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Reviewed by:
  • Qiancheng Li (bio)
Paula M. Varsano. Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and Its Critical Reception. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. x, 381 pp. Hardcover $49.00, ISBN 0-8248-2573-x.

Li Bo (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770) are lauded as China's greatest poets, but the amount of scholarship accorded Li seems incompatible with his status in the history of Chinese literature. Not that Li Bo is neglected—far from it: Li Bo is a poet about whom every poet, scholar, or critic has something to say, and the critical works we have are of high quality. He embodies an ideal, not only in poetry, but in real life as well. He is also a colorful figure on stage and in short stories; for instance, he is the protagonist of Tu Long's (1543-1605) Caihaoji and Jiang Shiquan's (1725-1785) Caishiji. What is lacking, it seems, is full-length works devoted to him. For example, in terms of traditional critical editions (one of the most important forms of traditional criticism and scholarship), the sheer number of Du Fu's complete works offers a somewhat embarrassing contrast.

One of the reasons for this discrepancy is that, simply put, Li Bo defies analysis. It is difficult to define and describe his poetic provenance, a legendary immortal who has been banished to the earth and, after a brief but dazzling sojourn, returns to his heavenly home, leaving a trace, tantalizingly elusive but no less attractive to us—hence the title of this book. As a result, there are some Li Bo enthusiasts who warn against too much attention to detail. The author of the book poignantly feels this "sense of apprehension": "This uneasiness arises in large part from an acute awareness of the same paradox that has both stimulated and challenged [End Page 474] previous critics: that of venturing to qualify and analyze the very thing that Li Bo's readers would like to safeguard from qualifying and analysis" (p. 23).

Paula M. Varsano's admirable book-length study of the poet is a most welcome and long overdue work, especially when we consider the difficulties this kind of project involves. This is a daunting task, and the author's courage is matched only by her competence in handling the subject. The book is divided into two parts (five chapters), flanked by an apt introduction and a stimulating epilogue. The long introduction maps out the context for the author's discussions by situating Li Bo in the entire tradition of Chinese poetry and criticism and lays the theoretical foundation for further discussion.

Many of the important cultural traditions and phenomena in China are configured as pairs, such as the Classic of Poetry (Shijing) and the Songs of the South (Chuci); the Tang and Song poetry, with Tang and Song as aesthetic concepts; the Southern and Northern Schools in painting; and even Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai in the monumental The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng), also known as The Story of the Stone (Shitouji). Li Bo and Du Fu constitute the pivotal pair among poets, manifested in such bipolar concepts, applied to them and the poetics they represent, as, essentially, xu (glossed by the author as "unfounded" or "unfoundedness") and shi ("substantive"), and, derivatively, cai (talent) and xue (learning), shen (inspiration) and gong (talent), wen (pattern) and zhi (substance), and bukexue (unlearnability) and kexue (learnability). Varsano's analysis is informed by Andrew Plaks' discussion of bipolar complementarity and recent theories of aesthetic plenitude. The author configures the two poets in such a way: one defines the other by contrast and thus complements, "completes," the other. "In effect, it is precisely Du Fu's self-contained perfection that necessitates Li Bo's promise of uncontainable infinity; it is this negatively rendered Li Bo who is deemed capable of lending true plenitude to the otherwise partial picture of Du Fu's perfection" (p. 7).

Varsano is well aware that Li Bo, like Du Fu, "has become inextricable from the discourse that has grown up around him, and discussion of his work can hardly avoid being discussion of Li Bo criticism" (p...


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