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Li Shangyin

The Poet of Illicit Love

Li Shangyin 李商隱 Lǐ Shāngyǐn (812-858) is the love poet par excellence in the Chinese tradition. His poems, particularly his 'Untitled Poems', set a trend for later Chinese love poetry.

Li Shangyin's life was not a particularly successful one. He was born into the lower aristocracy but lost his father, a low-ranking official, when he was 10 years old. Thanks to his poetic ability, he passed his exams at the age of 25 but soon made the mistake of marrying outside his own faction, damaging his chances for political advancement and leading to a career filled with setbacks and frustration. After being buffeted by the factional politics of the declining years of the Tang dynasty and losing his wife at 40, Li Shangyin increasingly turned to Buddhism in his later years.

Although Li Shangyin actually wrote some notable 'political poetry' in response to declining social and political conditions, this has been far outshadowed by his love poems. Much of his love poetry has a melancholic flavour, expressing disappointment and frustration rather than joy and fulfilment. His poems are highly allusive and capable of many different interpretations.

Some of his poetry is about known love affairs, such as an affair with a nun in a Daoist (Taoist) monastery where Li Shangyin spent some time in his 20s. Many more make veiled references to an illicit love affair which carry a strong burden of guilt and the risk of discovery. Indeed, while many theories have been put forward, it is still not known to whom these love poems refer. A. C. Graham supports the theory that she was the concubine of Li Shangyin's father-in-law and second political master. The idea of disloyalty to a master certainly comes through in some of his poems, such as the 'Untitled Poem (ii)' below.

In the face of this, Chinese critics prefer to interpret Li Shangyin's love poetry as allegory. The expression of love for woman is seen as an appeal to the poet's political master or patron, for which there is a long tradition in Chinese poetry, going back to Qu Yuan. Another way of defusing the 'illicit love' suspicion is to see his poems as an expression of love for his wife, coloured by the suffering that her family's factional affiliation caused him.

(See also the Wikipedia page on Li Shangyin.)

Roger Waters quoted from several poems by Li Shangyin.

Untitled Poem (iii) ('Little by little the night turns around')

Untitled Poem (ii) ('One inch of love is one inch of shadow')

Untitled Poem (vii) ('Under the eaves the swallow is resting')

Willow ('Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn')

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