On the Tomb of Li Bai
By Mei Zhihuan
A mound by riverside stands near the quarry stone,
Where lies the immortal poet Li Bai alone.
A poem may be crooned by those who come and go.
Who could before a carpenter make an ax show?
Strictly speaking, this poem, which is neither rigorous in language and nor refined and profound in meaning, is not a classical one. It is generally regarded as a piece of Da You Shi or ragged verse. By “ragged verse”, we mean the old style poetry whose content and expressions are easy to understand, whose language style is relaxed and jocular, and whose rhythm and rhyme are not very strict. It is said that this kind of poem was originated by a man named Zhang Dayou in the Tang Dynasty, and thus it gained this name. However, there are many poems of fine quality among the ragged verse. The technique this little poem uses is superb. Seizing on the phenomenon that some mediocre literary men liked to inscribe poems before Li Bai’s tomb, and using the sentence “show off one’s skill with the axe before Lu Ban, the master carpenter” as a metaphor, )r, the poet criticized profoundly and amicably the harmful behavior of those literary men who had little talent and learning but were self-opinionated and liked showing off themselves. The poem shows that he who tries to display himself wherever possible before an able person or a man of eminence will only expose more of his superficiality and ignorance and will be distained. Today “Ban Men Nong Fu” (showing off one’s skill with the axe before Luban, the master carpenter) has become an often quoted idiom, which has the equally satisfactory results with “Guan Gong Mian Qian Shua Da Dao (giving a performance of broadsword before Guan Yu or teaching one’s grandmother how to suck eggs)”