Tang Yin (1470-1524), commonly known as Tong Pak Fu in Hong Kong, was a Ming Dynasty poet. Contrary to the popular belief that he was an affluent philanderer, his talents and arrogance in his youth brought him only a miserable life, reducing him to selling pornographic paintings at brothels to make ends meet. His poems, calligraphy and paintings have always been sought after and are still highly valued.
There is something rather bohemian about the poem that resonates with me. At times when I feel hopeless, this is my mode of operation and survival. I wonder if Tong felt a sense of despair when he noted how he could not out-rhyme Li Bai although that did not stop him from writing and drinking. The last lines of the poem tells of his failed career as a literato who, despite his talent, never attained officialdom. In contrast, Li Bai did board the emperor’s boat and slept at the Chang’an palace. Tong’s sense of dissatisfaction with his life and career found solace in the beauty of nature accessible through the poverty that had him live outside the city gates of Gusu.
Historically, we can probably say that Tong’s plight was his own undoing. However, anyone familiar with that part of Ming history would know it was not a time when things were always just and fair. Without risking a comparison across time, I find today’s world to be filled with injustice too, and things seem at once hopeful and hopeless. Hopeful because there are many who are standing up; hopeless because powerful evildoers are corralling those too selfish to see beyond immediate faux stability into defending an unsustainable status quo. One does not have to be noble to feel angry, sad, forlorn, and disappointed in what we see of Hong Kong and around the world today. If I try to recall if Tong wrote anything that looked to the future, it had been a hopeless one except a line from 桃花庵歌 (Song for Peach Blossom Hut) which ended with 不見五陵豪傑墓，無花無酒鋤作田 (Do you not see the mausoleums of the heroes, there are neither flowers nor wine, but ploughed to become fields.)
I invite you to come “drink with me to days gone by” (line from the musical Les Misérables).
Lian-Hee Wee is Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by or about Lian-Hee.]