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Bai Juyi: His Life and Times

Bai Juyi: His Life and Times

The next twenty poems of so will come from Bai Juyi (772-846).  His name often appears as “Po Chu-yi”  when using the Wade-Giles format.  He was born and lived after the An Lushan Rebellion in the year 756.  Selected poems of his have appeared in the Chinese anthologies from the Tang Dynasty to modern times.  He is often ranked alongside the likes of Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei, who all lived and wrote during the height of the Tang Dynasty.  His poems are famous for extolling the virtues of the common people, and for being simple, without a lot of literary and historical allusions and allegories.

Bai Juyi’s grandfather moved his family from the province of Shaanxi to the city of Zhengzhou, Henan province where Bai was born in 772. His father, Bai Ji, worked in the government bureaucracy in the city of Xuzhou. Several generations previously the Bai family had many members who worked and held mid-level government positions.

Because of years of warfare, the Bai family had to flee and leave their home to avoid the violence. This, plus the fact that Bai received a good education and examples from this ancestors, motivated him to improve his country by
performing good deeds in government service.

In the year 795, Bai’s father died while he was away on a government assignment. Death of a bread winner was a very traumatic event for anyone, but more so for the Bai family. They had to move several times over the next four years.

But finally, in 799, Bai gathered together enough money to sit for the regional imperial exams. He took them in the famous paper-making city of Xuanzhou. He passed and was so well like by his examiner that he was sent right away to the capital city of Chang’an for the national exams. The next spring, in the year 801, Bai passed these exams and was ranked fourth among the graduates.

For the next two years, Bai Juyi remained in the capital for further training. In the year 803 he was appointed to his first government position, that of working in the imperial library. This position paid him well. Three years later, in 806, Bai was sent outside the capital to in Zhouzhi, province of Shaanxi. It was here he wrote his famous prose poem, The Long Song of Remorse.

By the autumn of 807, Bai was called back to the capital to work inside the well renowned Han Lin University. The next year he was promoted to the position of advising the emperor himself. At this time he wrote many opinions about what the emperor could do to improve the country. Unfortunately this made him enemies inside the palace. A strong political faction within the palace were the eunuchs. They were angry with him for recommending that their power and wealth be restricted. Bai reacted to this blowback by asking for a leave of absence. During this time he wrote the well known poems of Qing Zhong Yin and Xin Yue Fu.

In the year 811, Bai’s mother died. Per custom, he fully observed the three year mourning period. By 814 he returned to governmental position with a title, but no real power or influence. The next year in June, one of the prime ministers was assassinated by a dark faction within the palace. Bai’s recommendation was to vigorously pursue and execute the perpetrators. This action got him assigned away from the capital, in the city of Jiangzhou. It was here that he wrote his famous prose poem, Pipa Style.

After two more years, in 818, Bai was promoted to a post in the city of Zhongzhou, near present day Chongqing. Completing the usual two year term, Bai was again called back to the capital city of Chang’an. Promotion after promotion followed until he grew weary of palace politics and the load of responsibilities. From 822 to 826 he served in positions in the cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou. Today, one can see a life-sized statue of Bai on the northern shore of the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.  One of the two long embankments sectioning West Lake is named after him.  At this point he was tired and wanted to retire. But during these four years, Bai wrote many poems of political satire and about the common people.

After taking a year’s leave of absence, Bai returned to a position as recorder and secretary inside the imperial palace. But once again Bai wanted to retire and go home. In the year 829 he was assigned to the province of Henan to be on the team of tutors for the crown prince Taizi. By 841 his health was failing him. He took another year’s leave of absence. A last and short term assignment followed. In August of 846 Bai Juyi passed away in the city of Loyang. He is buried in nearby Longmen.

Even before the time of Bai’s death, his poems had become famous. Visiting Korean diplomats paid up to two hundred taels of silver for just one of his poems. To this day Bai Juyi remains popular with many of the Japanese. He was the only poet in ancient times to actually collect and preserve his body of work. Over two thousand of his poems have survived the centuries. He made three copies of his poems and deposited them in different locations. One copy went to the Jinghua Temple in the Zhejiang mountains.

Bai Juyi spent much of his life serving his country in government positions. He also spent a lot of energy fighting corruption and immoral behavior within the palace leadership. He did this not only for altruistic reasons, but also the insure his personal survival.

Around the year of 815, Bai’s poetical interests moved from writing poems of landscape beauty and palace themes, to ones of political satire and ones chronicling the struggles of the common people.  Also midway through his life, Bai developed a serious interest in Chan (Zen) Buddhism.  As time went on, his poems reflected this interest and influence.

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