History Lessions

The hard road

Li Bai

The hard road

Anyone who thought Xi Jinping might celebrate promotion to the top rung of the Chinese leadership with a celebration or two was sadly mistaken.

After just three weeks in the job, Xi’s message is a clear one: less frivolity and banqueting, and more hard work, fellow cadres.

To make his point, Xi turned to poetry.

Touring the National Museum of China last week, Xi urged China to realise its “national rejuvenation”.

“We have to seize our destiny,” he said, going on to quote Li Bai, the Tang Dynasty poet: “A great enterprise must find the right moment; I hoist my sail into the clouds and cross the mighty ocean.” (Translation by Geoffrey Waters, 300 Tang Poems.)

Li Bai’s own life didn’t exactly exemplify the sober, disciplined message that Xi is keen to project. Li’s said to have drowned embracing the moon’s reflection in the water, when out on his boat one night (presumably very much in his cups).

The first part of Li’s poem, The Hard Road, examines the hedonistic lifestyle that Xi has targeted among Party officials:

“In my golden cup, pure wine worth ten thousand a pint;

on a jade plate, fine food worth ten thousand coins.”

Yet Li is also uneasy about his luxurious lifestyle:

I stop drinking and put down my chopsticks, unable to eat,

Draw my sword to dance, look anxiously in all directions.

I want to cross the Yellow River, but ice blocks my way;

I want to climb Mount Taihang, but snow fills the sky.

In idleness I drop a hook into the azure creek,

Suddenly I’m back in my boat, dreaming of distant places.

Travelling is hard!

Travelling is hard!

So many forks in the road –

Which one to take?

The message that Xi is seeking to communicate with Li’s verse is that China has great challenges ahead, and that those with the responsibility of leadership need to drop their lives of pleasure and think more about the journey they face.

Or, as Xi said during his museum tour: “We have to seize our destiny.”

As for Li Bai: he was one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty, born in 701 in what today is Kazakhstan, before moving to Sichuan province as a young boy, according to Brett Foster, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Li studied swordsmanship – note the reference to “draw my sword” in the poem – and was expected to become an official. But instead he chose to become a poet, perhaps due to his “exuberance and unpredictable behaviour,” as Foster calls it. The Hard Road is a poem “that gives pause, about deciding upon a journey and dreaming of the choice ahead,” wrote Foster. Fitting, coming from a new leader who must make his mark, as well as steer a large and increasingly fractious nation forward.

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