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Groundbreaking animation tells tale of extraordinary Chinese poet

Chinese filmmakers have created a dramatic animated movie in the Disney-Pixar style, with 3D characters in thrilling adventures. Yet at the same, “30,000 Miles From Chang’an” is also very different. It celebrates Chinese history, telling the story of China’s most famous poet, and it is unapologetically educational: it has 48 classic Chinese poems scattered throughout the movie. It’s also almost three hours long. As such it’s unlikely to be an international hit in the Disney style, but it shows an interesting development in Chinese movie-making. Emily Zhou discusses the story behind the on-screen tale.

WHAT’S THE FIRST book in most Chinese people’s childhood bookshelf? It’s likely to be “The Three Hundred Tang Poems” (唐詩三百首), an anthology of poems from China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Legendary Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (李白) is definitely the most prolific contributor to the book. One of my favourites is his poem “Leaving White Emperor City at Dawn” (早發白帝城), in which he describes a cheerful, uplifting atmosphere:

Chattering monkeys on the cliffs, no end to their bawling.

So the light boat glided past the ten thousand mountains.

(兩岸猿聲啼不住,輕舟已過萬重山。)

It was so energetic that I thought it was a passage from a diary he had written in his 20s or 30s. In fact, it was a poem written in the last years of his life, on the way from the place of exile back to the capital.

But the lifelong ambition of a poet like him was to become a court official. Unfortunately, his ambition was never fulfilled. Worse, the mistakes he made almost got him killed. Why did he have such a difficult journey through life, when he was such an obviously talented man?

The Chinese animated film “30,000 Miles from Chang’an” (長安三萬里》) tells the stories of Li Bai and his friends Gao Shi (高適) and Du Fu (杜甫), and their ups and downs during the rise and fall of the empire, from which we may find the answer.

GLORIOUS AGE OF THE TANG

First of all, there’s a research challenge: scholars don’t even agree on where Li Bai was born. Some historians believe that he was born in present-day Kyrgyzstan, while others argue that he was born in Sichuan (四川). Although we cannot be sure of Li Bai’s birthplace, it was certain that Li Bai was the son of a wealthy businessman. But merchants were considered lowly in the Tang dynasty, no matter how successful their businesses were.

Li Bai (left) and Gao Shi in their 20s in the animated movie.

As a young man growing up in the most splendid country in the world in the 8th century, Li Bai’s dream was to be a man who contributed to the society, as he told his friend Gao Shi.   

The literati of the time were keen on achieving merit. It was the traditional ideal of the literati class in feudal society, “to cultivate oneself, to align one’s family, to rule the country and to level the heavens”. But the intellectuals also had a wider world in mind, and hoped that they could participate in the process of the country, and make great achievements in politics. During the Sheng Tang period, the poets’ passion for merit reached a new peak.

On the one hand, the imperial examination system had stabilised and matured in the Tang dynasty, breaking down class barriers and giving children from humble families a chance to serve in the civil service. As a result, many talented scholars were full of optimism for the future, believing that their talents would definitely be used.

On the other hand, apart from the imperial examination system, there were other channels of talent selection in the Tang dynasty, such as the recommendation system, in which dignitaries could recommend smart young people directly to the imperial court.

Many poets would “promote” themselves to dignitaries in order to win their favour, and “call-at poems” (幹謁詩, the “cover letters” written to celebrities) also flourished in the Tang Dynasty.

Beautiful street in Chang’an indicates Tang Dynasty’s prosperity.
 

Li Bai’s social status disqualified him from the imperial examinations, so he had to travel north from the southwest of the country to Chang’an (長安), the capital, where he would dedicate his poems to the dignitaries of this metropolis in order to have a chance of being recommended by officials. 

Sadly, Li Bai could not even enter the gates of the mansions.

Although longing for fame, the world’s “rules” prevented him from serving the people in government—and he felt it was unfair.

Why should I serve the high and mighty with lowered eyes and on bent knees?

Such things can never make my heart rejoice!

(“安能摧眉折腰事權貴,使我不得開心顏!”)

Li Bai failed to achieve his aspiration to serve as a high-ranking official in the animation,

In addition, Li Bai’s extreme political naivety led him to be on the wrong side of the political arena time and again, especially his behaviour during the Li Lin rebellion (永王之亂) in particular was disastrous.

Also, the golden age of the Tang was coming to an end, hastened by the Tianbao era (天寶年間, 742-756 AD), when Emperor Xuanzong (唐玄宗) became increasingly indifferent to government affairs. He indulged in lechery, and left the court to Li Linfu (李林甫), who eventually died and was succeeded by Yang Guozhong (楊國忠), who was even more corrupt and incompetent.

The imperial examination system was seriously undermined, and all kinds of corruption directly contributed to the outbreak of the An Lushan rebellion(安史之亂), which led to the collapse of the prosperous empire.

A pavilion on fire during An Lushan rebellion.

The film 30,000 Miles from Chang’an altered many people’s illusions about Li Bai, humanizing the legendary poet which students had studied in so many textbooks.

Yet although the Tang Empire has been gone for over a millennium, the poems will remain the poetic soul of Chang’an for much longer.


All images are from Light Chaser Animation.

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