The book: The first of a three volume series, In Superstars: My China in Tang Poetry Dolling offers great depth and understanding of poetry produced during The Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD). In addition to translating the work, Dolling also provides detailed explanations of the meaning and context of each poem. While these poems represent both the culture and art of the time, Dolling also believes these works contain stories and images that remain incredibly relevant. By translating the works of Tang poets, Superstars (Earnshaw Books) is a celebration of their genius and teachings. The other two volumes of this series, Floating on Clouds and Friends and Lovers, will be released later this year.

 The author: Susan Wan Dolling ’76 *82 earned her bachelor’s in English and creative writing and her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton. She’s a Chinese American writer who was born in Hong Kong and studied in Japan, before teaching English literature at Fordham University and Chinese Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. Her translation work can be found in various publications including Poetry, Words Without Borders, and Two Lines, among others. 



Excerpt:

1 - Li Bai from Frontier to Palace

In the spring of 701, a superstar was born in a place called Suyab, outside of China, in today’s Kyrgyzstan. Suyab was in the borderland of the Tang Empire on one of the trade routes that would one day be collectively dubbed the “Silk Road”. He was the 12 child of Li Ke 李客 and Yue Wa 月娃: Ke means “guest”, Yue means “moon” and Wa means “doll” or “baby girl”. Li Ke was a merchant. Yue Wa is reputed to have been a very beautiful woman and sister to four brave warriors. And, as the story goes, it was through her brothers that she met her future husband. 

The night Li Bai was born his mother said she dreamed that the “Great White Star” 太白星Tai Bai Xing, that is, Venus, fell from the sky. Thus, they named him Li Bai, with the courtesy name of Taibai. When the new Tang Emperor, Xuanzong ascended the throne in 712, Li Bai was almost 11. By then the family had moved to Chengdu in China and registered as Sichuan residents. Li Bai was 4 or 5 when they arrived there and, for the rest of his life, identified himself as a native of Sichuan, or a part of Shu 蜀 as it was then called. 

Some have suggested that Li Ke moved the whole family into China proper for the specific purpose of grooming this child to become a scholar-official for the Tang court. Had the family not been traders, this would not have been such an outrageous idea, as becoming a scholar-official was the way to climb the social ladder in feudal Chinese society. Being in the merchant-trader class, however, the family was socially just above slaves. The following is what the social hierarchy in Tang China looked like:

Emperor and His Family 

Aristocrats 

Scholar-Officials and Bureaucrats 

Eunuchs 

Imperial Family Servants 

Buddhist and Daoist Clergy 

Peasants 

Artisans and Merchants 

Slaves

There were laws governing what each group might or might not own or wear, down to the color of their clothes and furnishings. For example, only aristocrats were allowed to wear silk and only scholar-officials and above were allowed red doors. 

Li Ke was quite successful as a merchant, but it is not entirely clear whether he was “pure” Han Chinese, Han being the majority ethnic group in the Chinese empire by far and therefore the most powerful or “legitimate”. In any case, we know for sure the woman he married was not Chinese. Ha Jin, in his concise and suggestive introduction to Li Bai’s origins, suggests she was a Turk. Ha, among others, also surmised the Li family had committed some serious offense in a previous generation and was therefore banished from China, so when Li Ke moved his family to Shu, which was inside Chinese territory, he might have been doing so illegally. Li Ke, on the other hand, claimed to be a fifth-generation descendant of the great general Li Guang 李廣 (184-119 BCE) and therefore distantly related to the Tang dynasty’s royal family who also claimed Li Guang as ancestor. It was perhaps because of this fact or fantasy that Li Ke dared dream his talented little boy Li Bai could very well be the family’s chance to reclaim their Chinese identity and climb back onto the Tang social ladder. ( Ha Jin, The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, New York: Pantheon Books, 2019). 

The Imperial Examination system had its beginnings in Han dynasty China 400 or 500 years previously, but it was not until the Tang dynasty that it became consistently used to discover new talents. Moreover, unless you were already in a scholar-official family – during Li Bai’s time at least, though later this rule became somewhat relaxed – you were not allowed to take the exam, except in special circumstances, for example if someone with status recommended you. In other words, Li Ke’s fond hopes for his brilliant son was, from the beginning, a pipe dream. Having this back story about his childhood offers us some insight into Li Bai’s poetry and his purposefully mysterious beginnings. Moreover, some Li Bai readers prefer his life to be shrouded in mystery and romance, and he himself seemed to have enjoyed the bad boy-genius image and embraced the idea that he was dropped from heaven, often repeating the nickname He Zhizhang was to give him as a “banished immortal”. 

There is little or no mention of Suyab anywhere in his writing. Even his father and siblings were rarely mentioned, let alone his mother and her side of the family. What little there is of such familial information, we gather from his contemporaries and from the two Books of Tang, Old and New, compiled in 941-945. It was not until after he left home that Li Bai started talking about himself and his relationships with others in his writings, and even then, it was mostly friends he mentioned. It is hard to tell if a great deal of what he said about his ancestry is part of that “self-creation” Ha Jin reminds us of in The Banished Immortal. 

Li Bai was no shrinking violet though and was not shy about telling us that by age 10, he had read all the classics, such as histories of the Spring and Autumn Warring States Period and the writings of Kongzi (hereafter referred to as Confucius), Zhuangzi, and other philosophers, and he was already reading esoteric texts and making poetry. His father was his main teacher when he was little. The father must have felt like those parents who suddenly realize they have a prodigy on their hands, and that the child is quickly surpassing them in knowledge and ability. Li Ke began looking for help with his son’s education, first around where they lived, and then, further and further away. Li Bai, at puberty, was not only an accomplished scholar and poet, but skilled in swordsmanship and calligraphy. He could also play some musical instruments such as the qin and the flute. Some of this he learned from Buddhist and Daoist masters that he sought out near where he lived, and from whom he also learned how to tame wild birds. One imagines this latter skill entails sitting very still in meditation until the birds chose to land on him. 

Since he was not allowed to take the Imperial Exams because of his social status, he needed someone well-connected to recommend him, and Li Ke was eager to show off his son. In 720, Li Bai was interviewed by Su Ting, an aged governor and highly respected member of the literati. Su thought the young man had superior talent and said he should become a scholar-official, but it was all talk. Li Bai was nineteen at the time. This was in Chengdu, where our poet first attempted to make connections, but he met with little success. Instead, he made a name for himself as an amusing and brilliant poet, a good drinker and a good friend to many who needed financial assistance, but somewhat of an arrogant so-and-so to others. After five years, his brush and his sword, and no doubt his tongue, had all gotten him in trouble in one way or another. He finally decided it was time to leave Sichuan and look for better opportunities in more prosperous parts of the country. 

His father had money and supported his efforts. The logical thing to do would be to head straight for Chang’an, the capital. Instead, the wealthy tradesman’s son headed for the coast, like a tourist. This was 724 and he was 23 years old. He sailed down the Yangtze to Dongting Lake, then towards today’s Nanjing. As a student of Daoism, Li Bai was in the habit of looking for immortals or at least wise men or hermits, and these were most likely to live in mountains. Thus, he stopped by Emei Shan 峨嵋山, a sacred Sichuan Mountain, one of four sacred to the Buddhists, before leaving Shu. This is a range with three peaks and is so named because they are as shapely as the moth’s brow. As to why a moth’s brow is considered beautiful you shall have to wait until we get to the “Moth Brow Mountain Moon Song”. 

The moon appears often in Chinese poetry, and often in poems of longing. The lunar calendar, which is the traditional Chinese calendar, is full of references to the moon, and significantly, there are two especially important festivals that celebrate the moon, one is the First Full Moon of the New Year, and the other is the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrating the Harvest Moon. Both are occasions for family gatherings. Thus, the moon often reminds one of family or home, and as the moon is round, the family gathers around a round table for the feast celebrating the festival. We say metaphorically, when a family member is missing, “the moon is round, [too bad] the family is not whole [i.e., someone is missing]”. In other words, the moon pervades Chinese culture. Even so, Li Bai readers will agree the moon appears obsessively in his poetry, especially in the early poems. The moon is a good companion, especially to drinkers, and especially when one is drinking alone. It is worth mentioning, however, that the word “moon” appears in the names of both his mother (Moon Child/Doll) and his sister (Round Moon), and later, in his son’s nickname. In his early poems, it seems to me, his mother was never far from his thoughts, even though she was unmentionable, because it would call attention to his own “foreignness”. Calling on the moon was to call his mother by her name. If I am right, then the “you” in the following poem is meant for that beautiful woman who loved and nurtured him in the early years of his life. 

The following poem was written in a seven-character jueju. It might be called one of his many travel poems. It is also one of the first where he perfected the trick of using actual place names in the lines of the poem without disrupting the flow of the verse. This makes it difficult to translate. The poem is called E Mei Shan Yue Ge, which I have translated as “Moth Brow Mountain Moon Song”. [E is pronounced like the uh part of huh?] As noted above, Emei Shan 峨嵋山 is the name of a sacred Buddhist Mountain, where emei means moth brow and shan means mountain. It is situated in the area just outside of where Li Bai grew up. In this poem, we are at the beginning of his journey out of Shu. 

Now, a beautiful woman’s brow is also described as e mei 蛾眉, and when the two characters are used to indicate the beautiful woman herself, they are written with a woman radical 娥媚 and pronounced the same way. Moreover, there are three ways to write the word e, which are all related to one another. The difference among them lies in the radical: when the word describes the name of a mountain, as in this case, we use the mountain radical 山; when it describes the moth, we use the worm radical 虫; and when it describes a woman, we use the woman radical 女. The origin of all three words is the moth’s antennae, which are thought to look like a pair of brows: a pair of beautiful eyebrows on a woman is called e mei, “moth brows,” and by extension, a beautiful woman is also called e mei, with the woman radical. In Hong Kong, there is a small beach or cove, popular with snorkelers, mostly people with private yachts, called Emei Wan (also called Crescent Cove in English, which interestingly, takes us back to the image of the moon), where the e in its name is written with the woman radical. In other words, the meaning of “emei” all goes back to the moth and its beautiful antennae. Thus, I feel quite justified in translating Emei Shan as Moth Brow Mountain. 

In “Moth Brow Mountain Moon Song,” Li Bai uses five place names in four lines and has them flow right into the prosody. I have translated “Moth Brow Mountain” in the title, substituted “Blue Coat Waters”, another name for “Pingjiang” in the original second line; translated “Clear Brook,” dropped the “Three Gorges,” from the original third line; and substituted “home” for “Yuzhou” that was in the Chinese fourth line. Yuzhou is in the last line in the Chinese and is today’s Chongxing or Chungking in Sichuan or Shu. “Three Gorges” is named in the third line, but it is unclear whether by “Three Gorges” Li Bai meant the “little three gorges” nearby or the well-known “Three Gorges”, which are farther away, but both are in the direction of Yuzhou, the direction he was going toward, but with his back to it. I have had to drop “Yuzhou” and insert “home” in the English line (which is in the opposite direction), to capture the fact that he was looking toward home while sailing away from it. Thus, I was only able to save three out of five place names in the translation.

MOTH BROW MOUNTAIN MOON SONG

Half a wheel of the autumn moon peers over Moth Brow Mountain,

diving its reflection into the Blue Coat Waters, bobbing on the waves.

We left Clear Brook before morning broke, facing home, sailing away.

I think of you but cannot see you, leaving you further and further behind.


Excerpted from Superstars: My China in Tang Poetry Volume I by Susan Wan Dolling ’76 *82 Copyright © 2024 by Earnshaw Books. Reprinted by permission of the author. 

Reviews:

“These volumes are a must for anyone who is interested in the Tang poetry which is the heart of the literature and culture of China.” — Margaret Sun, author of Betwixt and Between

“Best book ever!” — Li Bai, poet and drunkard