Frank and I enjoyed the last Yusen search so much that it was exciting to see that he had another Yusen pot that we could research.
Pay particular attention to the scene drawn on this side of the pot. The figure in the window and the moon in the sky allowed us to confirm the poem that was written on the side of the pot shown next.
It is this writing that we want to translate to see if it gives us insight into the painted scene on the other three sides of the pot. Once again our friend Mary confers with her resource in China and three clues are given.
Mary returns to let us know that they were able to translate three things written on this pot. 1) The poem is written by Li Bai; 2) moonlight; and, 3) frost. It is with these three clues we begin to search for an answer.
Li Bai (701-762) was one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty; also known as Li Po, Li Bo and Li Pai. The Tang era was a golden age of Chinese poetry, and Li Bai’s works made up a major part of this. A large number of poems from this period still survive today, they have been translated into many languages all over the world. Li Bai is one of the most famous and well respected poets of the era.
Li Bai was given the title of ‘Heavenly Poet’ (shih-xian) by the people and is considered the most influential and famous poet in Chinese history. His poems are romantic in style, using hyperbolic language and imagery without making it seem excessive, and are otherwise passionate and imaginative. His poems cover a wide range of topics, including politics, nature, social issues. It seems the poem was written between 756-762 AD, as he was exiled in 756.
Now that we know who Li Bai is let’s see if we can determine if any poems he has written contain text or imagery that we see on Frank’s pot.
The Poem – Night Thoughts
It took about a half an hour to find several sites that has both the Chinese and English translations of a number of Li Bai’s poems. There were three that had similarities but one that was a match and that poem is entitled Night Thoughts. What follows is an English translation of the poem.
Night Thoughts by Li Bai
The moonlight glistens in front of my bed.
I thought it was the frost on the ground.
I lift my gaze to view the shimmering moon,
Then lower my head, and miss my homeland.
Let’s look at the panel that gives us the most insight.
In this scene we have Li Bai in the window of what we believe to be his bedroom with the moon high in the sky. Also notice Li Bai’s head position – turned down – as is described in the last line of the poem.
So why would Li Bai have written this poem about missing his homeland. A little research turned up the answer.
More Detail On His Exile
At the end of 756, the An Lushan disorders burst across the land. The Emperor eventually fled to Sichuan; then, later, during the confusion, the Crown Prince opportunely declared himself the head of government. As the An Shi disturbances continued, Li Bai became an adviser to one of Ming Huang’s sons, who was far from the top of the primogeniture list, yet nevertheless apparently made his own bid for the imperial power.
Upon the defeat of the Prince’s forces, Li Bai escaped, but was later captured, imprisoned in Jiujiang, and sentenced to death. The famous and powerful army General Guo Ziyi intervened: this was the same general whom Li Bai had saved from court martial a couple of decades previously. Upon General Guo Ziyi’s offering to exchange his official rank for Li Bai’s life, Li Bai’s death sentence was commuted to exile: he was consigned to Yelang. Yelang (in Yunnan) was then in the remote extreme of the empire.
Towards the destination of Yelang, Li Bai headed with little sign of hurry, stopping for prolonged social visits, and writing poetry along the way, leaving detailed descriptions of his journey for posterity. Notice of an imperial pardon recalling Li Bai reached him before he even got close to Yelang.
We are convinced the writing on Frank’s Yusen pot is the poem Night Thoughts written by Li Bai between 756 AD and his death in 762. We know that he was exiled and during this exile he wrote many of his poems. The parallel between his exile during this period and his description of missing his home/homeland is just too strong of a connection.
Through these two searches it has become clear that Yusen greatly enjoyed Chinese poetry as it became the inspiration for many of his bonsai pots.
We have included a short background study on Li Bai for those that might be interested. Many thanks to Frank for bringing these high quality pots to America and for giving KJ and I the opportunity to research this for him. It has been a rewarding time in doing so.
The Chinese Poet Li Bai
“Li Bai was born in 701, the exact location of his birth is unknown but it is believed to be in Central Asia. Some believe he was born in Suiye which is now Kyrgyzstan. There is a story that his mother had a dream of a falling white star and then fell pregnant with him. This gave rise to a myth that he was a fallen immortal who had come to Earth.
When Li Bai was a young child his family was moved to Sichuan in secret by his father. He remained here until his mid-twenties. His memoirs suggest that he was a gifted swordsman and martial artist. He claimed to have killed several men by the time he was twenty.
Upon reaching his mid-twenties he set sail on Yangzi River and began life as a wanderer. He married the grand-daughter of a former ruler of China, gave away much of his wealth and met famous people. He became a celebrity himself and continued to travel. He joined up with a group of other poets who also enjoyed writing about and drinking wine.
Li Bai was considered a genius and became a friend and adviser to the Emperor. When war broke out and the Emperor was removed a power vacuum was created. Li Bai made an attempt to seize power, he was unsuccessful and sentenced to death. A general who Li Bai had befriended and helped many years earlier intervened on his behalf and he was exiled instead.
He continued his nomadic lifestyle but traveled much shorter distances. He was to be named the Registrar of the Left Commandant’s office by the new Emperor in 762 but he died before news of this reached him. There are differing accounts of his death. It is suggested that it is likely that his nomadic existence and heavy drinking took a toll on his body which caused death by natural causes. A more romantic story suggests that he died whilst trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in a lake. This is used in Chinese culture as a caution against illusions.”
“The Tang Dynasty spanned nearly 300 years in ancient China. During the period between 618 AD and 907 AD over 50,000 poems where produced by over 2000 different poets. Li Bai is credited as the author of over 1000 of these poems. A lot of his work has been preserved and survives today, although it is not known if it has been edited or otherwise altered to fit in with cultural, political and social norms of subsequent times. If it has been edited it is not known to what extent. Li Bai was viewed as controversial by some, he wrote graphically about drunkenness. He often championed drunkenness and glorified it as a lifestyle. Many of his poems were written about Chinese wine. He also glorified his wandering lifestyle. These topics would have made his poems very controversial at the time and would be considered inappropriate by some, even today.
If his work has been edited since it was first written it should not diminish its importance or prevent us from enjoying his writings. A parallel can be found in modern day film making. Many movies are censored and edited by studios but this does not prevent us enjoying them. Li Bai’s surviving works remain an important part of Chinese culture.”
There is only one known piece of work that survives today which was written by Li Bai’s own hand. This surviving poem is named Shangyangtai which means Going Up to the Sun Terrace. This important piece shows us that Li Bai was a gifted calligrapher. This manuscript can be found in Beijing, China at the Palace Museum.
“As a poet, Li Bai often looked back to the past for inspiration. He very rarely wrote about the future. The celebration of alcoholic beverages and a drunken nomadic lifestyle was not the only reason that his work was considered to be controversial. He often wrote poems from different perspectives and viewpoints, including from the perspectives of women. It was considered to be inappropriate at the time for a man to write with the viewpoint of a woman.
He also broke many established rules of poetry at the time, and this was also seen as controversial by many people. When placed in context we can understand why this was so. Artists often will push the boundaries of what is acceptable, a common occurrence among painters in the last 300 years and musicians and film-makers today. Li Bai pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. He is remembered as a gifted man who led an extraordinary life and left behind a legacy of over 1000 great works of Chinese literature.”
Sam you did another great job. The pot means so much more to me now. Thanks again for all the research you did.
Rolf Becker said:
That’s why we like this blog: It is sometimes like a crimestory to investigate the story of a beautiful japanese pottery. Sam and KJ thank you very much for sharing your researches with us.
But Frank just out of curiosity would you ever plant such a pot? We also own one or another delicate pot and we have them only for display not to mention the fact that we do not have any mame or shohin that is worthily enough to be planted in such beauty. What would it look like to plant a let me say five or even ten year old maple in it? There would be an imbalance between pot and tree that could be downright ridiculous. One has to wait a lifetime to find a tree that is worth to be planted in such a pot.?
Rolf I would agree with having to find the right tree for this pot but I know it can be found. I would not have any problem to use it in a display. The problem I see is someone stealing it. I would only display it for a one day show and with me standing very close to it.
I could see a semi cascade maple or pine in this pot or I could use it for an accent plant.
Yusen pots are wonderful works of art and should be shown to all who also enjoy the art.
I will for sure be using one of my Yusens pots with one of my displays. When I do I will take plenty of photos for all to enjoy.
Rolf Becker said:
I agree Frank: steeling is a (really) big problem nowadays. We in Germany have had the problem last 6 months (or even longer) that someone (or a group of guys) visited nearly every well known bonsai garden at night to take some trees with them without buying… And we also know the problem of steeling during exhibitions very well. Before I retired I have been responsible for a technical museum of a worldwide known german company. In the end we had to tach-weld each bold-nut so that no one could srew it off by hand and put it in his pocket. The more you have to be careful with such worthy things like Yusen-pots…
But I wanted to say something else. After I had posted my first comment I had to recognize that this was not all I wanted to tell. Your really extraordinary pot gives us the opportunity to think about the essence of bonsai passion. I think we agree that it needs an extraordinary artist to make such a pot. The potter did his best to transform an impressive chinese poem into a masterful painted pottery. In having a long close look to this pot (as Sam and KJ enabled us) one can really feel this “frosty ground” in ones garden. This feeling now gives us the opportunity to plant the pot (and I agree with you: it has to be planted because this is the only purpose of a bonsai pot i.e. to correspond perfectly with the plant in it). But what kind of tree?
The answer for me is given by the keywords “chinese poet” and “eigth century”. We have to imagine a very early chinese garden and when I did so I remembered a picture in Maggie Keswicks “The Chinese Garden” showing an old chinese garden with apricot trees. Apricots that’s it (in my imagination). The end of winter, early, very early spring, the poet sits in his house, its still cold outside by night, the apricots are flowering without foliage, a very fragile-looking atmospheric picture congenial to the sentiments of the poet missing his homeland.
One possibility of planting this pot (and to meet its really high standard) is a small but old prunus mume semi-cascade maybe white or pink without foliage and displaying it only a few days. After this period you might transplant the tree back into its training pot until next year to have the impression of Li Bai’s poem again.
Thats the essence of bonsai passion for me: to show a perfect tree fitting congenial to a perfect pot. No more, no less.
Best regards from Germany
Yes I think you hit it right on the head with everything you say. It will one day be potted with something special for all of us to enjoy . Yusen was the best painter of pot’s He was artist that is not seen today. Now it’s up to me to continue his story with a tree! I hope to do him well.
All the best