Poems of Bai Juyi


杂兴三首  一

Mixed Feelings in Three Parts, Part One


The king of Chu had many private lovers.
His country collapsed as he browsed his concubines.
He also loved hearing the songs of birds
As his women flew, headlong, following each other.


On one embroidered leather sleeve, there sat his falcons.
His other hand, from silken sleeve, did hold his golden reins.
His study of satisfying the palace women was successful.
And each complied by immediately producing a son.


The feminine charms of his pets produced a desolation.
Punishments and politics soon fell into decline.
Dreaming in the clouds, he spent his springtimes hunting.
His regulation of magnificence kept him out all night.


An Eastern wind brought two months of very Heaven.
Like spring's geese, he was upright and voluptuous.
Beautiful women carried his silver arrows, and
Like spring's geese, they trailed behind him in a Vee.


Startled geese fly off in Vees, in their freedom,
But clipped wings held back his lovely flock.
The king took it all in with a smile while
His arrows flew away like beams of splendor.


Looking back upon this shining king,
On all the famous days of this little Emperor's time,
Only one woman ever got the better of him.
Her name was Ri Fanji.


She was more than just a king's amusement.
For three years, she kept him impotent.

-- 白居易


The Chu Kingdom (楚国) ran from 1030 to 223 BCE, when it was conquered by the Qin (秦). According to the traditional histories, the founder of the Chu was descended from the Yellow Emperor (黄帝) -- of course he was. The very mention of the Yellow Emperor is a good reason to talk about China's approach to History. The poem here is another example of Bai Juyi's gentle, indirect criticism of the powerful. It's pretty straightforward. So let's talk about History.

In China, everything before gunpowder was credited to the Yellow Emperor or some similar semi-mythic figure in the distant past. If you came up with something new, you were not allowed to take credit for it. You had to say, "Forgive my intrusion but I have something you may not have heard of yet. It is one more example of the Yellow Emperor's infinite innovative energy. Please allow me to explain." This went on for maybe three thousand years or until things came along which could by no stretch of the imagination or Han cultural fervor be attributed to that first king who lived in a cave, eating rocks and goat scat.

In some realms of History, this tendency continued up into the 20th Century. For some reason, the Yellow Emperor was never given credit for the unarmed martial arts. Maybe they couldn't imagine him yelling "Aiiii-yaaah!" So the credit for all quanfa (拳法 or fist arts) has gone to Zhang Sanfeng (张三丰). And he, clearly, in spite of the very nice and recent statue of him, did not exist. It took until the mid-20th Century or later for Chinese historians to get to the point of using enough actual historical evidence in their work for them to reach this conclusion. They now admit that, barring some untoward historical revelation, Zhang Sanfeng, the immortal Taoist priest and kungfu master, did not exist.

This is why I am historically cautious when dealing with Chinese sources. Until very recently, they worried more about appearances and cultural pride than truth. History in the West is not without its faults, I admit. We still can't admit that Benedict Arnold (with the aid of Daniel Morgan's riflemen) won the battle of Saratoga which ensured American victory in the Revolution. The credit, for reasons of cultural pride, goes to some bozo who hid in his tent. Silly us. But we are still lightyears ahead of China. So even when they say a poem was written at such and such a date when Bai Juyi took such and such a test, I still take it with a grain (or more) of salt.

That said, there is one thing I would like to point out in 杂兴三首 一. This poem is said to have been written in 809 when Bai Juyi is still in his late thirties. And here we see him valuing women. As people. As equals. We can guess from all his chunfeng (春风) references that he may well have enjoyed at least his share of sex. But I suspect, being a gentle man, he was a gentle lover and one who did not objectify his partner.

Again, he reminds me of Bankei, who, 800 years later, wrote that "no difference exists between men and women," that they are "perfectly equal," and that "the idea that 'this is a man' or 'this is a woman' only arises in the small mind. In our original nature, before the small mind arises, 'man' and 'woman' do not exist." Two hundred years further on, Mary Baker Eddy would write: "Gender also is a quality, not of God, but a characteristic of mortal mind." And by God, she meant explicitly "infinite Life, Truth, and Love," not some Judaic bearded guy with a smiting habit. And by "mortal mind," she meant God's opposite.

This first Mixed Feeling was written some twelve years before the other two, even though I have lumped them together. The qualities he criticises in those poems bothered him enough to write about them only later. Injustice towards women, the treatment of women as object and ornament and womb-on-demand, bothered him right here.