A Farewell to Li Yun in the Xie Tiao Pavilion

by Li Bo
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

The poem has also been translated as “At Hsieh T’iao’s High Mansion in Hsüanchou: A Parting Banquet for the Collator Shy-yün.” Either version of the title contains important information. Li Bo (Li Po) held a farewell banquet in honor of Li Yün (endeared as “Shu,” or “uncle”), who was leaving for the capital to work in the imperial library. The banquet took place at a tower built by the poet Hsieh T’iao (464-499) of the Southern Ch’i dynasty when he was governor of Hsüan-chou.

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The poem opens with an unusually long couplet that establishes an elegiac tone by focusing on the passage of time and its psychological impact. Musing upon the migration of wild geese riding on auspicious winds, the poet observes to the collator that it is a good time for drinking, and he begins to discuss matters of a scholastic nature by alluding to three important moments in the history of Chinese literature.

The first moment, mentioned in the phrase “splendid writings of Peng-lai,” is the assimilation of Taoist philosophy into Chinese literature. (Peng-lai is believed to be inhabited by immortals who have achieved eternal life through Taoist studies and practices.) Although Taoist elements have been pervasive in Chinese literature, the classics, as defined in the early years of the Han dynasty, have been Confucianist texts. Finding its way into the canon during the unstable years of the Han dynasty, Taoism nourished poets by giving them a suitable rhetoric and repertoire to explore nonconformist modes of expression.

The “substantial style of the Chien-an Era” refers to a crucial stage in the development of Chinese poetry. During the reign of Emperor Hsien-ti of the Eastern Han dynasty (the Chien-an era of 196-219), a group of innovative poets known as the “Seven Talents of Chien-an” demonstrated the vitality of the relatively new genre of poetry based on the five-character line. Incorporating subject matter derived from folk lyrics and treating it with an eye for refinement, these poets established a literary style, Chien-an feng-ku, characterized by the balance between substance and elegance. This “substantial style” laid the foundation for the future of Chinese poetry.

The third moment is represented by Hsieh T’iao. The phrase “little Hsieh” is also intended to remind the reader of the “great Hsieh,” or Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433) of the Southern Sung dynasty. Whereas the “great Hsieh” inaugurated and established landscape in itself as a legitimate subject for poetry, the “little Hsieh” further endowed the landscape with a more profound meaning by joining it to the human condition. Specifically, Hsieh T’iao’s poetry harmonizes his public life as an official and his aspirations toward a private life of withdrawal and seclusion. What Li Bo admired in him must have been his ability to stay in touch with the larger contexts of human existence, of which the functionary’s career is merely a transitory part.

These three allusions are not pedantic exhibits of scholarship. On the surface, they are used as a rhetoric of courtesy, apropos of the farewell banquet, to show admiration for the collator’s talent and achievement. Beyond this rhetoric, however, they also constitute an ode to poets of philosophical, literary, and political significance to Li Bo. Intoxicated by his own discussion, it seems, he begins to envision poets soaring into the azure sky to embrace the moon. This image could be interpreted as a desire to achieve transcendental liberation from a banal world.

The climactic flight, however, is subverted by a plunge into the emotionally depressive couplet that follows: “Draw a sword to cut up the water—the water flows on as usual;/ Raise a cup to get rid of sorrow—the sorrow continues to be sorrow.” This symptomatic couplet underscores the anticlimactic emotions to which Li Bo was susceptible in many of his drunken frolics.

Disenchanted, the poet reaches the bitter resolution that, if “Human life in the world is not gratifying;/ Tomorrow morning, with dishevelled hair, [one might as well] relax in a tiny boat.” As officials are supposed to be groomed and dressed according to appropriate protocols, the “dishevelled hair” stands for an aversion to public life. Although the two lines seem to be resentful and sarcastic, behind the “sour grapes” disappointment there is also an affirmation of reunion with nature.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

T’ang poetry can be written either in the “recent style” or the “ancient style.” All the lines in a recent-style poem are required to follow a set pattern of tonal contrasts and harmonies. An ancient-style poem, however, does not have a predetermined number of lines, nor is there a rigid tonal requirement. Because the format is tailored to the needs of the poem itself, the freedom from prosodic constraints makes the ancient-style format an ideal vehicle for narration and cursive expression.

“At Hsieh T’iao’s High Mansion in Hsüan-chou” is basically an ancient-style poem having twelve lines. The majority of lines have seven characters, but both of the first two lines have four characters added to the beginning of the seven-character line structure:

That which abandons me, yesterday’s a day not here to stay;That which troubles my heart, today’s a day full of dismay.

These two lines also form a couplet. The irregularity turns what could have been a cliché about time into a psychological truth that is haunting and disturbing. Such an effective beginning testifies to Li Bo’s innovative spirit.

The poem employs at least two topoi, or rhetorical commonplaces. The first topos, the wild geese migrating in the autumn, implies that Li Yün’s departure is only temporary. The ascension of the high mansion constitutes another topos. On a tower, the sense of one’s solitary existence is heightened, and the mood is that of dejection. One should also remember that drinking wine is one of the hallmarks of Li Bo and that, in his drinking sprees, he frequently plunges from joyfulness to sorrow.

Another device is historical allusion. Because Chinese poems are usually brief, allusions to well-known historical figures or events help to compress the largest amount of information possible within a limited space, thus enriching the implications and intensifying the textual complexity of the poem. Li Bo’s use of allusions in this case concentrates on significant events in literary history. These allusions are also relevant to the occasion of the poem and the location of the banquet.

Other important devices include the symbol of the bright moon to be embraced in the blue sky and the implied simile that drinking to dispel sorrow is analogous to drawing a sword to sever the river. Finally, the “dishevelled hair” as an image objectifies antiestablishment sentiments resulting from deprivation or abandonment.

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Themes