[Review] “Man of Letters: Ha Jin’s The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai” by Emma Zhang

{Written by Emma Zhang, this review is part of Issue 43 (April 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Ha Jin, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, Patheon, 2019. 320 pgs.

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From the pen of the writer who compassionately commemorated the courageous deeds of history’s unsung hero Minnie Vautrin in Nanjing Requiem, I expected The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai to be a compelling narrative that breathes life into China’s most revered Tang Dynasty “poet immortal” Li Bai, whose name alone evokes legend. Ha Jin, an accomplished novelist and poet, well versed in Chinese and English, is undoubtedly the right person to chronicle the poet immortal’s life. However, in today’s academia where genres of writing are split into ever finer fractions, each governed by norms and regulations specific to its own, piecing together Li Bai’s life is a very different affair from crafting Vautrin as a fictional character. Perhaps the gulf between the genres of biography and fiction is one reason why The Banished Immortal begins rather clumsily, like a set of barely polished lecture notes from an Introduction to Tang Poetry 101 course. The tone is composed and studious, the story is utterly without the alchemy of creative embellishment we expect from the author.

The first five chapters set the scene and introduce Li Bai as an unfettered and ambitious young man gifted with literary brilliance but encumbered by his obscure origin. Jin presents Li Bai as the half-blood son of a prosperous travelling merchant Li Ke (Li the outsider) and his Turkish wife, foreshadowing the poet’s destiny as a marginalised man who never put down roots. Li Bai is most certainly a figure enveloped by mystery and glamour, but the narrative fails to bring forth the charisma of the poet. The plot is frequently interrupted by anecdotes intended to educate the reader about Tang dynasty China and the literati that inhabited it. These anecdotes are well known to an educated Chinese reader but might be helpful to a college student who is learning about Chinese culture and history for the first time. The narrative gives one the feeling of what it must be like to be in Prof. Jin’s lecture hall, listening to him introduce Tang dynasty customs while alluding to and critiquing contemporary Chinese culture and politics. For example, this passage explains the political vulnerability of wealthy Chinese merchants in the Tang Dynasty:

At that time, businesspeople belonged to the lower strata of Chinese society. At any moment the state could—and still can—seize people’s wealth and even turn them into criminals, regardless of whether any crime had been committed.

It provides cultural context to why Li Bai was determined to obtain a government position all his life, and why his merchant father was willing to provide a handsome fund to aid Bai’s political ambitions. But the remark “and still can” brings to mind recent convulsions in the Chinese business world, including the mysterious death of Wang Jan, the arrest and imprisonment of Wu Xiaohui and Ye Jianming and the sudden resignation of Ma Yun.

When describing the intimate bond between Li Bai and Du Fu, Jin quotes the American poet Carolyn Kizer’s homoerotic poem “Tu Fu to Li Po”:

My lord, how beautifully you write!
May I sleep with you tonight?
Till I flag, or when you wilt,
We’ll roll up drunken in one quilt.

Jin then patiently explains that it is not at all uncommon “for Chinese friends of the same sex to share a bed and quilt without any carnal inclination,” adding “[a]ctually, even in our time such a practice isn’t unusual. The current top Chinese leaders Xi Jinping and Wang Qinshan once shared a bed and a quilt in the Shaanxi countryside.” The tongue-in-cheek juxtaposition of this erotic poem and the current top leaders’ exceptional closeness propagandised in the Chinese media makes the reader smile or smirk. If there is any wonder why Jin’s books are banned in China despite his international renown, these pointed and playful anecdotes illuminate. This too is precisely the charm of Jin’s body of works, the seemingly casual remarks and commentaries are treasure mines.

If the reader can overlook or get used to the lecture-like style, the book has the potential to be a delightful read. Li Bai’s personality begins to shine through the pages from chapter six onwards. The poet’s trials and tribulations are eerily familiar to many in today’s literati. Bai wandered from institution to institution, city after city, but never found a position where his poetic flair was properly appreciated. The Tang Dynasty, despite being one of the most artistically prolific periods in Chinese history, was nonetheless a time when mastery in poetry was merely instrumental, a tool to gain an official post, not something with intrinsic value. Poets built their reputations by composing song lyrics for women of the pleasure houses to perform. They scraped together a living by seeking the patronage of powerful officials. Even the best of the poets such as Li Bai was regarded by the Tang emperor as a commoner whose chief value was to entertain. Jin’s book memorialises Bai as an immortal poet and questions the proper position and vocation of a man of letters like him in a world swept away by sensual desire and raw ruthless ambition.

The most accomplished aspect of the book, and doubtlessly the most enjoyable, is Ha Jin’s translation of a number of well-known Tang Dynasty poems, including a sizable collection of Li Bai’s poetry. Laced throughout the narrative, these poems are first presented in Chinese, then elegantly translated into English by Ha Jin’s masterful pen. Though Jin’s translations are clear, crisp and personable, closer to his own poetic style than Li Bai’s lush, extravagant and prideful originals, these poems, glimmering through the pages like ornaments, are still a valuable update to previous English versions. Take the first four lines of Li’s most cherished poem Jiang Jin Jiu (Let Us Drink) as an example:

將進酒

君不見黃河之水天上來,奔流到海不復回?
君不見高堂明鏡悲白髮,朝如青絲暮成雪?

人生得意須盡歡,莫使金樽空對月。
天生我材必有用,千金散盡還復來。

Before this book was published, the most widely acclaimed translation in English to date was the 1987 version wrought by the now 97-year-old translation guru Xu Yuanchong.

Invitation to Wine

Do you not see the yellow River come
from the sky,
Rushing into the sea and ne’er come back?
Do you not see the mirrors bright in
chambers high
Grieve o’ver your snow-white hair though
Once it was silk-black?
When hopes are won, oh! drink your
fill in high delight,
And never leave your wine-cup empty
in moon light!
Heaven has made us talents, we’re not
made in vain,
A thousand gold coins spent, more will
turn up again.

Xu’s translation is well-ordered and simple. Throughout the poem, he added extra line breaks to capture the regular rhymes of the original at the expense of reflecting Li Bai’s unstoppable fluidity gushing forth like the yellow river described in the poem. Today, however, the rhymes sound clunky and the vocabulary unflatteringly colloquial. Below is Ha Jin’s alternate translation:

Please Drink

Have you not seen the yellow river flow down from heaven,
Rushing toward the ocean but never coming back?
Have you not seen the mirror in the lofty hall grieve the white hair
That is black in the morning but snowy in the evening?
When happy, we must enjoy ourselves
Not let our gold goblets empty to the moon.
Heaven begot a talent like me and must put me to good use
And a thousand cash in gold, squandered, will come again.

Compared to Xu’s translation, Ha Jin’s contain both mimesis and rivalry. Similar to Xu’s version, Jin preserves the effortlessness of the verse to honour Bai’s free flowing, unpretentious style. As Jin makes clear in the book, Bai took much inspiration from folksongs and vocal tradition, which made his poems distinctly different from the “overly tight and formal” verses composed by court poets. Unlike Xu’s rendition, Jin’s line breaks are faithful to the original, thus preserving Li Bai’s relentless energy and fluid rhythm. Moreover, Jin’s word choices are more elevated than Xu’s, while retaining Bai’s folksong-like clarity. Most importantly, the line “天生我材必有用” was translated by Xu in the plural “Heaven has made us talents, we‘re not made in vain,” but by Jin in the singular “Heaven begot a talent like me and must put me to good use.” There is no way to know whether Li Bai meant for the line to be plural or singular as classical Chinese does not make the distinction clear. Ha Jin most likely deliberately chose the singular because he is the first Chinese writer who has written extensively about the awakening of the individual consciousness. In his past books, the protagonists without exception experience individual awakening and mental growth. This can be most clearly observed in War Trash (2004), where Yu Yuan, the narrator and protagonist, gradually abandons the use of “we” and turns exclusively to use “I” as he grows and transforms from boy to man.

By translating Li Bai’s line into the singular, Ha Jin is making a signature move, presenting Li Bai as a Quixote-like individualist-hero whose head was filled by lofty ideals yet confronted and humbled by a world teeming with petty jealousy and lowly practical pursuits. In his youth, Bai was deeply influenced by an erudite recluse, Zhao Rui, who “lived and thought like someone who had existed a millennium prior.” Zhao indoctrinated the impressionable teenaged Bai with Legalist ideals, bestowing him with a life-long ambition to become a master statesman serving beside the Emperor. Years later, when Bai finally entered the Imperial Academy, he was greeted by an emperor who endlessly indulged in sensual pleasure, a court filled with conspiring manipulative officials and an academy populated by monks, fortunetellers and self-claimed three thousand-year-old “immortals.” Bai’s only moment to shine was when he was summoned into court to translate a message in Yuezhi (Tocharian) script from a foreign emissary. Bai’s interracial origin, once the chief reason preventing him from gaining recognition, became a distinct strength as he was the only person in Chang’an capable of deciphering such a script. Jin vividly dramatises this episode perhaps because he recognises Bai as a kindred spirit, a fellow poet in exile. Jin writes “[i]n spite of his gregariousness, Li Bai was at his core a loner, a solitary figure in Chinese poetry, like a blazing star whose light also comes from a deep indifference to the worlds below.” In Jin’s treatment, Li Bai is a rare genius fallen into misuse because the nation he was born into was too shallow and corrupt to recognise his heaven begotten talent.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Ha Jin is likely to be the first biographer of Li Bai who aims to give dignity to the women in Bai’s life. Li Bai’s mother, a nameless hu (Turkish) woman, never mentioned by Bai in his surviving writings, is described by Jin to be “a remarkably strong woman.” Bai’s first wife, Miss Xu, is believed to have been loved by Bai, as she could effortlessly appreciate Bai’s poetic allusions, making her his intellectual companion. Bai’s affection for his children, especially for the young daughter who passed away at a tender age, was sympathetically written. Bai’s fondness for his second wife Miss Zong, an accomplished Daoist practitioner, was also made manifest. These are indeed admirable efforts as these women are commonly ignored or mentioned in a single line by other biographers. However, Ha Jin is constrained by the scarcity of available records on these characters and somewhat blinded by his own empathy with Bai as a fellow displaced poet. He glosses over the fact that Bai’s relationship with women was never sustainable, and his choice of marriage or co-habitation was not from love but for convenience. Except for Minnie Vautrin, Jin has generally not been very successful in depicting women in his fiction, and neither is he here. The remarkable strength possessed by Bai’s mother turned out to be her ability to give birth to several strong, energetic sons. The two women Bai married were both Chancellor’s daughters, well-educated and appreciative of Bai’s poetry. Ha Jin seems to think the ideal wife is one that can appreciate Bai’s talent, yet expects nothing from him. When depicting the superhuman patience of Bai’s second wife, Jin even recycles a line from his earlier novel “[w]hat she desired was a peaceful, ordinary life that Bai and she could share together, every day similar to the one before.” Replace Bai’s name with Nan, this same line is uttered by Ping Ping in A Free Life (2007). Under Jin’s pen, the perfect woman is one with no ambition, no desire and no expectations—basically a person who exists solely to satisfy the needs of the male protagonist. That is why despite Jin’s effort to pay homage to the important women in Bai’s life, fleshing out these female characters is still quite beyond him.

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Emma Zhang is a lecturer of English in the College of International Education in Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. Her doctoral dissertation “Domination, Alienation and Freedom in Ha Jin’s Novels” (2015), analyses Ha Jin’s novels in connection with contemporary Chinese society. Her other works include “Father’s Journey into Night” (2013), “No End in Sight – the myth of Nezha and the ultra-stable authoritarian political order in China” (2018), and “The Taming of the White Snake – The oppression of female sexuality in the Legend of the White Snake”. She is currently working on translating ancient Chinese legends Nezha and The Legend of the White Snake.

 

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