Why Li’s Political Poetry Doesn’t Draw Much Attention

When I started to think various reasons that have made Li a lesser known political poet, the first explanation jumped to my head was: “maybe his political works are just not great enough.” Of course many more intricate historical elements should account for the result, but this most straightforward point could not be avoided when we take a perspective of poetry itself.

Although a sixth of Li’s poems are politically related, we should acknowledge that it is the quality of the poems rather than the quantity that makes a poet famous.  In terms of political poetry, there’s a monumental figure that has been regarded as impossible to surpass in Chinese literary history. The figure is Du Fu.

Du Fu (712-770 A.D.) is introduced to Chinese kids when they are 7 or 8, and they will continue to study Du’s work as mandatory courses before College. On the other hand, Li’s poetry is only first seen in high school literature textbook, and the works selected are all his alleged romantic poems. The reason that led the editors to make such choices is not unclear: Li’s poetry is hard to understand, and his highest literary accomplishment is on his non-political poetry.

I suddenly realized why Du is regarded as the best realism/political poet throughout Chinese history when I re-read a couple of Du’s poems after intensively reading Li’s poetry for two months: Du’s poetry naturally overwhelms you with profound sorrow, while Li is more or less engrossed in his own imagined world too much to have an all-around view of the society he’s been criticizing. Du’s tone is sympathetic and grieving, and its spirit is grand. On the contrary,  Li’s political poetry is mostly sarcastic. He often entertains a lot of historical references and a bitter ironic tone that make his poems lack “appropriate” emotions.  We usually cannot see he feels sorry for the people, or is worried about the future of the country; however,  it’s necessary for a political poet to have a close view of common people as well as a grand vision of where the nation would go. He has neither–all Li depicts are legendary tales or events happened hundreds of years ago that serve well to satire the current government, and we can see little more than the resentment towards the rulers through Li’s political poetry.   Li is a great poet, and his ironies are very witty, but the overused ironies limited his space to show his sympathy and grief for the people and nation, which is essential for  the success of a Chinese political poet.

What’s more, Li’s writing is delicate and rich in color–in fact, his poetry is too delicate to be grand. While Du’s political work displays profound sympathy and sorrow, most of Li’s poetry conveys thick melancholiness and bitterness. Du lets us see cold rain, black clouds, running rivers and actual war scenes, but Li seems more interested in brocade sail, jade birds, heavenly Taoism songs, etc. Maybe Li disliked grandness in poetry, because a few of his earlier works that imitate Du Fu’s style show his ability to write realism poetry.  Maybe the different historical background caused the two talented poets to have distinct mindsets. After all, everyone is a slave of culture, tradition and history.


  1. pataustria says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post as it reminds us of the importance of emotion and being able to relate to the artist and his work. It is interesting how you contrast ‘greatness’ with other elements like tone or grandeur.

  2. jgcarnazza says:

    This was one of the most interesting posts I have read this summer. Your comparison between Li and one of the most important figures in Chinese literary history brought up a lot of great points. I especially liked your argument that Li’s writing was too delicate to be grand. What I’ve taken away based on your analysis is that perhaps Li was somewhat self-centered in his writing which prevented him from evoking the kind of following Du Fu’s works did.