the death of his mother, Bai withdrew in Xiagui to observe the three-year mourning period. In the winter of 814, he was recalled to court and received appointment as Grand Master Admonitioner to Heir Apparent on the Left 太子左赞善大夫. In this minor post, Bai found himself unable to render any real service to the government, his business involving little more than reporting to the court once a day. These daily trips created no small hardship for Bai, especially when the weather was inclement, and he complained about them constantly in his poems.
On the third day of the sixth month of 815, a stunning incident took place in the capital that would drastically change the course of Bai’s life. Just before daybreak, Grand Councilor Wǔ Yuánhéng 武元衡 (758–815) was assassinated near his house on his way to court. Wu had advocated the use of force against intransigent regional military commanders, who in turn targeted him so as to intimidate the military proponents at court and create terror in the capital. At noon that day, before any other officials had spoken, Bai presented a petition to the throne in which he demanded the speedy arrest of the assassins to erase the national disgrace. The manner in which he presented his memorial provided fodder for his enemies at court to launch a political attack against him. They argued that Bai should have waited for other officials (such as the remaining Grand Councilors) to make their voices heard first. After all, Bai’s duty at the time was limited to providing moral and social guidance to the Heir Apparent. Even Bai himself would later acknowledge that he might have acted rashly from a procedural standpoint, but he maintained that he had not committed any punishable crime.
As to why Bai acted so precipitously, it is possible that he was so outraged and shocked that he acted on the spur of the moment without giving any thought to procedural propriety. Another possibility is that Bai submitted his petition so quickly for fear that other officials might be intimidated, because after the assassination, leaflets were found in the capital area warning that anyone trying to track down the assassins would be killed. A third explanation may be proposed here; namely, that in the wake of the incident, Bai, having felt quite idle and discontent ever since he was recalled to court, jumped a bit too eagerly at the opportunity to reassert himself into the political scene at court.
Bai’s enemies also brought an unrelated indictment that was emotionally more devastating for him. His mother had drowned after falling into a well while viewing flowers. His enemies charged that he committed an infringement of taboo by writing two poems entitled “Admiring Blossoms” 赏花 and “The New Well” 新井 while he was in mourning. This infringement, they argued, disqualified him from serving as a court official.
It turned out that Bai’s mother, née Chen, was a niece of his father. To be more specific, Chen’s mother was a daughter of Bai’s paternal grandfather and therefore a sister of Bai’s father. We do not know the circumstances that led to Bai’s father to marry, at the age of forty, his niece of fourteen, but the marriage must have been viewed as incestuous by some and inappropriate by many. In fact, it was prohibited by the Táng 唐 dynasty (618–907 ce) legal code (Xie 1997, 167). The marriage most likely took a psychological toll on Bai’s mother. She suffered from a severe mental disorder (very likely schizophrenia), which was responsible for her accidental drowning. The taboo charge hit Bai in an emotionally sore spot. Indeed, it was so painful that he could not bring himself to mention it directly in a letter to a friend a year later (Zhu 1988, 2769–2770).
Exile as Turning Point
As a result of the charges against him, Bai was demoted and sent out of court. Originally he was to head a prefecture south of the Yangzi (Chang) River. Some objected that, given the severity of his offense, it was not appropriate for him to be a prefect; thereupon he was further demoted to be the Marshal 司马 of Jiangzhou (modern Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province) (Liu 1975, 4344–4345; Ouyang et al. 1975, 4302). His punishment was not, however, as harsh as one might imagine. Jiangzhou was one of the superior prefectures, and the position of the marshal was generally reserved for exiled officials or officials with no real duties. Bai’s sinecure carried a fairly generous salary, so his family was well provided for. Life was made all the more comfortable by the kind and generous treatment he received from the head of the district. About ten miles (sixteen kilometers) south of the capital Xunyang lay Mount Lú 庐山, and Bai had plenty of free time to roam around the area to enjoy its scenic beauty.
In the autumn of 816, Bai began to build a cottage in Mount Lu. The project was completed in spring the following year. Thereafter he would often go to spend days in his cottage, which he found to be a perfect escape from all worldly cares. He declared that, once he completed his term in office and married off his younger siblings, he would retire permanently to his beloved cottage, although this plan was never executed. The account Bai wrote about his cottage is an important document in the history of Chinese landscape gardens (Zhu 1988, 2736–2737).
Bai’s life in Jiangzhou was not all peace and serenity. Explicit or implicit expressions of dejection and indignation are not hard to find in his writings from this period. All in all, however, it was a positive experience. Indeed, psychologically and ideologically, it marked a turning point in his life. As he shifted from political activism in the public arena to spiritual self-cultivation in private life, Bai found increasingly congenial the idea of “hermitage in officialdom” (lìyǐn 吏隐), that is, being in a position where one could combine spiritual freedom with financial security (Zhu 1988, 2732–2733).
A noteworthy incident during Bai’s years in Jiangzhou took place in the autumn of 815. He was sending off a friend by the banks of the Pén 湓 River when he heard someone playing the pipa (a four-stringed musical instrument) in a boat at night. The sound of the pipa reminded him of the music he heard back in the capital. It turned out that the player was a woman who used to sing in Chang’an and had learned her skills from two famous pipa masters. As she grew older and her beauty faded, she married a traveling merchant. Bai ordered some wine and had her play a few selections. After she was done playing, her mood soured, and she fell into silence. She then talked about the joy of her youthful days and her current languishment as she drifted in the region of the Yangzi River and the lakes. Bai, who had felt content and at ease in Jiangzhou, was deeply touched by her story. He saw a parallel between her life and his. On that night, for the first time in two years, he felt the pain of being an exile (Zhu 1988, 658). To commemorate the experience, he wrote a long poem (of 616 characters) together with a preface. This was “Song of the Pipa” 琵琶引, which, along with “Song of Everlasting Regret,” firmly established Bai as the most popular poet among his contemporaries.
Career Advancement, Political Disengagement
Bai’s emotional eruption surrounding the composition of “Song of the Pipa” was ephemeral. It certainly did not affect his overall mood of content in his Jiangzhou years. If anything, writing the poem served as a kind of catharsis. His life was progressing well as time moved on. In early 819, he was appointed Prefect 刺史 of Zhongzhou (in modern Sichuan Province). In the summer of 820, following the death of Emperor Xiànzōng 宪宗 (r. 805–820), he was recalled to court as Vice Director of the Transit Authorization Bureau in the Department of State Affairs 尚书司门员外郎, ending once and for all his life in exile. For the next two years, he seemed to enjoy a rather smooth career at court, receiving various prestigious positions and honors.
Bai, however, felt increasingly uneasy about court politics. At least two factors can be mentioned for such uneasiness. The first was his uncomfortable exposure to the factional strife that would plague the Tang court for decades. In the spring of 821, a scandal broke out about the results of the literary examinations, with Bai’s friend Qián Huī 钱徽 (755–829) and brother-in-law Yáng Ruǐshì 杨汝士 as the chief examiners. Most of the fourteen successful candidates were relatives of high-ranking officials. Accusations of unfairness were made and affirmed by Bai’s close friends Yuan Zhen and Lǐ Shēn 李绅 (772–846), among other powerful officials. Together with Wáng Qǐ 王起 (760–847), Bai was asked by the court to reexamine the candidates. Bai had to walk a very fine line in order not to offend either side, although the reexamination led to the disqualification of ten of the original fourteen candidates and the exile of the two chief examiners. This episode intensified the factional strife at court, known in history as the Strife between the Niu and the Li Factions 牛李党争 (Sima 1956, 7791). At a more personal level, it must have been a difficult period for Bai.
Adding to Bai’s disillusionment with court politics was the incompetence of the new emperor, Mùzōng 穆宗 (820–824). On his watch, the military governors, temporarily subdued by his father, Xianzong, began to challenge the central government again and the three circuits north of the Huang (Yellow) River achieved de facto independence. Bai’s memorials to the emperor on the situation were all ignored (Sima 1956, 7804–7806). Bai was so disheartened that he decided to leave the capital and requested to be appointed to a provincial position. He was appointed Prefect of Hangzhou. Thereafter, he worked in various posts, including Prefect of Suzhou (825–826), followed by positions at court, until 829. In the meantime, he managed to disengage himself from contemporary partisan politics. Commentators would praise him for his ability to stay away from the fray and maintain a cordial relationship with members of both factions.
Life as a “Middling Hermit”
In 829, Bai retired from his job as Vice Minister of Punishments 刑部侍郎 to assume the sinecure of Advisor to the Heir Apparent 太子宾客 in Luoyang, where he stayed until his death in 846. These seventeen years were the happiest in Bai’s life. Indicative of his general mood is his “Preface to Poems Composed in Luoyang” 序洛诗. There, he notes, whereas poets had mostly written out of sufferings and frustrations, his 342 poems written between 829 and 834, with the exception of a dozen or so composed at times of bereavement, contain not a single “bitter word” or a single “sorrowful sigh;” instead they record his quiet joy. Securely ensconced in his private garden, he had wine, music, scenery, good health, a good salary, and leisure. His poetry is, therefore, a spontaneous overflow of joyful feelings (Zhu 1988, 3757–3758). Despite occasional financial and health problems, Bai maintained a positive attitude throughout his Luoyang years, as exemplified in a poem written in the last year of his life, “Chanting About to My Old Body, Shown to My Family Members” 自咏老身示诸家属, which celebrates his longevity, generous pension, domestic harmony, poetic composition, and peaceful slumber (Zhu 1988, 2578).
The main reason for Bai’s happiness in Luoyang was that he was able to live up to an ideal that he called the “middling hermit” (zhōngyǐn 中隐), in contradistinction from the “great hermits” (dàyǐn 大隐) who hold positions at court while remaining spiritually detached, and from the “petty hermits” (xiǎoyǐn 小隐) who physically hide in the mountains. He coined the term for the title of a poem written in 829 (Zhu 1988, 1493). During his exile in Jiangzhou, he had already been drawn to the idea of “hermitage in officialdom” as an alternative to active engagement on the one hand and absolute withdrawal on the other. In many ways, the notion of middling hermit was an extension of the idea of hermitage in officialdom. There are, however, some new elements that had to do with Bai’s specific circumstances in Luoyang.
In “Middling Hermit,” Bai mentions four constituent elements of his life as a middling hermit: political, economic, scenic, and social. All of these factors were connected with the setting of Luoyang. The Tang court in Chang’an at the time was crippled with savage vendettas among political cliques and bloody strife between scholar-officials and eunuchs. The precarious situation made it a practical impossibility to be a great hermit at court. Politically speaking, adopting the position of the middling hermit was a realistic act of self-preservation.
In contrast to the political center of the Western Capital, Chang’an, lying near the northwest frontier, Luoyang, the Eastern Capital, enjoyed milder climate and greater accessibility. It was the place of choice for retired or semiretired officials (Waley 1949, 58). This geopolitical advantage of Luoyang was further enhanced for Bai because, with the possible exception of his two-year appointment as governor of the Metropolitan Luoyang Area 河南尹, none of the posts he held in Luoyang demanded much of his time and energy. His other three positions ostensibly had to do with the heir apparent: president of the Secretariat to the Left of the Heir Apparent 太子左庶子, Advisor to the Heir Apparent, and Junior Mentor of the Heir Apparent 太子少傅. In earlier times, the heir apparent had visited Luoyang often, and some of the officers in his household had been routinely assigned to the Branch Office 分司 in the Eastern Capital. But, in Bai’s day, when the palaces and official buildings in Luoyang were dilapidated following the ravages of Ān Lùshān’s 安祿山 (703–757) Rebellion, no heir apparent ever visited the city. Bai’s posts were, therefore, pure sinecures.
If Bai’s refusal to turn himself into a great hermit was rooted in his keen awareness of the political dynamics of his time, his objection to the petty hermits had little to do with the conventional perception of their narrow spiritual caliber and moral inflexibility. Rather it was based on unabashedly material considerations: the life of the petty hermits in the mountains was simply too harsh. The old dichotomy between public service and personal integrity was now replaced by one between material comfort and spiritual principles, and the tension was reconciled in the position of the middling hermit.
Enhancing Bai’s joy in his life were the numerous scenic spots in the Luoyang area, which allowed him to satisfy his lifelong proclivity for sightseeing excursions. The city of Luoyang may have provided the larger setting, but the focal point of Bai’s life as a middling hermit was his private garden. In 824, Bai purchased a house in the Lüdao ward of Luoyang. In the following ten months, he personally supervised the renovation of the property and built a well-designed garden. In poem after poem, Bai describes this urban private garden both as the physical space for and as an embodiment of the life of the middling hermit (Yang 2003, 44–50).
The final element in Bai’s life as a middling hermit was the community of retired officials in Luoyang, with whom he could socialize regularly (Yang 2003, 39–44). Particular mention may be made here of Liú Yǔxī 刘禹锡 (772–842), whose poetic exchanges with Bai were so well known that the two were called Liu-Bai. The coterie of retirees was formalized in 845, when Bai founded the Club of Nine Elders 九老会. Members (all of whom were seventy years and older) would meet to drink wine and compose poems. During the Sòng 宋 dynasty (960–1279), Bai’s club became an inspiration for elderly officials who lived in retirement or semiretirement in Luoyang. Although some of them, such as the Club of Heroic Elders 耆老会 organized by Wén Yànbó 文彦博 (1006–1097), and the Club of Admiring Sincerity 真率会 organized by Sīmǎ Guāng 司马光 (1019–1086), had a distinct political partisan bent, they were modeled on Bai’s club in their stated purposes and modes of operation (Yang 2003, 211–212; Zhang Zailin 2011; Lu 2012).
Bai Juyi’s Poetry
Bai was one of the most prolific poets of the Tang dynasty; close to three thousand of his poems have survived. In 815, he spent several months sorting out his poems and collected more than eight hundred of them. He divided these into four categories: poems of satire and allegory (fěngyùshī 讽谕诗), poems of leisure and content (xiánshìshī 闲适诗), sentimental poems (gǎnshāngshī 感伤诗), and regulated verses in various forms (zálǜ 杂律) (Zhu 1988, 2789). Such a classification may appear a bit odd, as the first three groups are based on their content, whereas the last on the technical form. It has been suggested that Bai divided his poems first into two categories based on their forms: those written in ancient style (gǔtǐ 古体) and those in recent style (jìntǐ 近体) (i.e., regulated verse). Poems in ancient style are further classified according to their occasion, intention, and content (Wang Yunxi 2000, 457). In any case, although later editors altered the arrangement of Bai’s poems considerably, the basic four categories have remained intact.
Bai himself most valued the first two groups of poems, for they reflected two options in the life of a gentleman. The classical formulation of these options is found in Mencius: “In obscurity a man makes perfect his own person, but in prominence he makes perfect the whole Empire as well” (Zhu 1988, 2794; Lau 1970, 183). If Bai’s poems of satire and allegory reflected his aspiration to “perfect the whole Empire,” then his poems of leisure and content reveal his attempt to “perfect his own person.”
According to Bai, reactions to his poems of social criticism were swift and ominous. Upon hearing his “Chantings in the Midland,” for example, “the powerful of the great families and the privileged members at court looked at each other and turned ashen”; those in power at court “rubbed their wrists” (as a gesture of being ready to take revenge) when they heard “Gazing Around after I Climbed the Leyou Garden” 登乐游园; in response to “Staying the Night at Zige Village” 宿紫阁村, military commanders “ground their teeth in anger” (Zhu 1988, 2792). It should be noted here that political poems constitute a relatively small portion of Bai’s voluminous poetic output and that after the first decade of the ninth century his poems generally refrained from any explicit reference to public affairs.
Bai’s satirical poems might have created an immediate stir, but it was his poems of leisure and content, especially those written during his retirement in Luoyang, that exerted a lasting influence on Chinese literati. Their appeal was twofold. First, the overall plain and bland style proved congenial to many poets from the Song dynasty onward. Second, and perhaps more important, his philosophy of a private life that is politically disengaged but financially secured provided an alternative to both the total absorption in and absolute rejection of the public life.
No other Tang poet was as popular in his own time as was Bai. His poems were inscribed everywhere: at local schools, in Buddhist temples and inns, and on passenger boats. In an attempt to raise her price, a singer famously bragged that she could recite “Song of Everlasting Regret” (Zhu 1988, 2793). A street constable in Jingzhou (in modern Hubei Province) had more than thirty of Bai’s poems tattooed on his body, some of which were accompanied with pictorial illustrations (Duan 1981, 77). Both Bai and Yuan Zhen repeatedly mentioned that the long regulated verses they composed in exchange with each other were the subject of contemporary imitations and became known as the Yuanhe style of poetry (yuánhétǐ 元和体) (Qi 2004; Zhang 2008). What troubled Bai about the reception of his poems was that his contemporaries only valued his regulated verses and his sentimental ballads, while ignoring his poems of satire and allegory and poems of leisure and content. He claimed to set little stock by the poems that were popular with his contemporaries, although the care with which he documented such popularity suggests that he was at least flattered.
At the beginning of the Song period, Bai’s poems of leisure became the model for the so-called Bai style of poetry (báitǐ 白体), as practiced by some of the leading literati of the time, such as Lǐ Fǎng 李昉 (925–996), Xú Xuàn 徐铉 (917–992), and Wáng Yǔchēng 王禹偁 (954–1001). The Bai style of poetry was to be swept away by new trends, but Bai’s poetic description of his private life remained an enduring model for many Song poets, including Sū Shì 苏轼 (1037–1101), who was attracted, among other things, to Bai’s idea of the middling hermit (Chen 1985).
Bai’s fame was not confined to China. His poems spread to Japan as early as the 830s. In the Heian period (794–1185), he became a fixture in Japanese literature. Of the 1,110 poems by Chinese and Japanese authors anthologized in Oe Koretoki’s 大江维时 (888–963) Senzai kaku 千載佳句 (Excellent Verses for All Times), 535 were from the hand of Bai (Kaneko 1943). Citations of and references to Bai’s poems are legion in such masterpieces as Makura no sōshi 枕草子 (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shōnagon 清少納言 (c. 966–1017) and Genji monogatori 源氏物語 (Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu 紫式部 (b. 978?).
Bai’s poems also spread to Korea and Vietnam during his own lifetime (Li 1988, 474). The prime minister of Silla (also referred to as Jilin or “Rooster Woods,” in modern South Korea) was quite a connoisseur. He would pay a hefty price to merchants for any poem by Bai. If the merchants brought him a forgery, he would immediately recognize it as such (Yuan 1982, 555). Indeed, the phrase “having one’s poems enter Rooster Woods” (shīrù jīlín 诗入鸡林) has become a popular adage in Chinese for describing a poet’s widespread fame, a testament to Bai’s pervasive and everlasting acclaim.
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