151. Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly: Li Po

Li Po is one of China’s greatest poets. I have vague memories of studying him during a Chinese Poetry class I took freshman year. What struck me most was learning about how conformist Chinese scholars seemed to be, as they worked their way through the system. Li Po did not fit the mold, and reportedly drowned one night while drinking in a rowboat. This death story has many tellings, and there are even poems credited to Li Po written from the point of view of drowning (now that’s talent!).

And, in reading these poems, it struck me how the favorite and most renowned poets in the three thousand years of poetry we studied were those who did not fit the mold. They dropped out. Drank. Became beggars and farmers and lived in shacks. So many were not only talented, but far above everyone else–they could have been anything!–when they walked away from it all to live, think and write poetry.

My romantic notion at the time, sitting in that classroom, was to be a Tao Ch’ien or Li Po. Instead, I teach middle school and wait for my pension to kick in. So be it.

This poem is the basic conundrum facing reality–are we a dream of someone else, and are our dreams reality? Very “Matrix”. Very deep. Perfect for middle school students who have not thought such thoughts.

It will blow their mind!

If you are interested in really getting into the idea of “reality” (it’s a great way to start the year, as students like the question and open their minds to whatever you are going to teach in the first unit) use Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. It’s the story of some guys chained in a cave and they can only see the shadows of his captors, so their “reality” of the others are their voices (echoes) and odd shadow shapes. After reading it aloud and answering a lot of questions, I have them break into groups and create a “society” that they act out for the rest of the class, who then has to guess what the society is about. Fun. It’s also a good use for the overhead projector (you’ll need a sheet, too, and props).

Maybe this video will help with Plato:

Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly
Li Po

Chuang Tzu in dream became a butterfly,
And the butterfly became Chuang Tzu at waking.
Which was the real—the butterfly or the man ?
Who can tell the end of the endless changes of things?
The water that flows into the depth of the distant sea
Returns in time to the shallows of a transparent stream.
The man, raising melons outside the green gate of the city,
Was once the Prince of the East Hill.
So must rank and riches vanish.
You know it, still you toil and toil—what for?


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