Bai Ju-yi 白居易 (772-846) is the greatest (and most popular) poet in the Mid-Tang period. In poetry, Bai carried the torch from the works by the towering Wang Chang-ling, Li Bai, Du Fu, among other eminent predecessors of his, and, in the meantime, opened the door to memorable poems contributed by later masters, such as Du Mu, Li Shang-yin, etc. with the new poetic style that Bai created and inspired.
A native of Henan province, Bai Ju-yi, (also known by his sobriquets Le-tian 樂天 [Delighted in Nature] and Xiang-shan [Fragrant Hill]), composed more than 2,800 poems, taking pains to preserve his works for posterity, which may account for his lasting fame. Because of his outspoken criticism of governmental policies and his acts of remonstrance against injustice, Bai Ju-yi was banished from Chang An, the capital, in 815. Disappointed in politics, he turned to Buddhism for consolation. However, Bai Ju-yi later held several important positions: Prefect of Hangzhou and Prefect of Suzhou. He also served on an honorary post as Junior Mentor to the Royal Heir Apparent.
Bai Ju-yi promoted the New Ballad Style in heptasyllabic long poems, the representative and most memorable of which are the romantic Song of the Everlasting Sorrow 長恨歌, which tells the bitter-sweet love story of the Emperor Ming-huang and his consort, Lady Yang Gui-fei, and Song of the Pipa 琵琶行, which describes the music and the sad life of a female entertainer, whom the poet, Bai Ju-yi, encountered during his exile in the south.
Song of the Everlasting Sorrow and Song of the Pipa manifest how the developments of poetry and fiction in Mid-Tang period were mutually influenced. Bai Ju-yi’s greatest literary contribution was to popularize literature, namely poetry, and make it readily accessible to the masses. He strove for clarity and simplicity of language and beauty and harmony in rhythm. His poems, in particular Song of the Everlasting Sorrow and Song of the Pipa, were widely read and admired by people from all walks of life, recited by school urchins, peasant women, sung by courtesans and palace ladies, and written on the walls of temples and hotels. Copies of the two poems were sold in marketplaces and housed in the Imperial Secretariat of Japan. Most of the poems quoted in the Tales of Genji are those by Bai Ju-yi. The combined influence of the stories and the poetry in the two Songs has been enormous, especially in the field of drama, and the Yang Gui-fei theme from Song of the Everlasting Sorrow has become a major tradition in Chinese culture.
In the two consecutive semesters, starting September 2023 through March 2024, China Institute’s Ben Wang, Senior Lecturer of Language and Humanities, will present, teach and discuss in detail Song of the Everlasting Sorrow and Song of the Pipa at the school of Chinese Studies at China Institute. This is a rare, golden opportunity to read the two timeless masterpieces by the inimitable Tang poet Bai Ju-yi. You don’t want to miss it!
With 120 heptasyllabic lines (840 characters, in total), Song of Everlasting Sorrow is a magnificent and stupendous epic whose subjects include intense love, physical and beyond, joie-de-vivre in palace life as well as palace political intrigue with a fatal coup-de-tat and betrayal, heartbreaks resulted from the loss of innocence and happiness, and last but not least, a sweet but heartrending finale scene of a tender and poignant depiction in detail of an otherworldly and divine encounter in a celestial setting. Realism, romanticism and magical illusionism, together with an underlying criticism of ‘hedonism run amok,’ fill the lines of the poem.
The flow of the telling of this dramatic and spellbinding love affair glows with eerily beautiful poetics in a new narrative style without literary or historical allusions that can be archaic and esoteric, making it much easier for the readers, whether high members of the intelligentsia or readers with elementary schooling, to relish and appreciate. And this is the new style (and spirit) of poetry composition created by Bai Ju-yi and relished by all the readers of this dazzling masterwork, all made crystal clear in this epic poem.
The semester of Winter 2024 will be focusing on the 2nd masterpiece, Song of the Pipa 琵琶行. To get a taste of this poem, please read the Prologue to the Song of the Pipa, in its Chinese original and the English translation by Ben Wang.
Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30 PM
January 9 – March 12
10 sessions (20 hours)
$550 member / $590 non-member
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This class will be taught in English.
Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program. A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.
Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”
Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects）at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.
Latest publications in English:
(Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)