Po Chü-i (772-846) was a Chinese poet best known for his ballads and satirical poems. He held the view that good poetry should be readily understood by the common people and exemplified it in poems noted for simple diction, natural style, and social content.
On Feb. 28, 772, Po Chü-i was born in Hsin-cheng, Honan, to a family of poets and minor officials. In his childhood he stayed with his mother and other members of the family while his father went south to take up prefectural positions in the Yangtze region. When military governors of the northern provinces rebelled against the government in 782, the family moved southward to Fu-li (northern Anhwei) and later to Chü-chou (western Chekiang) to be near Po's father, who held successive official appointments in these districts.
In his early youth Po Chü-i prepared himself for the civil service examination but was delayed in taking it by his father's death in 794. In 800 he went to Ch'ang-an, the capital, where he soon obtained the chinshih degree. Three years later, after having passed the Board of Civil Service examination, he was appointed collator at the Imperial Secretariat, to work with books and documents in the archives.
Civil Service Career
Po Chü-i made friends with the young literary set in the capital. Many of them, including Yüan Chen and Liu Yü-hsi, remained his lifelong poetic companions, and several rose to prominence as prime ministers. In 806, after passing the palace examination, he became magistrate of Chou-chih in the metropolitan area. In his official role as tax collector, he personally witnessed the sad plight of the people. Upon returning to the court the following year, he was appointed member of the Han-lin Academy (807), to draft imperial edicts, and junior reminder (808) in the State Chancellery, to advise the Emperor on his remissions. In 811 he was intendant in the Census and Revenue Bureau of the metropolitan area when his mother died.
Earlier (804) Po Chü-i had moved the members of his family to their ancestral site at Hsia-kuei near Ch'ang-an and had married (807) the daughter of the influential Yang family, by whom he had a daughter the next year. After his mother's death, he retired to Hsia-kuei for mourning. About the same time, he lost his daughter. His health deteriorated because of these afflictions, and he was often sick. It was not until 814 that he regained his health and went back to the capital, where he was given a position as junior counselor in the Eastern Palace, that is, to the crown prince.
During these years in the capital, Po Chü-i wrote some of his most celebrated poems, such as the Ballad of Everlasting Sorrow, Songs of the Land of Ch'in (the Ch'ang-an district), and the New Music Bureau Poems. The last two groups of poems, totaling 60 pieces, are imitation folk songs in which he attacked militarism, the draft, heavy taxation, court extravagance, official abuses, and oppression. One of the poet's barbs was directed at the powerful eunuchs, who not only preyed upon the people but seized power in the government.
In 815 Po Chü-i himself fell victim to the eunuchs' political machinations, was banished from the capital, and was sent as a subprefect to Chiang-chou (modern Chiu-chiang in Kiangsi). The job involving little official duty, he spent his time in visiting scenic spots and writing poems, including the famous Ballad of the Lute. While in Chiang-chou, he made the first collection of his poetry, which numbered some 800 pieces at that time. He also expounded his literary credo in a letter to Yüan Chen: "Literature should be written to serve one's own generation, and poems and songs to influence public affairs."
In 818 Po was appointed governor of Chung-chou in Szechwan, even farther away from the center of T'ang culture. While there, he compiled a group of poems, Bamboo Sprig Songs, describing local customs. In the winter of 820 he returned to the capital for a minor position in the Board of Punishments. The end of his political exile, however, brought no joy to the poet, who found himself a reluctant eyewitness to further political intrigues and corruptions.
Po Chü-i spent the happiest years of his official career in Hangchow and Soochow (Wuhsien), where he was governor respectively in 822-824 and 825-826. Unlike Chung-chou, these were populous and beautiful cities. While in Hangchow, he built an embankment around the West Lake that was known henceforth as the Po Embankment. After returning to Ch'ang-an from these provincial posts, he held two of the highest government positions in his life, superintendent of the Imperial Secretariat (827) and vice president of the Board of Punishments (828). But by that time he was weary of officialdom and ready for retirement.
Earlier, in 825, during the interval between his two governorships, he had purchased a house in Loyang, which he made his home when he left Ch'ang-an in 829 to take up a sinecure appointment as the "guest of the crown prince." Except for a 2-year period (831-833) as mayor of metropolitan Honan (Loyang), Po had no active official duty and led a carefree, leisurely, and peaceful life, disturbed only by the death of his family members and friends. He took philosophically these losses as well as his lonely old age. He continued to write poems—a total of 3, 500 by the time he made the final collection of his poetic works in 839. The last years of his life were uneventful. He died in September 846, at the advanced age of 74.
Po Chü-i's poetic fame was already widespread during his lifetime. He was not only one of the most productive of the T'ang poets, but also the most fortunate in that a large bulk of his writings has survived. They give a clear picture of the poet's life, his personality and temperament, his likes and dislikes. They also reveal his social and political views, the events of his time, and his relationships with friends—many of them influential scholar-officials who guided the destiny of the nation in the early 9th century. Several hundred of his poems are immensely popular and will remain a lasting monument to his achievement. By stressing the utilitarian and moral concept of literature in the Confucian tradition, he brought to Chinese poetry a new direction, a sense of moral integrity, and a serious concern for the social problems of the period.
Further Reading on Po Chü-i
The best-known English translator of Po Chü-i is Arthur Waley, who has done a large number of Po's poems. Waley's Life and Times of Po Chü-i (1949) is a critical study with new translations of 100 poems; his Chinese Poems (1948) is recommended for wider familiarity with Chinese poetry. See also Eugene Feifel, Po Chü-i as a Censor (1961), and Howard S. Levy, Translations from Po Chü-i's Collected Works, vol. 1: The Old Style Poems and vol. 2: The Regulated Poems (1971).