On Ha Jin on Li Bai

Lauded Chinese-American novelist and poet 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.

Because it’s by an award-winning author, the biography has been getting reviews–more than I’ve noticed for any other work in English on a Chinese poet! Yet most of these reviews have little of interest to say (I’ve only linked to one, here: Gina Elia writing for SupChina).

Here’s one that offers an interesting take, though: Han Zhang in The New Yorker, “Ha Jin’s Self-Revealing Study of the Chinese Poet Li Bai.”

In 1993, when Jin graduated, with a Ph.D. in English, he fantasized about a future rich in opportunity. Reality soon intervened: he landed only one interview and didn’t hear back. It was then that he thought of Li Bai (or Li Po, as the poet is known in the West) and began to see hardship as a path to literary excellence

Although both Li Bai and Ha Jin accepted their rootlessness, they had different ways of coping with it. Li sought constantly to cloak his pain; he chased the joy of encounters and used wine to suspend his dread. (“The fine wine of Lanling gives off a fragrance— / Held in a jade bowl, it shines with amber light,” he once wrote.) Jin, meanwhile, believes that the past—and one’s home—become a part of you, no matter the distance. In one poem, Jin writes about his grandmother, who passed away in China and spoke English to him in a dream. “No, no, you couldn’t pick up / foreign stuff over there / You must have been here, / here, in me,” he writes. “The Banished Immortal” is a biography, but it is also a document in which a rootless writer nods to the past inside him. Writing about Li Bai—his life, his work, and his country—Jin finally returns home.

Click here to read the article in full.