Frugal Government

by John Derbyshire

Over lunch I was browsing in David Hinton’s translations of some of Li Po’s poems. As part of the book’s Introduction, Hinton supplies a sketch of the poet’s life. (Li Po’s dates were a.d. 701-762.)

Although Li Po was by nature the more unemployable type of bohemian, he did endure a couple of years’ salaried employment in the capital during his early forties. Introducing this spell, Hinton describes the capital as follows. The italics are mine, not Hinton’s:

Ch’ang-an, with a population of two million, was perhaps the most cultivated and cosmopolitan city in human history, and T’ang civilization was at its peak. Under Emperor Hsüan-tsung’s enthusiastic patronage, arts and letters flourished. Indeed, his reign is often considered the pinnacle of Chinese cultural achievement. The government’s frugality and devotion were legendary; corruption was rare and taxation light. Able generals secured the borders against ever-threatening “barbarians,” and within China there was peace and prosperity.

<Sigh> Though it is fair to note that this golden period all ended in tears a dozen years later.

(The English Sinologist Arthur Waley wrote a very nice brief biography of Li Po. There has been at least one fictionalized account of the poet in English.)

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