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The Chinese Ancient Social  Realist Poet: Bai Juyi

Art is powerful. It holds influence beyond merely just aesthetics and color. It touches people at an emotional level that allows for inspiration and movement. Art is also pervasive. It can take any form and influence any aspect of the human condition. The emotions of the artist will always communicate. It will contaminate the readers, spectators, or listeners. The people who consume the art will eventually embody the feeling of the artist. After all, art elicits powerful sentiments that inspire actions. Such is the fact that the most prominent realist poet of the Tang Dynasty was discovered: Bai Juyi.

Bai Juyi 白居易 (Bái Jūyì) (772 -846), the courtesy name Le Tian, was born in Xinzheng, Henan province. Bai Yuji is a realist poet that inspired movement during his era. Bai Juyi, along with his friend Yuan Zhen 元稹 (Yuán Zhěn), jointly initiated the New Yue Fu Movement 新乐府运动 (Xīn Yuè Fǔ Yùn Dòng), known as “Yuan Bai 元白 (Yuán Bái).

Chinese poet Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi’s Life Experience 

Bai Juyi’s life was not always unicorn and rainbows. It was full of hardship, struggle, and criticism. His life is divisible into five chapters: Turbulent childhood, career start-up, peak career, prime civil service, and death. 

Unlike many ancient artists, Bai Juyi was not born into privilege. He was a part of a small bureaucratic Confucianist family in Xinzheng, Henan Province. Shortly after Bai Juyi was born, a conflict in his hometown broke out. That is why he spent most of his childhood away from his hometown and instead, in Fuli 符离 (Fú lí), Suzhou苏州 (Sū zhōu).

Bai Juyi’s early genius is visible. He was an intellectual and diligent student. Inevitably, his character and capacity put him in an official position as Jiaoshu Lang 校书郎 (Jiàoshū Láng). However, in the year 806, he quit. A year after quitting, he was awarded the title of academician bachelor 翰林学士 (hàn lín xué shì) after acing the Jinsi examination. In 808, he married a wife. In 811, his mother Chen died. Consequently, Bai Juyi returned home.

However, In 814, fueled by his passion for social change and civil service, he went back into office. He returned to Chang ‘an 长安 (Chǎng ān) and was conferred the position by the crown prince Zuo Zanshan Doctor. Bai Juyi hoped to repay his gratitude by fulfilling his official duties. Hence, he frequently writes letters and poems for political criticism. He often points out the political mishaps of the emperor in his composition. His criticism received appreciation and love from the public. 

In 815, all of hell broke loose not only in China but also in the life of Bai Juyi. That is because, during this year, the opposition assassinated the prime minister Wu Yuanheng 武元衡 (Wǔ Yuánhéng). Despite being a vocal critic of the government, Bai Juyi advocated for the immediate and strict arrest of the assassin. However, he received backlash from the people and his fellow official. They vilified him. Consequently, they demoted Bai Jiyu to Jiangzhou 江州 (Jiāng zhōu) as a Sima 司马 (Sī mǎ), which later put him in a floating position. 

However, there was a paradigm shift in 822. This year, he was appointed governor of Hangzhou 杭州(Háng zhōu) in July and took office in October. It is this time that he proved his competency as a civil official. He built the West Lake dike and other infrastructures that enabled a good flow of traders and imports. In 825, he was appointed governor of Suzhou 苏州 (Sū zhōu). In 826, he left his post because of illness, and later accompanied Liu Yuxi 刘禹锡 (to visit Yangzhou 扬州 (Yáng zhōu) and Chuzhou 楚州 (Chǔ zhōu).

In the last days of Bai Juyi, he spent most of his days contemplating his life. During this period, he formed his philosophy of “poor is alone.” He also advocated for his lifelong battle for “helping the world.” 

On September 8th, 846, he finally succumbed to his mortality. After a long battle with his illness, Bai Juyi died in Luoyang at age 75. They buried him in the Fragrant Hills of Luoyang 洛阳香山 (Luòyáng Xiāngshān) with the posthumous title Wen 文 (wén). 

Bai Juyi’s Works 

The poems of Bai Yuji exemplify his literary genius. After all, he composed poems with a wide array of themes. He also created many forms still used to this day. In addition, he used to compose using both traditional and popular language. It is not shocking why he was known as the “magic poet 诗魔 (shī mó)” and “king of poetry 诗王 (shī wáng).”

Among his most notable works is Bai’s Changqing Collection 《白氏长庆集》 (Bái Shì Chǎng Qìng Jí) passed from generation to generation. His representative poems include Song of Everlasting Sorrow 长恨歌》 (Chǎng Hèn Gē)Charcoal Peddler 卖炭翁》 (Màitàn Wēng) and Pipa Player 《琵琶行》 (Pípá Xíng), etc. is including in his representative poems.

He is truly a literary genius who understands the power of art. Consequently, he harnessed this power through good and effective means. 

Bai Juyi’s Mind and Characters

If there’s a quote that describes the whole character of Bai Yuji, it is this: “if we are rich, we can help the whole world, and if we are poor, we can live alone.” That is because Bai Yuji is a fervent follower of Both Buddhism and Confucianism.

Bai Juyi is also a gentle spirit. He cared about the sufferings of people’s livelihood and wrote many poems reflecting on social life. He does not tolerate evils and atrocities no matter how powerful the person is. That is why he was a vocal critic of the higher-ups when he was an official in the Dynasty. His powerful character translates into his poem. It moves people by showing his concern for the world. 

Explain the knowledge points

心忧天下(xīn yōu tiān xià): be concerned about the world, be worried about the world

忧(yōu): the first tone, sad, grieved, grief, melancholy

For Example

Guān yuán men yīng gāi zuò dào xīn yōu tiān xià。

官    员   们  应 该  做  到 心  忧 天  下。

Officials should been concerned about the world.

Xīn yōu tiān xià shì rú jiā sī xiǎng de zhòng yào nèi róng。

心  忧 天  下 是儒 家思 想  的   重  要  内  容。

Worrying about the world is an important part of Confucian.

An Interesting Chinese Idiom About Making Things Personal

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