Poems of Li Ye
Sending the Proofreader Seven Friends
(I wrote this to send to Proofreader Han)
With nothing to do in Wucheng county,
We waste the remaining years of our lives.
We never wonder about a certain minor librarian.
He's all alone. What will become of him?
Rowing down distant rivers, we immortals float,
As harsh, cold stars accompany our travels.
On this note, with a roll of thunder along the shore,
Do not forget us and our most formal note.
A letter for a friend who is an official librarian in the imperial library (芸阁). He is a proofreader or, as Arthur Waley put it, an ommissioner. These were men who read over current imperial documents and looked for ommissions. They then sent their recommendations for amendment in a formal letter of eight lines (八行书). Which is what Li Ye is sending him. Ommissioners had, or could have, considerable power. Quoting the classics in their recommendations, they could recommend anything they felt like so long as it was relevant to the document they were proofing. In some cases, like Bai Juyi's, the recommendations were followed and led to acclaim within the court for the ommisioner. This poem gives us no further clues about Li Ye's life and timeline beyond the existence of Ommissioner Han and their friendship. The title suggests, however, that she is writing for herself and six others.
It is interesting to note that this poem has at least four different titles in the various manuscripts. One title would suggest that this poem is for Li Shu who was her (actually his own family's) seventeenth brother (十七兄). And Han, the scholar's name in this poem, is left out of some of those other titles. It is possible that the other titles are attempts to sort things out when you miss that the message comes from a group of friends and is not a love poem. (Not a love poem? But she is a woman and her poems must be about love....) Of course, no one can sort this mess now. Pick a version that you like and run with it.
From other sources, we can clarify a bit of our timeline for Li Ye. I found a reference for her having lived from 713 - 784 where my guess had been 737 to 782. This new data would have her aged 59 at the palace with Daizong, which to me is too old for her to be saying she is middle-aged, given the prejudices of her times. So I went digging. There is some agreement in the final date of 784. But everyone who is apparently serious gives no birth year. We can adjust her timeline on one end only.
I can also say some least-true things perhaps about the Emperor Dezong in 784 and why he might have been killing critics like Li Ye then. As a child, he was forced to flee Chang'an with his father, one of the royal princes, during the An Lushan rebellion. The emperor then was Xuanzong, famous for neglecting state in favor of his favorite concubine. In the flight from the capital, Xuanzong was gently deposed. His concubine was strangled. And his son became the emperor Suzong. On Suzong's death, Dezong's father became Emperor Daizong, who later dies leaving Dezong the next emperor.
At the time of Dezong's ascension to the throne, the large, tame part of the empire was divided into four circuits. The rulers of these circuits, in those times of turmoil, were busy turning China into four circuit-kingdoms, ruled by descent through their own families, nominally honoring the emperor. Dezong was having none of this. He got together an army and put down the circuit officials and their troops. Then he messed up. Dezong offended his two primary generals by not rewarding them in a meaningful way. So they joined the late rebels and re-revolted. (This is a leitmotif of the entire Tang dynasty, by the way.)
Long story short, before all the rebellions were put down, Dezong managed to insult his own troops (again) and a mutiny occurred in the capital in November of 783. So Dezong is again forced to flee and did not fight his way back into Chang'an until late 784. (The whole mess won't be over until summer of 786.) Dezong, in the autumn of 784 is not in a good mood. Clearly, some spiteful killing of critics would not be unlikely at this time. Li Ye could well have been one of the victims.