Bai Juyi, the son of a minor government official, was
born in Hsin-cheng, China. Though his family was
poor, Bai received a good education that prepared
him for his government service examinations in 800
and 803. After passing his examinations, he was
assigned to a job in Ch’ang-an, the Tang dynasty
capital. His experiences in the capital influenced
his early poems, which were mostly political and
social commentaries, known as the “New Ballads.”
His poetry is known for its clear, simple style and
its reflection of Confucian thought. The autobiographical
nature of his poems also reveals that he
was influenced by the poet Tu Fu.
Despite Bai’s popularity, in 815 his political
commentary caused him to be demoted to a post
outside the capital, in Chiang-chou on the Yangtze
River.While there, he began to address more spiritual
concerns in his poetry.While studying and
meditating at the Buddhist temples on Mount Lu,
he became interested in the work of TAO YUANMING
(365–427), a Buddhist poet whose work extolled
nature and the virtues of idleness and serenity.
Bai’s most powerful poetry reflects everyday
events and the effect they had on his inner
thoughts. Some of these poems include “Watching
the Reapers,” in which the poet compares the
sparseness of the reapers’ lives to his own well-todo
life; “Golden Bells,” in which he philosophizes
on the joy and burden of having a baby daughter;
and “Pruning Trees,” in which the act of pruning
trees symbolizes clearing one’s vision to find the
important things in life.
One of the most famous groups of letters in
Chinese literature is Bai’s extensive literary correspondence
with his friend, fellow poet and government
official Yuan Zhen, who compiled Bai’s
poetry and prose into a volume for which he wrote
the preface. Through its distribution to Buddhist
temples throughout China, the work preserved
more than 2,800 of Bai’s poems.
Bai Juyi retired from public service in 833. He
spent the remaining 13 years of his life studying
Buddhism and adding poetry and essays to his collected
works. He is widely regarded as one of the
Tang Dynasty’s greatest poets.
English Versions of Works by Bai Juyi
Po Chü-i: Selected Poems. Translated by Burton Watson.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
The Selected Poems of Po Chü-i. Translated by David
Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1999.
A Work about Bai Juyi
Waley, Arthur. The Life and Times of Po Chü-i. London:
Allen & Unwin, 1949.