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.

Elia on Ha Jin’s life of Li Bai

The Banished Immortal Ha Jin

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.

Still More Mo Yan

At ChinaFile Shelley Wing Chan discusses her enthusiasm over Mo Yan, which led to her book A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan.

Rebecca Liao calls Mo Yan “Passionately Individual, Likely to Remain Friendless,” while Xiaolu Guo 郭小櫓 answers the question, “Are all Chinese novelists ‘state writers’?”

In “A New Normal for Chinese Literature?” Sheila Melvin wonders if China and Chinese literature can “rise above politics and [mark] the beginning of a new “normal” in which writers are free to write and readers free to read.”

In a piece called “Mo Yan’s Middle Finger,” translator A E Clark reads the stories Mo Yan tells in his Nobel lecture and points out what he sees as his self-serving defense against criticism.

My Chinese Books looks at Mo Yan’s short stories, and at Three Percent Chad Post gives an enthusiastic review of Mo Yan’s newest publication in English, Pow!

RC Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today, was interviewed for a Beijing broadcast on Chinese literature overseas and Mo Yan.

In “Between The Red Lines: An American Writer in China,” Amelia Gray says, “It’s not just Mo Yan who has to choose his words carefully. All artists in authoritarian regimes face similar stakes, and it’s time that we as an international community of artists start paying attention to those artists and those stakes.” But she spends ten days in China unable to know more than “the names of Ha Jin and Ba Jin,” as “interacting knowledgably with early- and mid-career Chinese writers is difficult, because their work is typically not translated into English.”

And in response to Charles Laughlin’s “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” (to which I linked in the last roundup), Perry Link in “Politics and the Chinese Language” discusses “two important questions: 1) To what extent, if any, are Mo Yan and other contemporary Chinese writers trapped in a Maoist language that constricts their expression, and perhaps their vision as well? and 2) Can writers who live under political censorship nevertheless find ways to write to write well?”