Li He

Li He
(Li Ho)
   A Chinese poet of the late TANG DYNASTY, Li He was a child prodigy who died at the age of 26. Li He defied the norm of Chinese poetry—the classical balance, order, and harmony—in favor of an emotional, highly subjective style that focused on striking images of death and the supernatural. Though popular in his own day, Li He’s poetry soon fell out of fashion, only to be revived in the 20th century, particularly among Western students of Chinese literature.
   Born in Changgu (Ch’ang-ku) in modern Henan (Honan), Li He was from an impoverished family, but one that traced its ancestry to the Tang royal house.His father, Jinsu (Chin-su), was at one point magistrate of his county. From his early days, Li He was in somewhat delicate health, and he is described as having been exceedingly thin, with bushy eyebrows and long fingernails, and with hair that had turned white at the temples by the time he was 18. A precocious child, Li He began writing poetry, according to legend, at the age of seven. Anecdotes about his youthful skills abound, at least two of which describe him at a very young age, astounding the famous poet HAN YU with his verse. By the age of 15, his reputation as a poet had spread even to the capital at Changuan (Ch’ang-an). He was known particularly for his poems in the yuefu (yu’eh-fu), or traditional ballad style.
   His father probably died in 806, and at 21, spurred by his family’s poverty and his own drive to achieve something worthy of his royal blood and his literary talent, Li He traveled to Henan to take the district examination to qualify him for the JINSHI (chin-shih) degree, the initial step in what he hoped would be an influential political career. After receiving outstanding marks on the district exam, Li He traveled to the capital at Chang-an to take the ju (chü) exam—the final step for the jinshi degree. He was sponsored by the poet Han Yu (then magistrate of Henan) and by Huang Fushi (Huang-fu Shih), another high-ranking official. But Li He never got the chance to take the exam. Apparently one of his competitors in the examination had raised the charge that Li He, should he pass the examination and assume the title jinshi, would be breaking a “character taboo”—the “Jin” of his father’s name or a homophone for the first character of “jinshi,” and it was considered taboo for a man to have the same name as his father.While the taboo sounds absurd in modern times, such taboos were taken seriously during the Tang dynasty. Still it seems a technicality that could have been simply an excuse to deny Li He the chance to achieve jinshi status: He is known for having had an arrogant personality, and could easily have offended the wrong person. In any case Li He stayed in Chang-an until it became obvious he would never have a chance to take the exam, and then returned home in 811. By virtue of his father’s status, however, Li He was appointed to a minor position—that of supervisor of ceremonies—and in 812 he returned to Chang’an to take this post. He found it dull and disappointing, and his health was declining.He resigned his position in 813 and returned to Ch’angku. He died there in 816.
   Western readers have thrilled to the fantastic and intense images of the supernatural in Li He’s poetry. In lines like the following, the supernatural and the macabre meet to create a striking, vivid image:
   The witch pours the libation, clouds fill the sky,
   In the flaming coals of the jade brazier the
   fumes of incense throb
   . . .
   She calls to the stars and summons the
   demons to taste of her dish and cup:
   Mankind shudders when the mountain goblins feed.
   (Graham 1965,“Magic Strings,” ll. 1–8)
   Li He’s position in Chinese literature is unique. His literary output is small (some 240 poems) compared to the great Tang masters like LI BAI and DU FU. But in his special area of poetry of the supernatural, Li He stands alone.
   ■ Frodsham, J. D., trans. The Poems of Li Ho. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.
   ■ Graham, A. C., trans. Poems of the Late T’ang. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965.
   ■ Tu, Kuo-ch’ing. Li Ho. Boston: Twayne 1979.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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