In approximately 743, Li Bo served as a court poet (in effect a courtier) in the capital Ch’ang-an. Because of the scheming, the favoritism, and above all, the demoralizing intrigues that are part and parcel of courtly life, he resigned from his post. Between 744 and 755, he traveled around the country, visiting many places before reaching Hsüan-chou in 753, where he stayed for some time and wrote the famous poem, “A Farewell to Li Yun in the Xie Tiao Pavilion.” During his tours, Li Bo could have seen foreboding signs of the An-Lu rebellion, which was to break out in 755 and decimate the country on a massive scale. “Question and Answer in the Mountain” was probably written shortly before 753 while the poet was visiting the Emerald Mountain, in modern day Anlu County, Hubei Province.
The poem is a classic example of how intellectuals in traditional China might have dealt with the frustrations of public life if they did not wish to be enmeshed in it, and this is the real question beneath the surface of “Question and Answer in the Mountain.” In general, when times are favorable, intellectuals would go into public service and carry out their duties according to the precepts of Confucianism. Once the commitment proves impossible to sustain (because of the corruption of the court), however, they would abandon the official life in order to return to the fields and farms, or travel among the mountains and rivers—in effect becoming hermits. It should be noted that cultivating one’s own gardens and traveling casually are important metaphors in Taoism, which is a central component of Li Bo’s philosophy of life.
In the contexts outlined above, the first main theme is therefore the withdrawal from public life and its accompanying pleasures, particularly a sense of freedom and leisure. This is also the real answer conveyed by the smile and the silence in line 2. Considering Li Bo’s experience with the court, it is no accident that his poem invokes the poet-recluse T’ao Yüan-ming of the Chin Dynasty, who set an example for intellectuals of integrity. The first two lines of the poem, indeed, seem to echo T’ao’s fifth poem of the “Drinking Wine” sequence.
Because of the landscape setting associated with reclusive life, the congeniality of nature is another important theme in Li Bo’s poem. Defining human experience positively, the landscape provides the poet with an alternative existence that is both cathartic and fulfilling. Furthermore, the allusion to T’ao Yüan-ming’s fable makes it clear that the actual landscape of the Emerald Mountain and the fictional space of the Peach Blossom Spring eventually coalesce into a “utopia.” Desirable as it is, this “utopia” is nevertheless characterized by an inherent irony of which Li Bo may have been aware: The ultimate truth about the Peach Blossom Spring is that the premise of its sole existence is the real world being torn apart by war. Although the An-Lu rebellion had not yet broken out when Li Bo wrote about the different heaven and earth in his newfound world apart from humanity, it would seem that he was diagnosing and divining the problem of his time accurately.