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Po Chu-i, Chinese Poet
Written by: L. Cranmer-Byng
Seventeen years old and already a doctor of letters, a great future was before him. The life of such a man would seem to be one sure progress from honour to honour. Yet it is to some petty exile, some temporary withdrawal of imperial favour, that we owe "The Lute Girl", perhaps the most delicate piece of work that has survived the age of the golden T`angs. Certainly the music is the most haunting, suggestive of many-coloured moods, with an undertone of sadness, and that motive of sympathy between the artist-exiles of the universe which calls the song from the singer and tears from the heart of the man. So exile brought its consolations, the voice and presence of "The Lute Girl", and the eight nameless poets who became with Po Chu-i the literary communists of Hsiang-shan. In China it has always been possible for the artist to live away from the capital. Provincial governor and high official send for him; all compete for the honour of his presence. Respect, which is the first word of Chinese wisdom according to Confucius, is paid to him. In provincial Europe his very presence would be unknown unless he beat his wife on the high-road or stole a neighbour's pig. But his Celestial Majesty hears of the simple life at Hsiang-shan and becomes jealous for his servant. The burden of ruling must once more be laid on not too willing shoulders. Po Chu-i is recalled and promoted from province to province, till eventually, five years before his death, he is made President of the Board of War. Two short poems here rendered — namely, "Peaceful Old Age" and "The Penalties of Rank" — give us a glimpse of the poet in his old age, conscious of decaying powers, glad to be quit of office, and waiting with sublime faith in his Taoist principles to be "one with the pulsings of Eternity".
Po Chu-i is almost nearer to the Western idea of a poet than any other Chinese writer. He was fortunate enough to be born when the great love-tragedy of Ming Huang and T`ai Chen was still fresh in the minds of men. He had the right perspective, being not too near and yet able to see clearly. He had, moreover, the feeling for romance which is so ill-defined in other poets of his country, though strongly evident in Chinese legend and story. He is an example of that higher patriotism rarely met with in Chinese official life which recognises a duty to the Emperor as Father of the national family — a duty too often forgotten in the obligation to the clan and the desire to use power for personal advantage. Passionately devoted to literature, he might, like Li Po and Tu Fu, have set down the seals of office and lived for art alone by the mountain-side of his beloved Hsiang-shan. But no one knew better than Po Chu-i that from him that hath much, much shall be expected. The poet ennobled political life, the broader outlook of affairs enriched his poetry and humanised it.
And when some short holiday brought him across the frontier, and the sunlight, breaking out after a noon of rain over the dappled valleys of China, called him home, who shall blame him for lingering awhile amid his forest dreams with his fishing and the chase.
Yet solitude and the picturesque cannot hold him for long, nor even the ardours of the chase. Po Chu-i is above all the poet of human love and sorrow, and beyond all the consoler. Those who profess to find pessimism in the Chinese character must leave him alone. At the end of the great tragedy of "The Never-ending Wrong" a whispered message of hope is borne to the lonely soul beating against the confines of the visible world: —
"Tell my lord," she murmured, "to be firm of heart as this gold and enamel; then in heaven or earth below we twain may meet once more."
It is the doctrine of eternal constancy, so dimly understood in the Western world, which bids the young wife immolate herself on her husband's tomb rather than marry again, and makes the whole world seem too small for the stricken Emperor with all the youth and beauty of China to command.