Detail of a scroll painting representing Soochow. (Right click to see full sized image)
Although I had intended not to review this book, even if I did enjoy it very much, I have found in the meantime that it is one of the very few books in English dedicated to Ming dynasty poets and that it enjoys a high regard among professional sinologists. So, here goes...
Like Robert Borgen's very fine Sugawara no Michizane and the Early Heian Court, F.W. Mote's (1922-2005) The Poet Kao Chʻi, 1336-1374 (1962) uses all the available evidence - court records, obituaries, reminiscences of friends and acquaintances, and all of the surviving writings of the author himself - to reconstruct a life and times of the poet. Kao Ch'i lived four centuries after Sugawara no Michizane, so quite a bit more evidence has survived in his case than in Michizane's. Nonetheless, like Michizane, Kao died in the ill graces of the government, so a good amount of circumspect self-editing of the writings of witnesses to his life took place.
Born in the fabulous city of Soochow (Suzhou), where he spent almost all of his life, Kao lived in extremely turbulent times, which Mote describes very well. As the Yuan dynasty - the one established a century earlier by the Mongol horde - was decaying from within, various ruthless and ambitious men began armed rebellion all across central China. Fighting each other and the Yuan authorities, they managed to devastate much of the country. One of these warlords wrested Soochow away from the Mongols and ruled much of "southeast China" as the Prince of Wu. But the most ruthless and uneducated, the (by all contemporary accounts) awesome and vigorous opportunist Chu Yuan-chang, won out over all and founded the Ming dynasty, which would last for 250 years until another horde of "barbarians" descended from the north.
Kao was an ambitious man, too, though his ambitions were of the sort standard for literati/scholars. He wanted an official position in the government and recognition as a great poet. Because of the times, the former was quite dangerous. Though he knew some central officials in the government of the warlord who ruled Soochow for 10 years before Chu starved out Soochow, a city of close to one million inhabitants, in a multiple year siege,(*) and put the competing warlord to death, Kao apparently stayed away from an official position. When Chu set up his capital in Nanking, he was not well disposed towards what was left of the people of Soochow, since they had resisted him for so long. So, once again, Kao had to keep his head low (his remaining brother and many of his friends had been exiled by the new Emperor). A few years later, Kao's literary reputation becoming difficult to overlook, he was commanded to become an official in the Ming government in Nanking.
However, the Emperor was beginning to slide into some kind of mental illness and soon was acting very erratically, flying into sudden rages and having people executed immediately, first ones, then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. After a little less than two years in Nanking, Kao managed to get released and returned to Soochow, where once again he tried to keep his head low. This worked for a few more years, but complicated circumstances explained in detail in this book aroused the Emperor's ire: he had Kao cut in two at the waist! The founding Ming emperor went on to establish his reputation in China as the cruellest ruler in its entire history, and that, dear readers, is really saying something...
Though Kao was executed before he could attain his fully mature powers, he is regarded as the greatest poet of the early Ming dynasty. Mote, who is no poet, translates some of Kao's three thousand extant poems (and some of his prose) in a rather nice manner. Some of Kao's poems are also translated by Jonathan Chaves in The Columbia Book of Later Chinese Poetry: Yuan, Ming, and Ch'ing Dynasties(1279-1911). (**)
Influenced strongly by the leading High T'ang dynasty poets (who were once again in vogue in Chinese literary circles) and with a wide range of subject matter, Kao's poetry does not match up to the finest of the classic Chinese poets. BUT, the more I learned about his life, the more gripping his poetry became, for in his last years in Soochow he delivered some of his finest poems; it is also true that I empathized more strongly with the mature Kao than with the ambitious young Kao, who, along with the classics, studied warfare in books and thought he could thus give advice to the ruling warlord how to run his army and was deeply disillusioned when his genius was not recognized.(!) The young man studied swordsmanship and admired courage but stayed well out of all the actual warfare going on around him...
Since this review is long enough already, I'll just show you one of his poems, which cannot be in any sense representative. In Chinese poetry common literary devices are a sometimes posed longing for rural simplicity and a modesty which often rings false. Here in one of Kao's last poems both are completely convincing to me.
My court robes have long been laid aside;
I have the wan look of a thin hermit in the wilds.
I want to keep company with the rustics of the countryside,
Share in their pleasures, forgetting distinctions of "wise" and "foolish."
Since early morning I've been here at this river's edge
Singing aloud, wandering with slow steps.
Suddenly I encounter an old country man
Who has left his field to come and greet me with courtesy.
He thinks perhaps I may be a high official
But is puzzled by my unexpected appearance.
I have already forgotten everything
But he has not forgotten what I should be.
I can't keep him from too polite expressions
And am only ill at ease that he should be so respectful.
My hat's off to the mature Kao, and to Mote for a fine book.
(*) Rats became a delicacy, then rare...
(**) An idyllic essay by Kao can be found in Richard E. Strassberg's invaluable Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China.