Li He (Li Ho)
The Daemonic Genius
Li He (Li Ho) 李賀 Lǐ Hè lived from AD 791-817. He is notable for deviating from the normal harmony and balance so prized in Chinese poetry to deal with highly subjective, even extreme emotions in tightly written poems using striking imagery. Partly due to his predilection for images involving goblins and ghosts he was characterised as 鬼才 guǐ cái 'daemonic genius' or 'unorthodox genius'. An example of this can be seen in lines like the following, from a poem about a shamaness exorcising baleful creatures:
- The blue raccoon weeps blood and the cold fox dies.
Dragons painted on the ancient wall with tails of inlaid gold
The God of Rain rides into the autumn pool;
And the owl a hundred years old, which changed to a goblin of the trees,
Hears the sound of laughter as green flames start up inside its nest.
Li He's poetry was popular at the time but, with the exception of a few pieces, fell out of favour with later generations, who preferred a more natural, balanced style. It wasn't until the mid-twentieth century that, perhaps under the influence of a Western aesthetic that regarded lines like "A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse" as worthy of the name of poetry, Li He was rehabilitated in critical esteem.
Behind the pessimism of Li He's poetry lie the circumstances of his short life. Although descended from the imperial line, Li He belonged to a minor branch of the family that served as low-level bureaucrats. He was born in modern-day Henan province. There is a story that the famous poet and controversialist Han Yu came to his house when he was 7 and that he wrote a poem for the great man. While there are doubts about the story's authenticity, by all accounts Li He was a poetic child prodigy, starting to write at the age of 6 and developing a considerable reputation by age 15.
Li He's father died in 805 when Li He was only 16. In 810, at the age of 21, he came to the capital Chang'an to sit for the civil examinations. With his genius and dedication he should have been set for a secure career, but it was not to be. Perhaps because of envy, Li He was excluded from the exams on the grounds of a character taboo — the fact that one Chinese character used in his father's name 晉 had the same sound (jìn) as a character in the name of the exam (進). This sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but character taboos were taken seriously in Tang China — indeed, puns and word still play a major role in Chinese superstitions in modern times. Li He was embittered by this blow to his prospects, a bitterness that is often reflected in his poetry. He took a menial official job in 811 but was forced to leave by illness two years later. Due to economic hardship he again turned to Han Yu for help in finding another position, but his health remained poor, possibly due to alcoholism or sexual dissipation according to one website, or tuberculosis according to another. He died at the tender age of 26.
Li He's biography was written by Li Shangyin and the preface to his poems by Du Mu.
For more detail on Li He, see the Wikipedia article.
In 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun', Roger Waters directly quoted one poem from Li He:
Don't Go Out of the Door ('Witness the man who raves at the wall / making the shape of his questions to heaven')
One other is shown here because it contains a similar image to that in the Li Shangyin poem 'Untitled II':
Up in Heaven ('Little by little the night turns around')
In 'Cirrus Minor', Roger Waters quotes another poem by Li He, 'On the Frontier':
On the Frontier ('On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight')