Lu Yu: Life and Times

Lu Yu (1125-1210) : Life and Times

In the first poem of this collection, Lu Yu wrote about his grandfather. It appeared that this man had passed the imperial exams, and was of a rank that allowed him to attend the dawn audiences of the emperor. This poem also mentioned how the people continued to hold a high respect for the grandfather even after his death.

Records show that the Lu family had three previous generations to Lu You that were educated and of proper Confucian integrity. They all held mid-level government positions, but did not climb any higher in the imperial bureaucracy because of their criticisms of the emperor.

Lu’s story then picks up in the year 1127. At the age of two, the family was able to return to their hometown, San Yin, a town in Shaanxi Province near the border to Zhejiang Province, having been forced to flee in front of the Jin army. After enjoying two years at home, the family again had to flee the northern invaders, this time running away into the mountains at Dong Yang. They had to stay here for three years.

The northern invaders were the Jin armies. The Jin were a small state within Greater Mongolia, known to the Chinese as Xiongnu. The emperor at that time was Gaozong. Being weak and fearful what war would bring to the Southern Song empire, he traded wine and women for peace with the northern nomads. It was during this time period, that the famous poet Li Qingzhao and her husband had to flee from their homes as well. This period of appeasement through gifts and bribes lasted from 1127 to 1208. Therefore, Lu Yu spent his early youth watching his government retreat and bribe to avoid war. He obviously had no warrior heroes to model for him.

At the age of 22, records revealed that Lu was forced to divorce his cousin. Lu’s mother insisted upon this development. Over the years, Lu Yu wrote many love poems for his ex-wife, and missed her greatly. In the year 1154, at the age of 29, Lu sat for the imperial exams. He received the highest score, but it was subsequently overrode by the rich and influential candidate who scored second.

The prime years for Lu Yu’s public life were from 1159 to 1165. In the year 1163, at the age of 39, Lu was recalled to the capital. Against the current trend in palace politics, he was sent away to a small rural town in Zhejiang Province. This action was very common in ancient China. When a government official came into disfavor, they were often sent away from the capital to a small far away town in the countryside to be punished and forgotten. The pay, rank and status were greatly lowered. These agrarian places were often far from the exile’s hometown and support of family. Often these exiles became ill and died during their banishment.

By 1166, Lu Yu had lost this small-town mayor position because word got back to the emperor that he was enjoying himself too much. In 1177, he had lost another position for the same reason. This fate of being too happy also befell the famous Song Dynasty poet, Su Dongpo. In the year of Lu’s death in 1210, he exiled again for criticizing for calling on the emperor to keep the empire’s land and gold, instead of buying off the enemies for peace.

Many of Lu Yu’s poems express his viewpoint that the empire had to get back the land and treasure given up to the northern nomads. He wanted to return the empire to its former size and strength. His also wrote a lot about his love for his hometown, and their attractive landscapes. Common objects and metaphors included the use of bamboo, water, fish and tea. Historians believe that over 9,000 of Lu Yu’s poems have been lost over the years.

Literary inspirations for Lu Yu include the poems from the Shi Jing (The Book of Songs) and the Chu Ci (The Poetry of the Chu). His poetic role models were Qu Yuan, Tao Yuanming, the big three Tang Dynasty poets: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu.

The Book of Songs is the oldest known collection of classical Chinese poetry. It was compiled during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). The Poetry or Songs of the Chu comes to us from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC). Qu Yuan  was its main author, perhaps comprising half of its poems. This two most famous works were Li Sao and Jiu Ge. A portion of the poems have been described as shamanistic and mythological in nature.

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