Timothy Wai Keung CHAN

Bo Juyi (also known as Bai Juyi) 白居易 was a prolific poet, scholar, and government official active during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). He was widely influential for his realistic poetic style and his emphasis on social reform.

The writings of Bo Juyi (772–846 CE) stand out for their realistic style and content. The origins of Bo Juyi’s realistic approach are ascribed to his difficult early years. He witnessed life’s harshness in his youth, fleeing from battlefields and subsequently wandering from place to place with his family. He learned how to write poetry when he was five or six years old, and later achieved high official posts.

Bo did not have a smooth career in politics. In his teens, Bo resolved to take the national Jinshi examination, but was impeded by his father’s death and his mother’s illness. He finally passed the exam in 800 CE when he was twenty-nine years old and was awarded his first post. After the failure of his political patron Wang Shuwen (753–806 CE), a famous reformer of the time, Bo was demoted and thereafter transferred to various minor posts as a result of being slandered. He was hailed during his tenure as governor of Hangzhou in 822 CE for his beneficial construction work in the area. He spent his final years quietly in Luoyang.

Bo is always associated with Yuan Zhen (779–831 CE) in Chinese poetic history because the two friends wrote in a similar style and advocated social criticism as a mission for literary creation. They laid special stress on “healthy” content and unembellished style. This mission was a direct reaction to the prevalent pursuit of floridity in literature. Bo’s literary agenda was vehemently expressed in “A letter to Yuan Zhen,” which has long been seen as a manifesto on literary reform. He advocated a realist style that reflects people’s feelings, a style first demonstrated in the Book of Poetry and later considered to be a central literary tenet in normative Confucian poetics. This principle was put into practice in his poems written in the series of “neo Music Bureau songs,” a vehicle for a rejuvenation of the realism of the Han-dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) folk-song tradition. To ensure that the social criticism in his work would be widely circulated, Bo put his compositions through a special procedure for revision before being finalized. He read them aloud to old ladies at the marketplace, making sure the language did not hinder comprehension. This practice accounts for the fluid and colloquial style in most of Bo’s poetry.

Bo did not limit himself to one style of poetry. Late in life, Bo compiled his works in four categories: “satirical,” “leisure,” “lament,” and “miscellaneous regulated verse.” “Satirical” poems carried out his mission of social criticism. “Leisure” poems express the enjoyment in his reclusive life. Of the “lamenting” works, his long poems “Lasting Regret” and “The Lute” established his monumental role in Chinese poetic history. The former is a lyrical epic on the love story between Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712–56) and Precious Consort Yang. The latter concerns a music performance along with some autobiographical sentiments.

Bo played an important role in Chinese poetic history. His poetry and literary agenda reversed the prevalent trend towards literary decadence, and influenced many later writers to return to the poetic simplicity espoused in Confucian doctrine.

An Epic Love Poem

“Lasting Regret,” one of Bo Jiyu’s more famous works, established his monumental role in Chinese poetic history. This is a lyrical epic on the love story between Emperor Xuanzong and Precious Consort Yang.

Monarch of Han, he doted on beauty, yearned
for a bewitching temptress;

Through the dominations of his sway, for many
years he sought but did not find her.

There was in the family of Yang a maiden just
then reaching fullness,

Raised in the women’s quarters protected,
unacquainted yet with others.

Heaven had given her a ravishing form,
impossible for her to hide,

And one morning she was chosen for placement
at the side of the sovereign king.

When she glanced behind with a single smile, a
hundred seductions were quickened.

All the powdered and painted faces in the Six
Palaces now seemed without beauty of face.

Source: Wang, Robin (Ed.). (2003). Images of women in Chinese thought and culture. (Paul. W. Kroll, trans.) Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 423.

Further Reading

Hinton, D. (1999). The selected poems of Po Chü-i. New York: New Direction.

Levy, H. S. (1971). Po Chü-i’s collected works. Vols. 1 & 2. New York: Paragon.

Levy, H. S. (1976, 1978). Po Chü-i’s collected works. Vols. 3 & 4. San Francisco: Chinese Materials Center.

Owen, S. (2006). The late Tang: Chinese poetry of the mid-ninth century (827–860) (pp. 45–71). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center.

Waley, A. (1949). The life and times of Po Chü-i, 772–846 A.D. London: Allen & Unwin.

Watson, B. (2000). Po Chü-i: Selected poems. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Chan, Timothy Wai Keung (2009). BO Juyi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 185–186. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

BO Juyi (Bái J?yì ???)|Bái J?yì ??? (BO Juyi)

Download the PDF of this article