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Bai Juyi: The Tang dynasty’s baldest poet

Bai Juyi: The Tang dynasty’s baldest poet

2022-10-02 00:03:34

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

The thinning and graying of the hair on one’s head has been a preoccupation of many writers all through Chinese language historical past, however none extra so than the Tang dynasty’s Bai Juyi (772–846).

Sighs for the fallen

All these sicknesses and worries my coronary heart has recognized
My scalp has superior forward of its years!
It offers up the ghost with the contact of a comb
The hairs drop out and aren’t any extra.
So lengthy and relaxation in peace, I say
Spared their brothers’ silken destiny.

So wrote the twenty-nine-year-old poet Bai Juyi, voicing a gripe that may keep on the forefront of his thoughts for many years to return: the state of his hair, or extra exactly, the progressive thinning and graying that may ultimately go away him with white whiskers and a bald head. Right here he presents his prematurely misplaced hairs as males struck down of their prime; no less than, he notes, dying younger has saved them from the choice destiny of changing into threads of silk, that’s, going white with age.

A late imperial depiction of Bai Juyi. The illustrator has clearly taken care to incorporate the poet’s famously receding hairline. Wikimedia Commons

All through his life Bai Juyi paid eager consideration to the gradual graying and thinning of his hair, symbolic because it was of the swift march of time. So continuously does the established order of his scalp seem in his writings, in reality, that it turned one of many attribute traits of his poetic oeuvre.

One online article charts the poet’s preoccupation together with his personal hair by age, itemizing 22 references from Bai’s poetry from age twenty-six via to sixty-five. This choice is way from exhaustive, however consists of such gems as “Simply ten days after beginning this new job, I seemed within the mirror and observed I had sprung two new grey hairs!” (age 34); “My black sideburns have been accosted by threads of snow: a gown of deep emerald spattered with dust and dust!” (age 44); “These days I solely wash my hair as soon as per yr…however my head simply retains on being half-bald” (age 45); and “My darkish whiskers have already turned to snow, however nonetheless no phrase on once I’ll get to retire!” (age 52).

For grownup males within the Tang dynasty and thru a lot of Chinese language historical past, hair was worn lengthy, as Confucianist thought stipulated that reducing one’s hair was an unfilial act. Sometimes, this lengthy hair was secured in a top-knot whereas one went about one’s every day enterprise. This was normally wrapped in a kerchief (as within the above depiction of Bai Juyi), or, on extra formal events, stood in its assigned spot inside the black hat worn by state officers.

Emperor Xuanzong of Tang throughout an viewers at court docket. An outline of the model of hats worn by state officers within the Tang, painted through the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368).

As we’ve seen within the opening poem, Bai Juyi’s obsessing over his hair high quality was not a easy case of self-importance. Reasonably, his issues sprung from what this gradual, but conspicuous, change made it not possible to disclaim any longer: the lack of his youth and the nearing of the tip. Ever a person of perspective, nonetheless, Bai didn’t lose sight of the info that these had been however small worries within the grand scheme of issues. As a state-employed governor, Bai lived a privileged life, if a busy one. In one other poem, composed on the age of forty-one, he acknowledges the minuteness of his personal issues in comparison with the plight of the widespread folks within the neighborhood.

Upon listening to grief-stricken howling

Yesterday within the southern quarter
We heard the uncooked shrieks of grief.
They stated it was a spouse
Wailing for her husband
Gone at twenty-four.
Similar at the moment within the northern borough:
Coronary heart-wrenching howls of grief.
They stated it was a mom
Wailing for her son,
Simply six- or seventeen.

The wails ring out throughout city
As premature ends are meted down.
All of us bob about on this sea of life
But few get to have their hair go white.
I’m over forty now;
Luckier than most.
Pondering upon this
I see that snowy head
Shining brightly again at me
And I don’t resent it.

See Also

A late imperial depiction of Bai Juyi. Notice the unruly white hairs waving about behind his neck. Too brief to be neatly secured within the top-knot beneath his hat, this was fairly presumably a nod to his hair poems on the a part of the painter.

In a while in life Bai seems to have come to phrases together with his baldness, at factors even embracing it. In a single poem, composed when Bai was round fifty-eight, he displays how, for all his anxiousness over the matter as a youthful man, when baldness lastly arrived, he found that it got here with its personal perks. Lighter the load of 1 top-knot and fewer the 2 chores of washing and brushing his hair, Bai describes with relish the straightforward pleasure of pouring a ladle of cool spring water over his pate on a sizzling summer season’s day. Evaluating his newfound freedom from hair equipment from the chains of his worldly attachment to his misplaced strands of hair, he indicators off with a comment which will be paraphrased as “I lastly see why monks shave their heads!”

Dr. Elizabeth Smithrosser holds a PhD in Chinese language historical past from the College of Oxford. She is at the moment Lecturer at Leiden Institute for Asian Research, Leiden College, Netherlands. Click here to see her Institute page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

Poems so as of point out: Tan fa luo (嘆髮落); Quanshe zhaoying zaoqiu shu shi, ji Yuan shiyi, jian cheng Li silu (權攝昭應,早秋書事,寄元拾遺,兼呈李司錄); Yue xin (約心); Yin mu gan fa, ji Lang shangren ershou (因沐感髮,寄朗上人二首); Zi yong (自詠); Wen kuzhe (聞哭者); and Jie fa luo (嗟髮落).

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