Han Yu 韓愈 (768–824) is best known as a shaper of prose style, but he was a key figure in every field of literature—and, as a statesman, in politics as well. This poem is a splendid example of one kind of innovation among his many kinds. It is conversational and informal. Not only is its language closer to speech than that of his predecessors, but the repetition of the word luo, ‘to fall out, to lose’ in one line after the other is striking.
This poem is from Han Changli shi xinian ji shi 韓昌黎詩繫年詩集 (Poetry of Han Yu, chronologically arranged, with critical notes; Shanghai: Gudian Wenxue Chubanshe, 1957), 2: 81–2. It was probably written in 803, when Han was only 35. He often remarked on the state of his teeth in poems he wrote to friends in that period of his life. A poem of 812 tells us that at the age of 44 he had a little over ten teeth left; his estimate of a tooth to be lost a year was—up to that point—rather accurate (ibid., 8: 369).
Laments over the loss of teeth, and generally over early ageing, were common among scholar-officials, who despite their prestige led hard lives during their endless travels. Rinsing the mouth and brushing the teeth (usually with a willow twig) was common, but dentistry was not a highly developed part of medicine anywhere before modern times. As in Europe, it was easier to find someone to pull teeth than to preserve them.
Bai Juyi 白居易 (772–846) was among the greatest poets of China. When he wrote this poem, he was only 42, but his health was poor. His failing vision was a topic of many poems in his huge output over a long life. This is perhaps the earliest, and reads best in translation.
The point of this brief poem goes beyond his worry about his eyesight. The last two lines express it. Although as a high official, Bai had access to the best physicians of his time, medicine had failed to halt the deterioration. The only solution left was meditation and other Buddhist disciplines that promised to end all suffering through enlightenment, ‘shaking off the dust’.
From Bai’s poetry collection, Chang qing ji 長慶集 (in Siku quanshu), 14: 16a.
Despite the impression this poem gives of a life involved in great affairs, Zhu Dunru 朱敦儒 (1080 or 1081 to ca. 1175), although he came of a scholar-official family, did not strive to become a civil servant. He was a hermit poet and painter until, at the age of 55, on the basis of his poetic talent, he was unexpectedly awarded official rank and summoned to court. He spent a couple of decades there, first as an official of middling rank and then as a teacher of poetry and painting. After retirement, in his last 20 years, he was surrounded by disciples, living away from the capital—but not very far away. From Kui ye ji 葵曄集, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976, p. 160.
It is interesting and ironic that the first two poems, which are eloquent about the dilapidation of their authors, were written by men who had not yet reached 45, and who lived on to considerable ages. The third, on the other hand, by someone near the end of his very long span of life, shows no concern about physical ageing. His cheerfulness perhaps comes from living long enough to accept that sadness does not rule out joy.
2 These two verses use different graphs, ya 牙 and chi 齒, which together make up the most common word for tooth. Some eminent authorities give different meanings for the two—for instance, molar and incisor, or front and back tooth. Here they are evidently synonyms.
3 The word Han uses is ji 紀, a cycle of 12 years.
4 Literally, ‘the tree and the goose had something to be happy about’ alluding to an anecdote in Zhuangzi 莊子 (51/20/2). Master Zhuang was walking in the mountains when he saw a huge tree, its branches and leaves thick and lush. A woodcutter paused by its side but made no move to cut it down. When Master Zhuang asked the reason, he replied, ‘There’s nothing it could be used for!’ Master Zhuang said, ‘Because of its worthlessness, this tree is able to live out the years Heaven gave it’. Down from the mountain, the Master stopped for a night at the house of an old friend. The friend, delighted, ordered his son to kill a goose and prepare it ‘One of the geese can cackle and the other can’t’, said the son. ‘May I ask, please, which I should kill?’ ‘Kill the one that can’t cackle’, said the host. The next day Master Zhuang’s disciples questioned him ‘Yesterday there was a tree on the mountain that gets to live out the years. Heaven gave it because of its worthlessness. Now there’s our host’s goose that escapes getting killed because of its worthlessness . . .’.
5 Toutuo 頭陀 is the Chinese way of writing Sanskrit dhūta, ‘shaking off ’, used by Buddhists for meditation and other disciplines that overcome obstacles to enlightenment (and sometimes used for monks dedicated to those disciplines). Bai used the term often.