Li Ho Essay - Critical Essays

Ho, Li


Li Ho 791–817

Chinese poet.

Li Ho lived during the late T'ang period (618-907) in Chinese history and wrote poetry remarkable for blending traditional poetic forms with images of shocking violence and a general mood of pessimism. Although his verse was admired by his contemporaries despite its strangeness, it subsequently lapsed into obscurity. A revival of interest in Li Ho's poems has recently taken place, with commentators expressing admiration for the vivid imagery and evocative, haunting quality of his verse.

Biographical Information

Li Ho was born into a distant, impoverished branch of the imperial clan. According to some sources, he began writing poetry at age six. When he was still a boy his father died, leaving him solely responsible for the welfare of his large family, and at age eighteen Li Ho sought to provide for them by becoming a civil servant. He passed a provincial examination, but was blocked from taking an examination which might have secured him a more substantial position at the imperial court by a prohibition against sons using their fathers' names. (One of the characters in his name matched one of his late father's.) He eventually accepted a minor office to which he was entitled by hereditary right. While at court, Li Ho began to write about the lives of courtesans, interested in their beautiful and ceremonious lifestyles. His own circumstances proved less attractive; he suffered from chronic illness, and success continually eluded him. As a result, his poetry increasingly turned to metaphysical treatments of death in which he savagely debunked mythology and rejected religion. In 817 he returned home and died the same year.

Major Works

Only 243 of Li Ho's poems, ballads, and songs have survived. Like nearly all Chinese poets of his day, Li Ho wrote much of his verse in the traditional shih form, which features a controlled number of lines of a specified number of syllables. He experimented with the form, however, introducing, for instance, unusual rhyme schemes and unorthodox stanza patterns. The subjects and tone of Li Ho's poems are unconventional as well. Bitter, ironic, and frequently morbid, his works are subjective expressions, employing an idiosyncratic range of images invested with highly personal significance. Repeated references to spirits of the dead and to such elements as rain and mist, light and shadow, create a pervasive sense of melancholy throughout much of Li Ho's work and have earned him the reputation of a poet preoccupied with supernatural phenomena.

Critical Reception

To some extent Western critics have taken greater interest in Li Ho's works than have their Chinese counterparts. Scholars have accounted for this apparent anomaly by observing that Li Ho's emphasis on subjective experience places him outside the Chinese poetic tradition with its emphasis on impersonal, generalized experience, while it permits comparisons of Li Ho's poems to those of John Keats, Charles Baudelaire, and other exemplars of the Western poetic notion of the "tortured genius." J. D. Frodsham has noted several ways in which Li Ho's poems seem peculiarly modern, particularly the manner in which he "sees things in flashes, apparently disconnectedly, so that his technique is probably far more familiar to modern readers, whose eyes have been trained by years of television and cinema, than it was to his traditional audience." Several critics have pointed out that the startling juxtapositions of images in Li Ho's poems contribute to their unsettling and otherworldly qualities. Burton Watson has pointed out the poems' "deliberately disjointed, nonlogical manner of presentation," which was intended to "increase the effect of shock and surprise" felt by the reader. Commentators have also argued that, despite Li Ho's reputation for individualism and aestheticism, his poetry reflects his deep involvement in the affairs of his time. As Frodsham has emphasized, "even the most cursory reading of his verse will show that Ho was deeply concerned with the problems of his day and used his ballads, which had a wide circulation, to satirize contemporary abuses."

Principal English Translations

*The White Pony 1947

*Poems of the Late T'ang 1965

The Poems of Li Ho (791-817) 1970

*Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry 1975

*These collections contain the work of other writers in addition to that of Li Ho.


A. C. Graham (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Li Ho," in Poems of the Late T'ang, translated by A. C. Graham, Penguin Books, 1965, pp. 89-92.

[In the following excerpt, Graham discusses the central themes in Li Ho's works.]

Li Ho is the most remarkable case in Chinese literature of a poet recently rediscovered after long neglect. He does not appear at all in the most familiar anthologies, such as the eighteenth-century Three Hundred T'ang Poems. Although famous in the ninth century and never quite forgotten, he offended the conventionality of later taste by his individuality and its health and balance by his morbidity and violence. To see his peculiar qualities as virtues required the breakdown of traditional literary standards in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is now widely recognized by Chinese, Japanese, and Western readers alike that he is a major poet both in his own right and as a creative influence, the link between Han Yü, who discovered his talent when he was still a boy, and the masters of the ninth century, Tu Mu, who wrote the preface to his poems, and Li Shang-yin, who wrote his biography.

Li Ho continued the cult of 'strange' imagery, but turned it into something which is strange by any standards, not merely by those of the world's most sensible and temperate poetic tradition. He also continued Han Yü's experiments in Old Style versification, showing a taste for unorthodox rhyme schemes and for sequences of three or four quatrains rather than the standard eight-line form, the transitions between lines often so abrupt that he was credited with compiling his poems out of independently written couplets. These features he combines with an extreme compression more characteristic of the New Style verse of Tu Fu.

Li Ho's central theme is the transience of life, a subject which he treats as though no one before him had ever felt the drip of the water-clock on his nerves, in a wholly personal imagery of ghosts, blood, dying animals, weeping statues, whirlwinds, the will-o'-the-wisp—the last appears in many guises, 'ghostly lamps', 'cold blue candleflames', 'sinister fires', 'darkened torches', 'fireflies in the tomb'. He seems quite uninterested in any of...

(The entire section is 917 words.)

J. D. Frodsham (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Poems of Li Ho, translated by J. D. Frodsham, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1970, pp. xiii-lxiv.

[In the excerpt below, Frodsham reviews the religious, social, and artistic influences on Li Ho's poetry.]

Unusual as Ho's work undoubtedly is, he is nevertheless very much of his time. He does not stand apart from it in the way, say, Blake and Smart stand apart from the eighteenth century. In a sense, his verse simply carries to an extraordinary degree qualities of intensity, floridity and deep-grained pessimism already highly characteristic of T'ang verse. Only in his development of the Ch'u Tz'u tradition can be really be called...

(The entire section is 7076 words.)

Burton Watson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Later Trends in T'ang Poetry," in Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp. 169-96.

[In this excerpt, Watson assesses Li Ho's talent and poetic style.]

While the Chinese poetic tradition, led by men like Han Yü and Po Chü-i, moved in the direction of a simpler, more relaxed style, greater variety of subject matter, and more discursive or philosophical treatment, bringing it momentarily, as Graham notes [in Poems of the Late T'ang], much closer to our own, a young writer of promise named Li Ho (791-817) was busily forging ahead on a wholly different course. He has traditionally been...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Edward H. Schafer (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Goddess Epiphanies of Li Ho," in The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T'ang Literature, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 104-14.

[In the following excerpt, Schafer examines Li Ho's treatment of the mythological figures of water goddesses and dragon women.]

It was Li Ho who took it upon himself to oppose the tendency to secularize the water goddesses and to humanize the dragon women of antiquity.

Because Li Ho is now at last in vogue, it would be pointless here to recapitulate the meager details of his biography, to refine appreciations of his writings, or even to attempt a superficial survey of his poetic work....

(The entire section is 2864 words.)

Kuo-Ch'ing Tu (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Li Ho's Kuei-ts'ai: An Evaluation of His Poetic Genius," in Li Ho, Twayne Publishers, 1979, pp. 121-31.

[In the excerpt below, Kuo-Ch'ing Tu surveys the characteristic features of Li Ho's poetry.]

[Li Ho's] poetic characteristics can be generalized as follows:

1) Li Ho's poetic worlds have three dimensions: the celestial world of immortals or divine spirits, the shadowy world of the dead, and the human world of reality. As a matter of fact, Li Ho lived an unhappy life of thwarted ambitions and constant frustration, and many of his works are strongly tinged with his sufferings at the hard hands of fate or his resentment against social...

(The entire section is 2582 words.)

Further Reading


South, Margaret Tudor. Li Ho: a Scholar-official of the Yüanho Period (806-821) Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1967, 495 p.

An examination of Li Ho's life and works.


Chow, Clayton. Review of The Poems of Li Ho 791-817, translated by J. D. Frodsham. The Journal of Asian Studies XXX, No. 1 (November 1970): 431-32.

Favorable assessment of Frodsham's translation, observing that Li Ho "proves himself to be one of the rare poets who can pass relatively unscathed through the fires of translation."


(The entire section is 130 words.)