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The Cicada 1

Li, Shang-yin 2 (812?-858 CE)

You perch on a high branch 3.
It is difficult to eat your fill on wind and dew.
Your sad cry of complaint is in vain.
You shout yourself hoarse through the night,
But the green tree does not express any sympathy for you 4.
A low-ranking official like me
Has to wander from place to place
Like a peach-wood statuette 5 drifting with the current.
My garden at home is turning into a wilderness.
My entire family should follow your example
And be content with poverty in pursuing virtue.


1 Shang-yin Li used an object's properties to vent his sorrow and express his philosophy of life. Poet Yi-zhun Zhu (1629-1709) of the Qing dynasty praised this poem as the best poem of those describing objects.

2 Yi-shan was Shang-yin Li’s alternate first name. He called himself Mr. Yu-xi (jade-creek) or Mr. Fan-nan. He was a descendant of Shi-ji Li, the Duke of the State of Ying. Shang-yin Li's ancestors lived in He-nei City (present day Fen-yang City in Henan Province) in Huai-zhou County. Later, they moved to Zheng-zhou County (in present day Henan Province). The Li family was an imminent clan in Cheng-ji City of Long-xi (the western part of present day Gansu Province) County.
    Shang-yin Li was a great poet during the late Tang dynasty. Most of his poems express his concern about his country and his people. Li's epic poems mostly satirize the current state affairs using historical stories. Shang-yin Li mastered quatrains and regulated verses. He loved to create dreamlike charm by using symbols and metaphors. His poetry established a style of its own. He was erudite and committed many works to memory. Once he started to write, he did not know how to stop the deluge of his thoughts. His writings are refined and his themes are clear. He was especially good at writing eulogies and love poems. He, Ting-yun Wen (812-870) of Tai-yuan City, and Cheng-shi Duan (d. 863) of Nan-jun City were equally famous. Their contemporaries called their writing styles the Thirty-six Styles.
    He was able to pass the Advanced Exam at the age of twenty-five because Chu Ling-hu, Tao Ling-hu's father and a member of Niu’s Party (founded by Seng-ru Niu), appreciated his talent. Chu Ling-hu died while he was the Minister of Public Works. Then Shang-yin Li worked for a member of Li’s Party (the opposition party founded by De-yu Li), Mao-yuan Wang. Soon after Shang-yin Li married Wang's daughter. Consequently, Tao Ling-hu could not forgive Shang-yin Li and considered him an ungrateful traitor. When Shang-yin Li was nominated for membership in the Royal Academy, Niu’s Party erased his name from the list of nominees. Even though Li had only a low-ranking position as an editor in the Archival Bureau, Niu's Party still harassed him and demoted him to the position of local official (839 CE). After Shang-yin Li praised the accomplishments of Prime Minister De-yu Li, the former was reinstated to his editorial position (842 CE). Later, Shang-yin Li’s mother died and Li went to Lo-yang City to arrange his mother’s funeral and lived there throughout the one year mourning period.
    Da-nian Yang showed Shang-yin Li’s poems to Shu Cheng and loved the following poem very much: "The bright bead curtain covered a jade landing./ Pi-xiang (wear-perfume) performed a belly dance in the new palace./ Before her dance was over,/ The emperor became angry with Yan-shi." Yang said, "The meaning of Li's poem is so profound that I should praise him all the time." Then Yang added, "The Military Commander, Ruo-shui Qian, of Deng-Xian City (in present day Henan Province) quoted the following two lines of 'Yi Jia' written by Shang-yin Li: The emperor was so absorbed in Jia's conversation during the dead of night that he moved a little closer to him./ It was deplorable that Emperor Wen-di only asked Jia about ghosts and gods instead of his people. Qian commented, 'Li wrote such a profound poem, how can later generations compete with him?'" Yan-qian Tang, a.k.a. Mr. Lu-men, admired Shang-yin Li and imitated Li's poetic style. By doing so, Tang's poems became powerful and full of passion, and frequently contained short witty lines.
    While Shang-yin Li was young, one time he traveled and stayed at an inn. The owner of the hotel held a party and invited Li to attend. The owner did not know that Li was the famous poet. After drinking some wine, the guests improvised poems about magnolia. Li was the last one to improvise his poem. It says, “The waves in Lake Dong-ting are cold./ The morning sunshine gradually illuminates the clouds./ Sailboats carry guests far away day after day./ People ride on the boats and view the scenery./ They do not know that the boats are made of magnolia wood.” After the guests listened to Li's poem, they were amazed and asked for his name. They found that he was the famous poet, Shang-yin Li.
    Shang-yin Li worked for Chu Ling-hu. Chu's son, Tao Ling-hu, and Shang-yin Li were friends. Tao Ling-hu was unhappy that Shang-yin Li's accepted Ya Zheng's (a member of Li's Party) job offer and considered Shang-yin ungrateful of Chu Ling-hu’s favor. Therefore, Tao alienated Shang-yin. On the day of the Double Nine Festival (the ninth day of the ninth month in Chinese lunar Calendar) Shang-yin Li left a poem at Tao Ling-hu’s office. It says, “You and I used to drink wine together./ Deep frost and white chrysanthemums surround the porch./ I have not heard from you since your father died ten years ago./ Today I was thinking of you while I drank wine./ You did not imitate the officials of the Han dynasty by planting clover./ It made me sing about fragrant plants in vain./ Now you are a high official and ride horses./ I should not visit a busy man like you without reason.” Then Tao Ling-hu became a Great Scholar in the Royal Academy. Before long Shang-yin Li worked under the Military Commissioner Zhong-ying Liu of Dong-chuan (eastern river) District as a department head. Later, Li resigned his position, lived in Ying-yang City and died there.

3 "A high branch" represents "a high standard of morals".

4 Shang-yin Li's political career was doomed and lived in hardship. He had the ability and aspiration to save his country, but the government never utilized his talent. He tried to seek help from powerful officials, but everyone ignored him.

5 The following story comes from the chapter, "The Strategies of the State of Qi", in the book, Strategies During the Warring States Period. A peach-wood statuette speaks to a clay statuette, "You were from the soil of the west shore and molded like a man. When August arrives, rain will fall. When the muddy water rises, you will melt away." The clay statuette says, "As a matter of fact, it is not so. I come from the soil of the west shore. If I disintegrate, I become the soil again and it would be like going home. In contrast, you were originally a peach branch in the east country. You were whittled and carved as a man. When the rain falls and muddy water comes, you will drift away and can do nothing about it."