A Tang dynasty beauty plays the Qin (Chinese zither) in a detail of the painting “Tuning Qin, Drinking Tea” attributed to Zhou Fang (AC 780–810).
Li Shangyin lived a precarious existence during a tumultuous age—six emperors ruled during his lifetime. Although Li is best known as a “love poet” who expressed his sorrows and struggles in the context of unrequited or thwarted romance, the label doesn’t account for his artistic depth and range. Nearly six hundred of his poems survive and have been studied and admired for centuries.
Li Shangyin was a literatus-official who lived during the chaotic waning years of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). His zi, or courtesy name—a two-syllable pseudonym that replaced a given name, but was never used in conjunction with the family name, of an educated Chinese man—was Yishan. Although he never achieved an official post higher than the fifth level (out of nine), remarkably he survived the turbulence of continual court purges, regime changes, mass murder, and revolution that dominated the political atmosphere of his day. The statistic often cited in relation to the chaotic political backdrop of Li Shangyin’s writings is that six emperors ruled during his life. As a result, Li often struggled to survive in the combat between at least two powerful political factions to which he was obligated to appeal for support and livelihood. The instability that dominates Li’s biography enables his readers to understand why his poems are full of heart-rending sorrow and despair.
Li often expressed his despair in poems of unrequited or severed romance. It was conventional in traditional poetry to guise political appeals in romantic allegory, and Li elevated this kind of writing to an unprecedented level of sophistication. His four-poem suite “The Terrace of Yan,” for example, may be profitably read as an expression of genuine romantic despair. His famous “Untitled Poems” are usually read as multilayered compositions, with a surface mimesis (imitation) concerning romantic interludes and other layers that communicate sadness over political and moral decline or appeal to possible political patrons. Many of Li’s romantic poems also refer and allude to fantastic myths and colorful historical legends. Although Li continues to be referred to today in major monographs as the greatest “love poet” of the tradition, this appellation does not suffice in connoting his range or depth.
Li has been admired over the centuries as the greatest master, after Du Fu (712–770), of heptasyllabic (seven-syllable) regulated verse. More than half of his 598 extant poems are written in this form, of which the majority of his “Untitled Poems” deserve to be called masterpieces. Whereas Du Fu is usually considered the greatest writer of regulated verse, Li Shangyin achieves the more romantic, ambiguous, refined, and allusive presentation in this form.
You ask when I’m coming: alas not just
How the rain filled the pools on that night
when we met!
Ah, when shall we ever snuff candles again,
And recall the glad hours of that evening of
A major field of Li Shangyin studies consists of detailed exploration of his regulated poem, “The Brocade Zither.” Considered both his pièce de résistance and a concentrated exhibition of all his poetic virtues, the poem is also difficult. For most readers “The Brocade Zither” concerns Li’s regrets over lost love, but some readers observe that the unexpected shifts among allusions, images, and the texture of the poetic language reveal the poem as a meditation on the unreliability of language in capturing the illusive memory.
Indeed, “beauty in ambiguity” best describes Li Shangyin’s overall poetic contribution. This idiosyncrasy of Li’s poems led Liang Qichao (1873–1929) to write his famous assessment of Li Shangyin: “I cannot figure out what Yishan’s poems are about…but I feel they are beautiful” (cited in Wu 1998, 169).
Hervouet, Y. (1995). Amour et politique dans la Chine ancienne: Cent poèmes de Li Shangyin, 812–858 [Love and politics in ancient China: One hundred poems by Li Shangyin, 812–858]. Paris: De Boccard.
Liu, J. J. Y. (1969). The poetry of Li Shang-yin: Ninth century baroque Chinese poet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Owen, S. (2006). The late Tang: Chinese poetry of the mid-ninth century (827–860). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center.
Wu, Fusheng. (1998). The poetics of decadence: Chinese poetry of the southern dynasties and late Tang periods. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Yu Shucheng and Liu Xuecuo. (Eds.). (1988). Li Shangyin shige jijie [A comprehensive annotation of Li Shangyin’s poetry]. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.
Source: Pike, Tyler C.. (2009). LI Shangyin. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1319–1320. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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