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Li Bai is considered one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. His poetry can be both fantastical and mundane in theme, and the combination of the two often creates a unique style that defined his works. Some of the most common themes for Li Bai’s poetry are living terrain, wine, nostalgia, and fantastical elements. All of these themes are present in his lush poem titled “Climbing the Yueyang Tower with Xia Shi’er.” By examining its themes, it is possible to gain an impression of the culture that the author was living in. This paper will examine the themes of terrain, nostalgia, fantasy, and drinking to understand what the author infers about the culture as well as his commentary on it.
The Majesty of the Terrain
Li Bai opens his poem with a description of the view from the Yueyang Tower, one of the most famous towers of China. The description begins in a dry fashion, with a mention of the river winding along to the opening of the Dongting Lake. This is likely intentional as the tower, and the neighboring lake is a very famous location in China and holds great significance outside the context of the poem. However, in a later passage, he begins to describe the mountains as living creatures. Specifically, he creates an image of mountains becoming gigantic birds that carry the moon in their beaks. They are approaching the author, as perhaps the night begins to cover the sky, leaving only the moon and its light visible from the tower. This theme could be used to show the appreciation of nature that was present in the culture around the author, as this specific place would be known and beloved by many people throughout the country (Cai 176).
Importance of Nostalgia
Nostalgia is an almost essential topic in Chinese poetry of the era, and Li Bai’s poetry often covers this topic. In the presented poem it alludes to only in one line, but its significance is great. The poet refers to wild geese flying away with the “heart’s sorrow” when he sees the view from the tower. This line likely refers to the feelings of nostalgia and homesickness that the author experienced in his exile going away, at least temporarily as he sees a prominent landmark of his homeland. The theme of nostalgia is tightly weaved with the theme of majestic terrain. Perhaps this connection shows that in exile he missed the unique geography and nature of China, which may reflect the culture of people who experienced exile (Cai 176).
The last few lines of the poem are dedicated to the combination of fantastical elements and drinking. Both are common themes for the poet, and this poem can be used to show how he approaches them. He describes how he transports himself to the heavens to reach an honored guest. There he receives a passing wine cup and begins to get drunk while a wind picks up and starts to make his sleeves flutter. This element shows both the interest in mysticism and relaxation through drinking present in the culture of the author. The fantastical jump to the heavens is done to do a mundane but pleasant ritual of drinking by passing a wine cup among the guests. The poet does not describe his feelings after rising to the clouds, but his description of the wind can be used as a clue that he is feeling relaxed and without worries as he thinks about the wind flapping his clothes (Cai 176).
Culture and Li Bai
The presented elements show that the culture around the poet was primarily linked to his nostalgia about China. All of the elements and themes of the poem can be used to elicit such feelings. The beautiful terrain and historical landmarks present in the poem are likely to create a mental image of the homeland in exiled people. The wild geese taking these feelings away could signify the relief that people would feel when returning home. The seemingly magical act of drinking in heaven shows that even immortal beings, such as the author, are still capable of feeling homesick and are likely to use wine to forget about the sorrow of exile. However, it may also signify a period of quiet celebration of the return, as the feelings of sorrow were taken away by the wild geese earlier in the poem. Perhaps Li Bai attempts to say that the feeling of homesickness may affect everyone and that returning home is akin to drinking in heaven.
Li Bai’s writing shaped the poetry culture of his era. He was able to create a relatable and at the same time fantastical image of himself and China as a whole by injecting magical elements into mundane activities. The presented poem shows that he felt a great sense of longing while being in exile, and it shaped a large portion of his culture. However, he found solace in wine and thoughts of mystical and fantastical events. His poems are still considered a staple of Chinese literature and will likely remain cherished for centuries to come.
Cai, Zong-qi, editor. How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. Columbia University Press, 2008.