T’ang Dynasty Poetry: Li Po

Li Po (701-762) was probably the greatest Chinese poets of premodern times. It is generally agreed that he and Tu Fu raised the shih form to its highest level of power and expressiveness; later poets at times approached but never surpassed them. Li Po's distinction lies in the fact that he brought an unparalleled grace and eloquence to his treatment of the traditional themes, a flow and grandeur that lift his work far above of mere imitation of the past. Another characteristic of his poetry is the air of playfulness, hyperbole, and outright fantasy that infuses much of it. Here are two excellent examples of his work.

The Difficulties of the Road to Szechwan

How precipitous and lofty is the road to Szechwan,

Harder to scale than the road to Heaven;

Ts´an Ts´ung and Yű Fu opened out this kingdom.

How remote that time seems to-day.

After forty-eight thousand years they penetrated the Ch´in barrier and there

was intercourse between the two countries;

Towards the west the T´ai-po has paths only birds can climb

Leading across the peak of Omei Shan.

The earth crumpled and the mountains were riven; stout heroes died.

Then afterwards they made a road of ladders and stone bridges like a

connected chain.

Above is the Kao-piao Mountain, where six dragons revolve around the sun;

Below rebellious waves beat and recoil;

Even the yellow cranes find it hard to pass this way,

And gibbons wishing to scale it climb and clutch in great distress.

On the Ch´ing Ni range how the road turns and twists,

In a hundred steps nine bends beneath rock and cliff,

Panting we touch the constellation of Shan and tread the constellation

of Ching.

As we gaze up the breath labours under our ribs;

Clasping our hands to our breasts we sit down with a long sigh.

From our western wandering when will we return?

How hazardous are such cliffs and rocks impossible to climb,

Around us naught but sad birds calling from aged trees,

Male pursuing female through the woods.

Or again we hear the nightjar calling sadly under the evening moon among

the empty hills.

How hard is the road to Szechwan,

Harder to scale than the road to Heaven.

When one hears only of its dangers cheeks turn pale.

Peak upon peak touch the heavens with scarce a foot between;

Blasted pines topple over to lean out over the uttermost abyss;

Plunging cataracts and hurtling rapids struggle and boil in chorus;

Waves dashing on rocky cliffs roll boulders down ten thousand gullies

with a noise like thunder.

These are the dangers all must face who come this way.

Alas! For the wanderers from afar who travel such a road.

Why are they come on such a journey?

The “sword ledge” stands august and dignified on the lofty and rock-

crowned heights.

Here a man could close this frontier pass

And ten thousand could not open it.

Ah! If the man who holds it became a traitor

And were to turn fox or wolf!

In the morning we shun tigers,

In the evening we flee from snakes,

Teeth that grind and suck blood,

Mowing down men like hemp.

Ch´êng-tu has its pleasures,

But how to be compared with the happiness of an early

Return home.

How hard are the roads of Szechwan,

Harder to scale than the road to heaven.

I turn my body to the west and gaze with a long sad sigh.

The Moon in the Mountain Pass

The bright moon comes out from behind the Peak of Heaven

Floating in vast seas of cloud;

A distant wind from a myriad miles away

Blows over the Jade Door Pass.

The sons of Han march along the Po-têng road,

The Tartars peer into the bays of the Kokonor.

From of old this was a battle ground

From which none ever came back.

The gaze of the soldiers range to the distant horizon;

Many woebegone faces think of the homes they have left behind.

This very night (their women) watching from upper chambers

Sorrow and sigh, and find no rest.

Analysis Questions

  1. In “The Difficulties of the Road to Szechwan,” Li Po asks “Why are they come on such a journey?” Why would travelers make the trek to the province of Szechwan?
  2. Why does Li Po go into such detail about the difficulties of traveling the road to Szechwan?
  3. What does the second poem, “The Moon in the Mountain Pass,” tell us about the nature of China’s relations with its neighbors?

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