Bai Juyi

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  • Born: 772
  • Died: 846
  • Other Names: 楽天 (C: Letian / J: Rakuten)
  • Chinese / Japanese: 居易 (Bai Juyi, Bo Juyi / Haku Kyoi)

Bai Juyi, along with Du Fu, Li Bai, and Wang Wei, is considered one of the greatest Chinese poets in history, and perhaps the most esteemed of the four in Japan.[1] He is perhaps best known for authoring the "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" (C: Chánghèn gē, J: Chôgonka), a lengthy poem which tells the story of Imperial concubine Yang Guifei.

He was originally from Taiyuan in Shanxi province, and later led a successful career as a scholar-bureaucrat at the Imperial Court. Bai's father, an assistant governor, died in 794, and so for a time, Bai, his mother, and his two brothers, moved around the country, living with relatively alternately in Suzhou, Hangzhou, and outside the capital. He passed the local civil service examinations in 799, and the national exams the following year, after which he composed a collection of one hundred statements on government & society, which he had published. Among these was an argument against the ban on members of the merchant & artisan classes sitting for the exams; the ban was eased shortly afterwards.

Bai suffered a series of tragedies in 811: his mother killed herself, and his only daughter died shortly afterwards, at the age of three. Bai had difficulties with his vision, and in addition was exiled and pardoned numerous times, as factions at Court gained and lost favor or power. One such incident occurred in 815, when, just as Bai was returning from exile, the Chief Minister was assassinated, and though not accused of association with the crime, Bai was nevertheless banished once more, in connection with accusations of the inappropriateness of his reaction to the news. That same year, he became a devotee of the Southern School of Buddhism, i.e. Theravada Buddhism as practiced in South and Southeast Asia, a school which emphasized meditation, and the Teachings of the historical Buddha over complex pantheons or rituals.

Bai was a staunch defender of Confucianism and critic of Imperial excess and ostentation; his poetry has been described as clear and intelligible, being written in a plain, accessible style.

The Noh play Hakurakuten tells a fictional story of him journeying to Japan, and being turned back "in the name of Japanese poetry."[1] Konparu Zenchiku's Noh play Yôkihi (C: Yáng Guìfēi) is among many works in Japan based upon Bai Juyi's famous epic.[2]


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 230, 237-238.
  1. 1.0 1.1 Albert M. Craig, The Heritage of Japanese Civilization, Second Edition, Prentice Hall (2011), 57-59.
  2. Beng Choo Lim, "Performing Furyû Nô: The Theatre of Konparu Zenpô," Asian Theatre Journal 22:1 (2005), 34.