Yuan Jie, 元結

As with many historic lives of the Tang dynasty, accounts differ.

It is said that Yuan Jie was a twelfth generation descendant of Emperor Tuoba Jun 拓拔濬 of the Northern Wei Dynasty. He was supposedly born in Luoyang or adjacent Lushan County, Henan Province. Some say Wuhan.

Generally, it is agreed that he lived form 719 to 772, a period that spanned the reigns of the emperors Xuanzong (712–756), Suzong (756–762), and Daizong (762–779), and included the turbulent period of the An Lushan Rebellion. He was a younger contemporary of the better known poets Du Fu and Li Bai, outliving Li Bai by a decade and Du Fu by two years.

Everyone agrees that in 753, at the age of 24 or 25, he obtained his jinshi degree.

When the An Lushan Rebellion began, some claim that he hid from the rebels in the caves of western Hubei. If so, it was for a short time. More likely is that he joined the army and was active in suppressing the revolt.

Du Fu and Li Bai suffered as a result of the rebellion. By contrast, in 763, Yuan Jie was appointed governor of Daozhou in Henan. There he wrote two poems (Ballad of Chongling and After the Raiders Have Withdrawn: To Clerks and Officials) critical of government officials who levied extortionate taxes on the peasants. Du Fu wrote a tribute to Yuan Jie, but the imperial court took a less sanguine view of the poems. And, by 768, Yuan was relocated to southern Rong Prefecture, Guangxi.

In 769, following his mother’s death, he resigned his post. He died three years later, still in his mourning period.

There exists a ten-volume, Ming-era collection of his poetry called the Yuan Cishan Ji (元次山集).

His courtesy name, Cishan, 次山, can mean “next mountain” or “below mountain”. Either interpretation suggests that Yuan Jie had a self-deprecating view of himself. Du Fu’s tribute portrays him as a dedicated administrator.

Still, no good poem goes unpunished. His criticism likely resulted in his move to remote southern Guanxi.

Such is the price of honesty.

One final note. Yuan Jie was a compiler (publisher) of Qie-zhong Ji, 箧中集, Collection in a Portfolio (poems of seven other lesser known poets, “upright scholars”, who because of their rectitude lacked official position.).

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