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Most scholars think this poem was written in 759 when the poet in exile, favored by a general amnesty, was on his way from White Emperor Town in modern Sichuan Province to Jiangling in modern Hubei Province. But, at variance with these scholars, I think this quatrain was written when the poet left home at the age of twenty five. If it were written after the amnesty, the exile would not have glorified White Emperor Town crowned with rosy or rainbow clouds, symbol of the Goddess trysting with King Xiang of Chu, which would only stir the poetic fancy of a youthful mind.
In the first half of this poem there is a marked contrast between the long distance and the short time. To go a thousand li in one day’s space would seem impossible in ancient China for human beings but possible only for gods and goddesses. Here we see the poet likened more to an immortal than to a man. In the second half we hear the sad adieus of monkeys who were considered as companions of Taoist immortals, and we see the fleeting movement of a skiff which looked like a leaf used by gods and goddesses to float on water. So a celestial atmosphere is created in this terrestrial poem, and that is the reason why some critics call this quatrain a masterpiece written by an immortal hand.
LEAVING THE WHITE EMPEROR TOWN AT DAWN
Leaving at dawn the White Emperor crowned with cloud,
I’ve sailed a thousand li through canyons in a day.
With monkeys’ sad adieus the riverbanks are loud,
My skiff has left ten thousand mountains far away.