Ou xin li xue (Spit Out One’s Heart and Shed Blood)
During the Tang Dynasty, a man named Li He enjoyed a reputation for writing hauntingly beautiful verses; he was even called “the poetry ghost.” By the time he was seven he was already writing poetry and when he was a teenager he became a household name in the capital.
Portrait of Li He
When he was eighteen, Li He went to the eastern capital of Luoyang to visit the court academic Jian and the great literature scholar Han Yu. Han Yu actually sought an introduction to Li He first in order to learn if he was really as talented as he was reputed to be. He asked Li He to improvise some poetry on the spot. Li He thought for a moment, and wrote one of the most famous poems of antiquity, “The High Carriage Goes By.” This poem is remarkable for its ability to express unique images accurately with very concise language. When he read it, Han Yu had to be liberal in his praise.
Li He found endless inspiration for his poetry in daily life. Every time he left home he would be accompanied by a boy with a sack on his back. He wrote down everything he saw and heard and put the papers he had written on in the sack. In the evening when he returned home he would take out the papers and reorganize his thoughts. Sometimes, he found he had already written out a very satisfactory poem. Reading these poems was a bittersweet experience for his mother. “Son,” she would reproach him, “Can’t you even think to rest without first spitting out your heart’s blood?”
The truth is, Li He threw his whole heart into composing poetry. He left us wonderful poems such as “As soon as the rooster crows the sky lightens” and “The sky startles the rocky slopes with autumn rains.”
These kinds of people always come in pairs. Han Yu had already described the process of month after month, year after year composing and revising poetry in his Returning to Peng City. In the poem he says, “One rips out one’s liver to use as paper and sheds one’s blood to become ink.”
Afterwards people combined the two allusions “spitting out one’s heart” and “shedding blood” to mean working with utmost passion and effort at something.