Bai Juyi (also Bo Juyi or Po Chü-i; Chinese: 白居易; 772–846)
was a renowned Chinese poet and
Tang dynasty government official. Many
of his poems concern his career or observations made about everyday
life, including as governor of three different provinces.
Bai was also influential in the historical development of Japanese
literature. His younger brother
Bai Xingjian was a short story
Among his most famous works are the long narrative poems "Chang hen
ge" ("Song of Everlasting Sorrow"), which tells the story of Yang
Guifei, and "The Song of the
1.1 Birth and childhood
1.2 Early career
1.4 Return to the capital and a new emperor
1.5 As Governor of Hangzhou
1.6 Life near Luoyang
1.7 Governor of Suzhou
1.8 Later career
2.2 Famous poems
2.3 Poetic forms
3.1 Modern assessment
4 See also
5 Works cited
7 External links
Bai Juyi lived during the Middle Tang period. This was a period of
rebuilding and recovery for the Tang Empire, following the An Lushan
Rebellion, and following the poetically flourishing era famous for Li
Bai (701－762), Wang Wei (701－761), and
Du Fu (712－770). Bai Juyi
lived through the reigns of eight or nine emperors, being born in the
Dali regnal era (766-779) of Emperor Daizong of Tang. He had a long
and successful career both as a government official and a poet,
although these two facets of his career seemed to have come in
conflict with each other at certain points.
Bai Juyi was also a
devoted Chan Buddhist.
Birth and childhood
Bai Juyi was born in 772 in Taiyuan, Shanxi, which was then a few
miles from location of the modern city, although he was in Zhengyang,
Henan for most of his childhood. His family was poor but scholarly,
his father being an Assistant Department Magistrate of the
second-class. At the age of ten he was sent away from his family to
avoid a war that broke out in the north of China, and went to live
with relatives in the area known as Jiangnan, more specifically
Bai Juyi's official career was initially successful. He passed the
jinshi examinations in 800.
Bai Juyi may have taken up residence in
the western capital city of Chang'an, in 801. Not long after this, Bai
Juyi formed a long friendship with a scholar Yuan Zhen. Bai Juyi's
father died in 804, and the young Bai spent the traditional period of
retirement mourning the death of his parent, which he did along the
Wei River, near to the capital. 806, the first full year of the reign
of Emperor Xianzong of Tang, was the year when
Bai Juyi was appointed
to a minor post as a government official, at Zhouzhi, which was not
Chang'an (and also in
Shaanxi province). He was made a member
(scholar) of the Hanlin Academy, in 807, and Reminder of the Left from
807 until 815, except when in 811 his mother died,
and he spent the traditional three-year mourning period again along
the Wei River, before returning to court in the winter of 814, where
he held the title of Assistant Secretary to the Prince's Tutor. It
was not a high-ranking position, but nevertheless one which he was
soon to lose.
Bai Juyi from the book "Wan hsiao tang".
While serving as a minor palace official in 814, Bai managed to get
himself in official trouble. He made enemies at court and with certain
individuals in other positions. It was partly his written works which
led him into trouble. He wrote two long memorials, translated by
Arthur Waley as "On Stopping the War", regarding what he considered to
be an overly lengthy campaign against a minor group of Tatars; and he
wrote a series of poems, in which he satirized the actions of greedy
officials and highlighting the sufferings of the common folk.
At this time, one of the post-
An Lushan warlords (jiedushi), Wu Yuanji
in Henan, had seized control of Zhangyi Circuit (centered in
Zhumadian), an act for which he sought reconciliation with the
imperial government, trying to get an imperial pardon as a necessary
prerequisite. Despite the intercession of influential friends, Wu was
denied, thus officially putting him in the position of rebellion.
Still seeking a pardon, Wu turned to assassination, blaming the Prime
Minister, Wu Yuanheng, and other officials: the imperial court
generally began by dawn, requiring the ministers to rise early in
order to attend in a timely manner; and, on July 13, 815, before dawn,
the Tang Prime Minister
Wu Yuanheng was set to go to the palace for a
meeting with Emperor Xianzong. As he left his house, arrows were fired
at his retinue. His servants all fled, and the assassins seized Wu
Yuanheng and his horse, and then decapitated him, taking his head with
them. The assassins also attacked another official who favored the
campaign against the rebellious warlords, Pei Du, but was unable to
kill him. The people at the capital were shocked and there was
turmoil, with officials refusing to leave their personal residences
until after dawn.
The Three Gorges of the Yangzi had to be traversed on the boat ride
Jiujiang to Sichuan.
In this context,
Bai Juyi overstepped his minor position by
memorializing the emperor. As Assistant Secretary to the Prince's
Tutor, Bai's memorial was a breach of protocol — he should have
waited for those of censorial authority to take the lead before
offering his own criticism. This was not the only charge which his
opponents used against him. His mother had died, apparently caused by
falling into a well while looking at some flowers, and two poems
Bai Juyi — the titles of which Waley translates as "In
Praise of Flowers" and "The New Well" — were used against him as a
sign of lack of Filial Piety, one of the
Confucian ideals. The result
Bai Juyi was demoted to the rank of Sub-Prefect and
banished from the court and the capital city to Jiujiang, then known
as Xun Yang, on the southern shores of the
Yangtze River in northwest
Jiangxi Province. After three years, he was sent as Governor of a
remote place in Sichuan. At the time, the main travel route there
was up the Yangzi River. This trip allowed
Bai Juyi a few days to
visit his friend Yuan Zhen, who was also in exile and with whom he
explored the rock caves located at Yichang.
Bai Juyi was delighted by
the flowers and trees for which his new location was noted. In 819, he
was recalled back to the capital, ending his exile.
Return to the capital and a new emperor
Bai Juyi was recalled to the capital and given the position of
second-class Assistant Secretary. In 821,
China got a new emperor,
Muzong. After succeeding to the throne, Muzong spent his time feasting
and heavily drinking and neglecting his duties as emperor. Meanwhile,
the temporarily subdued regional military governors, jiedushi, began
to challenge the central Tang government, leading to the new de facto
independence of three circuits north of the Yellow River, which had
been previously subdued by Emperor Xianzong. Furthermore, Muzong's
administration was characterized by massive corruption. Again, Bai
Juyi wrote a series of memorials in remonstrance.
As Governor of Hangzhou
Bai Juyi was sent away from the court and the capital, but this
time to the important position of the thriving town of Hangzhou, which
was at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal and located in the
scenic neighborhood of West Lake. Fortunately for their friendship,
Yuan Zhen at the time was serving an assignment in nearby Ningbo, also
in what is today Zhejiang, so the two could occasionally get
together, at least until Bai Juyi's term as Governor expired.
As governor of Hangzhou,
Bai Juyi realised that the farmland nearby
depended on the water of West Lake, but, due to the negligence of
previous governors, the old dike had collapsed and the lake had dried
out to the point that the local farmers were suffering from severe
drought. He ordered the construction of a stronger and taller dike,
with a dam to control the flow of water, thus providing water for
irrigation, relieving the drought, and improving the livelihood of the
local people over the following years.
Bai Juyi used his leisure time
to enjoy the beauty of West Lake, visiting the lake almost every day.
He ordered the construction of a causeway to allow walking on foot,
instead of requiring the services of a boat. A causeway in the West
Lake (Baisha Causeway, 白沙堤) was later referred to as Bai
Causeway in Bai Juyi's honour, but the original causeway built by Bai
Juyi named Baigong Causeway (白公堤) no longer exists.
Life near Luoyang
In 824, Bai Juyi's commission as governor expired, and he received the
nominal rank of Imperial Tutor, which provided more in the way of
official salary than official duties, and he relocated his household
to a suburb of the "eastern capital," Luoyang. At the time,
Luoyang was known as the eastern capital of the empire and was a major
metropolis with a population of around one million and a reputation as
the "cultural capital," as opposed to the more politically oriented
capital of Chang'an.
Governor of Suzhou
In 825, at the age of fifty-three,
Bai Juyi was given the position of
Governor (Prefect) of Suzhou, situated on the lower reaches of the
Yangtze River and on the shores of Lake Tai. For the first two years,
he enjoyed himself with feasts and picnic outings, but after a couple
years he became ill and was forced into a period of retirement.
After his time as Prefect of
Hangzhou (822-824) and then Suzhou
Bai Juyi returned to the capital. He then served in various
official posts in the capital, and then again as prefect/governor,
this time in Henan, the province in which
Luoyang was located. It was
Henan that his first son was born, though only to die prematurely
the next year. In 831
Yuan Zhen died. For the next thirteen years,
Bai Juyi continued to hold various nominal posts but actually lived in
Buddha and Bodhisattva images carved out of rock, at Longmen
Bai Juyi repaired an unused part of the Xiangshan Monastery,
at Longmen, about 7.5 miles south of Luoyang.
Bai Juyi moved to this
location, and began to refer to himself as the "Hermit of Xianshang".
This area, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its tens of
thousands of statues of
Buddha and his disciples carved out of the
rock. In 839, he experienced a paralytic attack, losing the use of his
left leg, and became a bedridden invalid for several months. After his
partial recovery, he spent his final years arranging his Collected
Works, which he presented to the main monasteries of those localities
in which he had spent time.
The Tomb of Bai Juyi.
Bai Juyi died, leaving instructions for a simple burial in a
grave at the monastery, with a plain style funeral, and to not have a
posthumous title conferred upon him. He has a tomb monument in
Longmen, situated on Xiangshan across the Yi River from the Longmen
cave temples in the vicinity of Luoyang, Henan. It is a circular mound
of earth 4 meters high, 52 meters in circumference, and with a 2.80
meter high Monument inscribed "Bai Juyi".
Bai Juyi has been known for his plain, direct, and easily
comprehensible style of verse, as well as for his social and political
criticism. Besides his surviving poems, several letters and essays are
He collected his writings in the anthology called the Bai Zhi Wen
One of the most prolific of the Tang poets,
Bai Juyi wrote over 2,800
poems, which he had copied and distributed to ensure their survival.
They are notable for their relative accessibility: it is said that he
would rewrite any part of a poem if one of his servants was unable to
understand it. The accessibility of Bai Juyi's poems made them
extremely popular in his lifetime, in both
China and Japan, and they
continue to be read in these countries today.
Bai Juyi's "Pi Pa Xing", in running script, calligraphy by Wen
Zhengming, Ming Dynasty.
Bai Juyi statue in front of
Pipa Pavilion on the Xunyang River at
Jiujiang, where he wrote his "The Song of the
Pipa Player" poem.
Two of his most famous works are the long narrative poems "Chang hen
ge" ("Song of Everlasting Sorrow"), which tells the story of Yang
Guifei, and "The Song of the
Pipa Player". Like Du Fu, he had a strong
sense of social responsibility and is well known for his satirical
poems, such as The Elderly Charcoal Seller. Also he wrote about
military conflicts during the Tang Dynasty. Poems like "Song of
Everlasting Regret" were examples of the peril in
China during the An
Bai Juyi also wrote intensely romantic poems to fellow officials with
whom he studied and traveled. These speak of sharing wine, sleeping
together, and viewing the moon and mountains. One friend, Yu Shunzhi,
sent Bai a bolt of cloth as a gift from a far-off posting, and Bai
Juyi debated on how best to use the precious material:
About to cut it to make a mattress,
pitying the breaking of the leaves;
about to cut it to make a bag,
pitying the dividing of the flowers.
It is better to sew it,
making a coverlet of joined delight;
I think of you as if I'm with you,
day or night.
Bai's works were also highly renowned in Japan, and many of his poems
were quoted and referenced in
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki
Bai Juyi was known for his interest in the old yuefu form of poetry,
which was a typical form of Han poetry, namely folk ballad verses,
collected or written by the Music Bureau. These were often a form
of social protest. And, in fact, writing poetry to promote social
progress was explicitly one of his objectives. He is also known
for his well-written poems in the regulated verse style.
Bai Juyi is considered one of the greatest Chinese poets, but even
during the ninth century, sharp divide in critical opinions of his
poetry already existed. While other poets like
Pi Rixiu only had
the highest praise for Bai Juyi, others were hostile, like Sikong Tu
(司空圖) who described Bai as "overbearing in force, yet feeble in
energy (qi), like domineering merchants in the market place."
Bai's poetry was immensely popular in his own lifetime, but his
popularity, his use of vernacular, the sensual delicacy of some of his
poetry, led to criticism of him being "common" or "vulgar". In a tomb
inscription for Li Kan (李戡), a critic of Bai, poet
Du Mu wrote,
couched in the words of Li Kan: "...It has bothered me that ever since
the Yuanhe Reign we have had poems by
Bai Juyi and
Yuan Zhen whose
sensual delicacy has defied the norms. Excepting gentlemen of mature
strength and classical decorum, many have been ruined by them. They
have circulated among the common people and been inscribed on walls;
mothers and fathers teach them to sons and daughters orally, through
winter's cold and summer's heat their lascivious phrases and overly
familiar words have entered people's flesh and bone and cannot be
gotten out. I have no position and cannot use the law to bring this
Bai was also criticized for his "carelessness and repetitiveness",
especially his later works. He was nevertheless placed by Tang
poet Zhang Wei (張為) in his Schematic of Masters and Followers
Among the Poets (詩人主客圖) at the head of his first category:
"extensive and grand civilizing power".
Burton Watson says of Bai Juyi: "he worked to develop a style that was
simple and easy to understand, and posterity has requited his efforts
by making him one of the most well-loved and widely read of all
Chinese poets, both in his native land and in the other countries of
the East that participate in the appreciation of Chinese culture. He
is also, thanks to the translations and biographical studies by Arthur
Waley, one of the most accessible to English readers".
List of emperors of the Tang Dynasty
Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of
Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New
York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-10536-7 /
Owen, Stephen (2006). The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth
Century (827-860). Harvard University Asia Center. pp. 45–.
Nienhauser, William H (ed.). The Indiana Companion to Traditional
Chinese Literature. Indiana University Press 1986.
Ueki, Hisayuki; Uno, Naoto; Matsubara, Akira (1999). "Shijin to Shi no
Shōgai (Haku Kyoi)". In Matsuura, Tomohisa. Kanshi no Jiten
漢詩の事典 (in Japanese). Tokyo: Taishūkan Shoten.
pp. 123–127. OCLC 41025662.
Arthur Waley, The Life and Times of Po Chü-I, 772-846 A.D (New York,:
Macmillan, 1949). 238p.
Waley, Arthur (1941). Translations from the Chinese. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-40464-6
Watson, Burton (1971). Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second
to the Twelfth Century. (New York: Columbia University Press).
^ Arntzen, S (2008) A Shared Heritage of Sensibility?: The Reception
of Bai Juyi's Poetry in Japan. Paper presented at the conference
China Cultural Relations at the University of Victoria, 25th
^ Hinton, 266
^ a b Ueki et al. 1999, p. 123.
^ Waley (1941), 126-27.
^ Waley (1941), 126- 130
^ Waley (1941), 130
^ Waley (1941), 130-31, Waley refers to this place as "Chung-chou".
^ Waley (1941), 130-31
^ a b Waley (1941), 131
^ Waley (1941), 131. Waley refers to this village as "Li-tao-li."
^ a b Waley (1941), 132
^ Waley (1941), 132-33
^ Waley (1941), 133
^ Hinsch, 80-81
Bai Juyi (Chinese poet) from Britannica
^ a b Hinton, 265
^ a b Owen (2006), pg. 45
^ Owen (2006), pg. 277
^ a b Owen (2006), pp. 45-47, 57
^ Watson, 184.
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Bai Juyi: Poems — English translations of Bai Juyi's poetry.
Translations of Chinese poems
Chinese poems in translation
Six Bai Juyi's poems included in 300 Selected Tang Poems, translated
by Witter Bynner
Article on the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower that was based on a poem
by Bai Juyi
English translation of Bai Juyi's "A
Poem for the
Books of the
Quan Tangshi that include collected poems of
Bai Juyi at
the Chinese Text Project:
Book 424, Book 425, Book 426, Book 427, Book 428,
Book 429, Book 430, Book 431, Book 432, Book 433,
Book 434, Book 435, Book 436, Book 437, Book 438,
Book 439, Book 440, Book 441, Book 442, Book 443,
Book 444, Book 445, Book 446, Book 447, Book 448,
Book 449, Book 450, Book 451, Book 452, Book 453,
Book 454, Book 455, Book 456, Book 457, Book 458,
Book 459, Book 460, Book 461, Book 462
Classical Chinese poetry
Modern Chinese poetry
Poetry by dynasty
Six Dynasties poetry
Classic of Poetry
New Songs from the Jade Terrace
Nineteen Old Poems
Three Hundred Tang Poems
Individual poems list
Chinese poems (category list)
List of poems (article)
Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry
The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature
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