Ha Jin 哈金 has written a biography of Li Bai 李白, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, newly published by Pantheon–and Gina Elia has reviewed it for SupChina.
At points, her review gets into the intricate issues of what different contexts do to and for our readings of specific texts:
I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.
But for all of Jin’s valiant attempts at excavating the man from the myth under which he’s buried, it is admittedly difficult to separate fact from legend when discussing someone who lived over a millennium ago, and Jin occasionally does fall under the trap of mythologizing his subject. Take the poet’s ethnicity, for instance. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. After explaining this, Jin writes, “The truth is that the poet has long been uprooted from any specific place and belongs to the world,” a lovely turn of phrase implying that this important part of Li Bai’s family history is irrelevant to appreciating him as a poet.
Yet in the next paragraph, Jin insists that it’s fair to consider Li Bai Chinese at least in his heart, since he wrote about China as his home throughout his life. The author says, “For our purposes, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he was an overseas Chinese — a Chinese from a foreign land — if not a half Chinese.” For our purposes? What purposes? The attempt here to urge readers to consider Li Bai Chinese — in essence, if not in reality — perhaps reveals a bias of the author.
Click here for the full review.