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A Biographical Introduction to Po Chu-i

by Arthur Waley

Po Chü-i was born at T’ai-yüan in Shansi. Most of his childhood was spent at Jung-yang in Honan. His father was a second-class Assistant Department Magistrate. He tells us that his family was poor and often in difficulties.

He seems to have settled permanently at Ch’ang-an in 801. This town, lying near the north-west frontier, was the political capital of the Empire. In its situation it somewhat resembled Madrid. Lo-yang, the Eastern city, owing to its milder climate and more accessible position, became, like Seville in Spain, a kind of social capital.

Soon afterwards he met Yüan Chen, then aged twenty-two, who was destined to play so important a part in his life. Five years later, during a temporary absence from the city, he addressed to Yüan the following poem:

Since I left my home to seek official state Seven years I have lived in Ch’ang-an. What have I gained? Only you, Yüan; So hard it is to bind friendships fast. We have roamed on horseback under the flowering trees; We have walked in the snow and warmed our hearts with wine. We have met and parted at the Western Gate And neither of us bothered to put on Cap or Belt. We did not go up together for Examination; We were not serving in the same Department of State. The bond that joined us lay deeper than outward things; The rivers of our souls spring from the same well!


Of Yüan’s appearance at this time we may guess something from a picture which still survives in copy; it shows him, a youthful and elegant figure, visiting his cousin Ts’ui Ying-ying, who was a lady-in-waiting at Court.[45] At this period of his life Po made friends with difficulty, not being, as he tells us, “a master of such accomplishments as caligraphy, painting, chess or gambling, which tend to bring men together in pleasurable intercourse.” Two older men, T’ang Ch’ü and Teng Fang, liked his poetry and showed him much kindness; another, the politician K’ung T’an, won his admiration on public grounds. But all three died soon after he got to know them. Later he made three friends with whom he maintained a lifelong intimacy: the poet Liu Yu-hsi (called Meng-te), and the two officials Li Chien and Ts’ui Hsuan-liang. In 805 Yüan Chen was banished for provocative behaviour towards a high official. The T’ang History relates the episode as follows: “Yüan was staying the night at the Fu-shui Inn; just as he was preparing to go to sleep in the Main Hall, the court-official Li Shih-yüan also arrived. Yüan Chen should have offered to withdraw from the Hall. He did not do so and a scuffle ensued. Yüan, locked out of the building, took off his shoes and stole round to the back, hoping to find another way in. Liu followed with a whip and struck him across the face.”

The separation was a heavy blow to Po Chü-i. In a poem called “Climbing Alone to the Lo-yu Gardens” he says:


I look down on the Twelve City Streets:— Red dust flanked by green trees! Coaches and horsemen alone fill my eyes; I do not see whom my heart longs to see. K’ung T’an has died at Lo-yang; Yüan Chen is banished to Ching-men. Of all that walk on the North-South Road There is not one that I care for more than the rest!

In 804 on the death of his father, and again in 811 on the death of his mother, he spent periods of retirement on the Wei river near Ch’ang-an. It was during the second of these periods that he wrote the long poem (260 lines) called “Visiting the Wu-chen Temple.” Soon after his return to Ch’ang-an, which took place in the winter of 814, he fell into official disfavour. In two long memorials entitled “On Stopping the War,” he had criticized the handling of a campaign against an unimportant tribe of Tartars, which he considered had been unduly prolonged. In a series of poems he had satirized the rapacity of minor officials and called attention to the intolerable sufferings of the masses.

His enemies soon found an opportunity of silencing him. In 814 the Prime Minister, Wu Yüan-heng, was assassinated in broad daylight by an agent of the revolutionary leader Wu Yüan-chi. Po, in a memorial to the Throne, pointed out the urgency of remedying the prevailing discontent. He held at this time the post of assistant secretary to the Princes’ tutor. He should not have criticized the Prime Minister (for being murdered!) until the official Censors had spoken, for he held a Palace appointment which did not carry with it the right of censorship.

His opponents also raked up another charge. His mother had met her death by falling into a well while looking at flowers. Chü-i had written two poems entitled[108] “In Praise of Flowers” and “The New Well.” It was claimed that by choosing such subjects he had infringed the laws of Filial Piety.

He was banished to Kiukiang (then called Hsün-yang) with the rank of Sub-Prefect. After three years he was given the Governorship of Chung-chou, a remote place in Ssech’uan. On the way up the Yangtze he met Yüan Chen after three years of separation. They spent a few days together at I-ch’ang, exploring the rock-caves of the neighbourhood.

Chung-chou is noted for its “many flowers and exotic trees,” which were a constant delight to its new Governor. In the winter of 819 he was recalled to the capital and became a second-class Assistant Secretary. About this time Yüan Chen also returned to the city.

In 821 the Emperor Mou Tsung came to the throne. His arbitrary mis-government soon caused a fresh rising in the north-west. Chü-i remonstrated in a series of memorials and was again removed from the capital—this time to be Governor of the important town of Hangchow. Yüan now held a judicial post at Ningpo and the two were occasionally able to meet.

In 824 his Governorship expired and he lived (with the nominal rank of Imperial Tutor) at the village of Li-tao-li, near Lo-yang. It was here that he took into his household two girls, Fan-su and Man-tzu, whose singing and dancing enlivened his retreat. He also brought with him from Hangchow a famous “Indian rock,” and two cranes of the celebrated “Hua-t’ing” breed. Other amenities of his life at this time were a recipe for making sweet wine, the gift of Ch’en Hao-hsien; a harp-melody taught him by Ts’ui Hsuan-liang; and a song called “Autumn[109] Thoughts,” brought by the concubine of a visitor from Ssech’uan.

In 825 he became Governor of Soochow. Here at the age of fifty-three he enjoyed a kind of second youth, much more sociable than that of thirty years before; we find him endlessly picnicking and feasting. But after two years illness obliged him to retire.

He next held various posts at the capital, but again fell ill, and in 829 settled at Lo-yang as Governor of the Province of Honan. Here his first son, A-ts’ui, was born, but died in the following year.

In 831 Yüan Chen also died.

Henceforth, though for thirteen years he continued to hold nominal posts, he lived a life of retirement. In 832 he repaired an unoccupied part of the Hsiang-shan monastery at Lung-men,[46] a few miles south of Lo-yang, and lived there, calling himself the Hermit of Hsiang-shan. Once he invited to dinner eight other elderly and retired officials; the occasion was recorded in a picture entitled “The Nine Old Men at Hsiang-shan.” There is no evidence that his association with them was otherwise than transient, though legend (see “Mémoires Concernant les Chinois” and Giles, Biographical Dictionary) has invested the incident with an undue importance. He amused himself at this time by writing a description of his daily life which would be more interesting if it were not so closely modelled on a famous memoir by T’ao Ch’ien. In the winter of 839 he was attacked by paralysis and lost the use of his left leg. After many months in bed he was again able to visit his garden, carried by Ju-man, a favourite monk.


In 842 Liu Yü-hsi, the last survivor of the four friends, and a constant visitor at the monastery, “went to wander with Yüan Chen in Hades.” The monk Ju-man also died.

The remaining years of Po’s life were spent in collecting and arranging his Complete Works. Copies were presented to the principal monasteries (the “Public Libraries” of the period) in the towns with which he had been connected. He died in 846, leaving instructions that his funeral should be without pomp and that he should be buried not in the family tomb at Hsia-kuei, but by Ju-man’s side in the Hsiang-shan Monastery. He desired that a posthumous title should not be awarded.

The most striking characteristic of Po Chü-i’s poetry is its verbal simplicity. There is a story that he was in the habit of reading his poems to an old peasant woman and altering any expression which she could not understand. The poems of his contemporaries were mere elegant diversions which enabled the scholar to display his erudition, or the literary juggler his dexterity. Po expounded his theory of poetry in a letter to Yüan Chen. Like Confucius, he regarded art solely as a method of conveying instruction. He is not the only great artist who has advanced this untenable theory. He accordingly valued his didactic poems far above his other work; but it is obvious that much of his best poetry conveys no moral whatever. He admits, indeed, that among his “miscellaneous stanzas” many were inspired by some momentary sensation or passing event. “A single laugh or a single sigh were rapidly translated into verse.”

The didactic poems or “satires” belong to the period before his first banishment. “When the tyrants and favourites heard my Songs of Ch’in, they looked at one another[111] and changed countenance,” he boasts. Satire, in the European sense, implies wit; but Po’s satires are as lacking in true wit as they are unquestionably full of true poetry. We must regard them simply as moral tales in verse.

In the conventional lyric poetry of his predecessors he finds little to admire. Among the earlier poems of the T’ang dynasty he selects for praise the series by Ch’en Tzu-ang, which includes “Business Men.” In Li Po and Tu Fu he finds a deficiency of “feng” and “ya.” The two terms are borrowed from the Preface to the Odes. “Feng” means “criticism of one’s rulers”; “ya,” “moral guidance to the masses.”

“The skill,” he says in the same letter, “which Tu Fu shows in threading on to his lü-shih a ramification of allusions ancient and modern could not be surpassed; in this he is even superior to Li Po. But, if we take the ‘Press-gang’ and verses like that stanza:

At the palace doors the smell of meat and wine; On the road the bones of one who was frozen to death.

what a small part of his whole work it represents!”

Content, in short, he valued far above form: and it was part of his theory, though certainly not of his practice, that this content ought to be definitely moral. He aimed at raising poetry from the triviality into which it had sunk and restoring it to its proper intellectual level. It is an irony that he should be chiefly known to posterity, in China, Japan, and the West, as the author of the “Everlasting Wrong.”[47] He set little store by the poem himself,[112] and, though a certain political moral might be read into it, its appeal is clearly romantic.

His other poem of sentiment, the “Lute Girl,”[48] accords even less with his stated principles. With these he ranks his Lü-shih; and it should here be noted that all the satires and long poems are in the old style of versification, while his lighter poems are in the strict, modern form. With his satires he classes his “reflective” poems, such as “Singing in the Mountains,” “On being removed from Hsün-yang,” “Pruning Trees,” etc. These are all in the old style.

No poet in the world can ever have enjoyed greater contemporary popularity than Po. His poems were “on the mouths of kings, princes, concubines, ladies, plough-boys, and grooms.” They were inscribed “on the walls of village-schools, temples, and ships-cabins.” “A certain Captain Kao Hsia-yü was courting a dancing-girl. ‘You must not think I am an ordinary dancing-girl,’ she said to him, ‘I can recite Master Po’s “Everlasting Wrong.”’ And she put up her price.”

But this popularity was confined to the long, romantic poems and the Lü-shih. “The world,” writes Po to Yüan Chen, “values highest just those of my poems which I most despise. Of contemporaries you alone have understood my satires and reflective poems. A hundred, a thousand years hence perhaps some one will come who will understand them as you have done.”

The popularity of his lighter poems lasted till the Ming dynasty, when a wave of pedantry swept over China. At that period his poetry was considered vulgar, because it was not erudite; and prosaic, because it was not rhetorical.


Although they valued form far above content, not even the Ming critics can accuse him of slovenly writing. His versification is admitted by them to be “correct.”

Caring, indeed, more for matter than for manner, he used with facility and precision the technical instruments which were at his disposal. Many of the later anthologies omit his name altogether, but he has always had isolated admirers. Yüan Mei imitates him constantly, and Chao I (died 1814) writes: “Those who accuse him of being vulgar and prosaic know nothing of poetry.”

Even during his lifetime his reputation had reached Japan, and great writers like Michizane were not ashamed to borrow from him. He is still held in high repute there, is the subject of a No Play and has even become a kind of Shinto deity. It is significant that the only copy of his works in the British Museum is a seventeenth-century Japanese edition.

It is usual to close a biographical notice with an attempt to describe the “character” of one’s subject. But I hold myself absolved from such a task; for the sixty poems which follow will enable the reader to perform it for himself.