A Possible Reason for Li Shang-yin to Write Vague Poetry

Before  started the research this summer, Li Shang-yin to me was no more than a celebrated, talented and may be unfortunate poet. I loved reading his poetry, but I didn’t think too much about why he got so distinct writing styles, how those styles might be connected with his life experience, and why the poetry written during his late years are so vague.

Vagueness is an important feature that finally made Li one of the most well-known poets throughout Chinese history. He always incorporates numerous metaphors, allegories and puns in his writing, which has confused generations of poetry-lovers as well as scholars. But people are fascinated by his beautiful language and have really enjoyed deciphering his original intentions. Liang Qichao, the most famous scholar in late Qing and early Chinese Republic once said, “I simply enjoy reading Li Shang-yin’s work, though often I find it impossible to understand.” No consensus has been reached for many of his poems, and I think it’s unlikely to have a conclusion in the future–it has been almost 1200 years debating without any widely-acknowledged result.

It was these vague poetry that overshadowed his political works and made him become a romantic icon posthumously. I started to suspect that Li might not want people to get what he meant exactly but was still open to different interpretations–and why could he not have various themes in a single poem?  Why could he not mourn for his unfortunate life, the falling dynasty as well as expressing his profound love towards his wife? Sometimes I feel poetry is all about feelings and meditations that could not be described by ordinary languages. Vagueness also dovetails with Buddhism ideology. Buddha has a saying goes like ” [I] cannot say, [I] cannot say–once [I] said, it can’t be right”   This idiom indicates that some ideas or feelings are too intricate to put into words. I got to know that Li for some reason became a Buddhist in his 40s (he died when he was 46). It’s not certain that Li’s composing style follows Buddhism doctrine, but I think the principle is similar–his emotions were too complicated to be clearly put into words, not even too obvious metaphors.


  1. Katie Demeria says:

    That’s an interesting explanation for Li’s vagueness, and though I haven’t read too much of his poetry, I think I want to go back and read some more. Your suggestion would seem to make sense, to me at least. I know some poets have very complicated emotions and they try to logically describe them to their readers, but oftentimes things just end up getting lost when the poet is trying to bring the words from the head onto the paper. Vagueness, I think, could be an adequate reason for Li’s popularity because it allows the reader to directly engage with the poetry and possibly plant their own emotions onto the words. It’s a really cool technique that would allow the reader to interact with the pieces.