Improvisations by John Digby, and commentaries by Hong Ai Bai.


Skeletal Horse

Li He

This celestial creature
springs from the luminous
star Fang Xing

He bounds forward
splintering the heavens

His clattering skeleton
resonates bronze drums

Despite his fragility
his hidden resolve flashes alive
once in battle

Foreign Horse

Du Fu

It’s an alien creature
with the name “Da Yuan”

Look at him
this scrawny horse seems
like a neglected old nag

Yet give him another glance
his ears are perfectly formed
like bamboo leaves

Examine his hooves
delicate and shaped
as if to cut through and
fly beyond any raging wind

There’s nowhere too far
for this creature to race

You can stake your life
on this one and win

Distance is no problem

With his strength and agility
he can gallop and gallop
becoming a mere speck
disappearing beyond our horizon

Selling My Horse Luo Ma

Bai Juyi

Lou Ma and I were
close companions
for many years

Even when
I was well sloshed
riding home under falling blossoms
still a little tipsy
swaying in the saddle
his gait was slow and steady

Alas recent times
have been difficult for me
to say the least

Through ill health and old age
I had to part with many precious treasures

Finally there came a time
when I knew Luo Ma
also needed a better future

At the moment of being sold
he turned his head
and uttered so pitiful a neigh
that tears welled in my eyes

I felt the pain of Xiang Yu
when the turned his back
on his steed at a fated parting

How can I not feel grief
losing such an old friend


Li He’s Skeletal Horse: From a western perspective Li He would be considered a romantic poet. He was named “The ghost Poet” for his unconventional and imaginative style. Like the French romantic artist Eugène Delacroix the poet was fascinated with horses. He wrote twenty-three poems on the theme of horses; this is number four. No doubt that he had a strong empathy for this animal as he was born in a Horse Year and associated his own spirited emotions with the equine’s noble attributes which he calls, in this poem, “celestial creature.” One can assume that he held a sympathetic, humane conviction about all living creatures.
Li He wrote approximately 240 poems. Many attack the corruption and ineptitude of the governing class; others show compassion for the underprivileged, and in a further genre of myths and ghost stories he uses his copious imagination to recompense the disappointments in his life.
This poem expresses Li He’s disappointment in failing to have his talent and ambition acknowledged. When he was recognized and encouraged by Han Yu, an established poet, to take the Imperial examination, he failed. By all accounts he was disheartened. Nevertheless he was appointed to a minor post because of his distant royal lineage. Within three years he resigned offering the excuse of illness. He died at the age of twenty-seven.

Du Fu’s Foreign Horse: Many breeds of horses were imported during the Tang dynasty in exchange for Chinese merchandise and money. The animals were decisive in the ability to carry troops and supplies over the vast distances within China and to support campaigns against hostile nomadic tribes outside the realm. Foreign breeds were supplied by the Tungusic people of Eastern Siberia and Manchuria as well as Mongolians. According to Edward H. Shafer (63) The Golden Peaches of Samarkand (University of California Press, 1963), the northern Turkish peoples supplied a hardy breed strong for long journeys that were first tamed by the Xiong Nu, who were masters of the steppes.
The foreign horse in Du Fu’s poem originates from Da Yuan, a nation centered in the Ferghana Valley of present day Central Asia. It later became the north province of the former Persian Empire, modern day Uzbekistan. The horse that Du Fu writes about in his poem is known as a Ferghana horse and is one of China’s earliest major imports beginning with the Han Dynasty.
This horse was known for its agility, speed, spirit and nobility. Its configuration is distinguished by a long head, straight ears and slender legs. It was regarded as a perfect mount for the cavalry.
Such a horse was additionally valued for the supposed reason that it “sweated blood.” Modern research suggests that these horses imported from the “western extremities” or “blood sweating horses” as Empress Wu Zetian (690-705) called them were host to a blood-sucking parasite Parafilaria multipapillosa. When the proboscis pierced the horse’s skin it indeed appeared that the animal was sweating blood.
The Han imperial regime eventually demanded so many “sweating horses” that the Ferghana horse breeders refused China’s demand and closed their borders, cancelling the horse trading agreements. This refusal resulted in a war that China eventual won. In 102 B.C. China imposed on their defeated enemy certain terms, including the provision of at least ten of the finest Ferghana horses for breeding and a further three thousand for everyday use.

Bai Juyi’s “Selling Luo Ma” is one of fifteen poems he wrote during his illness at the age of sixty-eight. The poet who suffered from many medical disorders throughout his life might well have been a hypochondriac. In his early forties he was concerned about his hair turning gray and was prone to other ailments that brought further discomfort both emotional and physical. In his late sixties he was struck with rheumatoid arthritis. It is also thought that he might have suffered a stroke that affected his left leg, eyes and ears, resulting in bouts of dizziness.
In 842 A.D. at the age of 71 he retired from his government position and retreated to his dwelling. There he decided to reduce several of his possessions, releasing courtesans and slave girls; two of his favorites, Fan Su and Xiao Man, are tenderly portrayed in other poems, “Parting the Willow Branch” and “Long Longing.”
In this poem he reflects on selling his horse Luo Ma that was his favorite for many years. At the core man and horse face their separation with an implied sorrow.
Bai Juyi alludes to an old story concerning Xiang Yu, the King of Chu in the late Qin Dynasty (232-202 B.C.). When he was defeated in battle with Liu Bang of Han and driven to the bank of the river Wu a ferryman prepared a barge for Xiang Yu to cross over. However, he declined the offer and appealed to the ferryman to take his horse and the remaining defeated soldiers. Xiang Yu committed suicide by cutting his throat with his sword before his advancing enemy. This recorded incident might have played a significant role later in the life of Bai Juyi who was concerned not only for all classes of people but all living creatures.