Li Bai (Chinese: 李白; pinyin: Lǐ Bái, Lǐ Bó; 701 – 762), also known as Li Po, among various other transliterations in the West, was a major Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty poetry period. He has been regarded as one of the greatest poets in China’s Tang period, which is often called China’s “golden age” of poetry. Around a thousand existing poems are attributed to him.Thirty-four of his poems are included in the popular anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems.
In the area of Chinese cultural influence, Li Bai’s poetry has been much esteemed from his lifetime through the present day. His influence also extends to the West through many translations, adaptations, and much inspiration.
Li Bai chanting a poem, by Liang K’ai (13th century)
Sui Ye, Tang dynasty, China.
|Period||Tang dynasty, Shanxi Province, China|
The two “Books of Tang”, The Old Book of Tang and The New Book of Tang remain the primary sources of bibliographical material on Li Bai.Other sources include internal evidence from poems by or about Li Bai, and certain other sources.
Background and birth
The year of Li Bai’s birth is known to be 701. He was born somewhere in Central Asia.Apparently, his family had originally dwelt in what is now southeastern Gansu, and later moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was perhaps five years old. Two accounts given by contemporaries Li Yangbing and Fan Chuanzheng stated that his family was originally from what is now southeastern Gansu. Evidence suggests that during the Sui Dynasty, his ancestors, most likely as the result of some act of crime, were forced into a form of exile from their original home in what is now Gansu to some location further west.During their exile, the Li family lived in Suyab (Chinese: 碎叶; pinyin: Suìyè) and perhaps also in Tiaozhi (Chinese: 條枝, modern Ghazni, Afghanistan).These areas were on the ancient Silk Road, and the Li family were likely merchants.
While she was pregnant with him, Li Bai’s mother had a dream of a great white star falling from heaven. This seems to have contributed to the idea of his being a banished immortal (one of his nicknames).That the Great White Star was synonymous with Venus helps to explain his style name, “Tai Bai”.
In 705, when Li Bai was four years old, his father secretly moved his family to Sichuan, near Chengdu, where he spent his childhood.There is currently a monument commemorating this in Zhongba Town, Jiangyou, Sichuan province.
The young Bai read extensively, including Confucian classics such as The Classic of Poetry (Shijing) and the Classic of History (Shujing), as well as various astrological and metaphysical materials which the Confucians tended to eschew. He also engaged in other activities, such as taming wild birds and sword play.Apparently, he became accomplished in the martial arts; this autobiographical quote by Li Bai helps to illustrate the wild life that he led in the Sichuan of his youth::
|“||When I was fifteen, I was fond of sword play, and with that art I challenged quite a few great men.||”|
- — Li Bai
Before he was twenty years of age, Li had fought and killed several men, apparently for reasons of chivalry.
In 720, he was interviewed by Governor Su Ting, who considered him a genius. Though he expressed the wish to become an official, he never took the civil service examination.
On the way to Chang’an
In his mid-twenties, about 725, Li Bai left Sichuan, sailing down the Yangzi River, through Dongting Lake, to Nanjing, beginning his days of wandering. He then went back up-river, to Yunmeng, in what is now Hubei, where his marriage to the granddaughter of a retired Prime Minister, Xu Yushi, seems to have formed but a brief interlude.During the first year of his trip, he met celebrities and gave away much of his wealth to needy friends.
In 730, Li Bai stayed in the Zhongnan Mountain near the capital Chang’an (Xi’an), and tried but failed to secure a position. He sailed down the Yellow River, stopped by Luoyang, and visited Taiyuan before going home.
By perhaps 740, he had moved to Shandong. It was in Shandong, at this time, that he became one of the group known as the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook”, an informal group dedicated to literature and wine.
In 742, Wu Yun was summoned by the Emperor to attend the imperial court, where his praise of Li Bai was great.
Wu Yun’s praise of Li Bai led the Emperor to summon Li to the court in Chang’an, as well, where he met the Emperor of China, Ming Huang (born Li Longji and also known as Emperor Xuanzong). His personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike, including another Taoist (and poet) He Zhizhang who bestowed upon him the nickname “the Transcendent dismissed from the Heaven”, or “Immortal Exiled from Heaven”. Indeed, after an initial audience, where he was questioned upon his political views the Emperor was so impressed that he held a big banquet in his honor. At this banquet the Emperor was said to show his favor, even to the extent of personally seasoning his soup for him.
Emperor Ming Huang found employment for him as a translator, as Li Bai knew at least one non-Chinese language.Ming Huang eventually gave him a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide scholarly expertise and poetry for the Emperor.
When the emperor ordered Li Bai to the palace, he was often drunk, but quite capable of performing on the spot.
Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, the favorite royal consort.Once, while drunk, Li Bai had gotten his boots muddy, and Gao Lishi, the most powerful eunuch in the palace, was asked to assist in the removal of these, in front of the emperor. Gao, took offense at being asked to perform this menial service, and later managed to persuade Yang Guifei to take offense at Li’s poems concerning her.
At the persuasion of Yang Guifei and Gao Lishi, Ming Huang reluctantly, but politely, and with large gifts of gold and silver, sent Li Bai away from the royal court.
After leaving the court, Li Bai formally became a Taoist, making a home in Shandong, but wandering here and there for the next ten some years, writing poems.
He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744, and again the following year. These were the only occasions on which they met. A dozen of Du Fu’s poems to or about Li Bai survive, while only one from Li Bai to Du Fu remains.
War and exile
At the end of 756, the An Lushan disorders burst across the land. The Emperor eventually fled to Sichuan; then, later, during the confusion, the Crown Prince opportunely declared himself the head of government. As the An Shi disturbances continued, Li Bai became an adviser to one of Ming Huang’s sons, who was far from the top of the primogeniture list, yet nevertheless apparently made his own bid for the imperial power. Upon the defeat of the Prince’s forces, Li Bai escaped, but was later captured, imprisoned in Jiujiang, and sentenced to death. Through the intervention of the by then famous and powerful Army General Guo Ziyi, whom he had a couple of decades earlier saved from a court martial, and who offered to exchange his official rank for Li Bai’s life;thus, his death sentence was commuted to exile in remote Yelang, in Yunnan,towards which he proceeded quite slowly, writing poems along the way. He was subsequently pardoned before he ever reached Yelang.
Final years and death
Li then returned to Jiangxi, although he did not cease his wandering lifestyle, he generally confined his travels to Nanjing and two cities in Anhui, Xuancheng and Li Yang. Eventually, in 762, Li Yangbing became magistrate of Dangtu, and Li Bai went to stay with him there. Then, the new emperor, Daizong, named Li Bai the Registrar of the Left Commandant’s office in 762. However, by the time that the imperial edict arrived in Dangtu, Anhui, Li Bai was already dead.
It was reported, from uncertain sources, that Li Bai drowned after falling from his boat when he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, something later believed by Herbert Giles. However, the actual cause appears to have been natural enough, although perhaps related to his hard-living lifestyle. Nevertheless, the legend that Li Bai died trying to embrace the reflection of the moon has entered Chinese culture, and is considered to be synonymous to an illusion.
There is a memorial to Li Bai, just west of Ma’anshan.
Criticism of Li Bai’s works has focused on his strong sense of the continuity of poetic tradition, his glorification of alcoholic beverages (and, indeed, frank celebration of drunkenness), his use of persona, the fantastic extremes of some of his imagery, his violations of formal poetic rules – and his ability to combine all of these with a seeming effortless virtuosity in order to produce inimitable poetry.
Li Bai has been known to be a skilled calligrapher, though there is only one surviving piece of Li Bai’s work in his own handwriting that exists today. The piece is titled Shangyangtai (Going Up To Sun Terrace), a 38.1 cm by 28.5 cm long scroll: the calligraphy is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.
Although many of Li Bai’s works have been preserved, many more have been lost. Also, some poems are preserved in variant texts. One of the earliest attempts at editing Li Bai’s work was by Li Yangbing, a relative, to whom Li Bai entrusted his manuscripts.
Li Bai had a strong sense of himself as being part of a poetic tradition. Burton Watson, comparing him to Du Fu, says his poetry, “is essentially backward-looking, that it represents more a revival and fulfillment of past promises and glory than a foray into the future. Watson adds, as evidence, that of all the poems attributed to Li Bai, about one sixth are in the form of Yue fu, or, in other words, reworked lyrics from traditional folk ballads. As further evidence, Watson cites the existence of a fifty-nine poem collection by Li Bai entitled Gu Feng, or In the Old Manner, which is, in part, tribute to the poetry of the Han and Wei dynasties. His admiration for certain particular poets is also shown through specific allusions, for example to Qu Yuan or Tao Yuanming, and occasionally by name, for example Du Fu.
A more general appreciation for history, is shown on the part of Li Bai in his poems of the Huaigu genre, or meditations on the past, wherein following “one of the perennial themes of Chinese poetry,” “the poet contemplates the ruins of past glory.”
Many of the Classical Chinese poets were associated with drinking wine, or more precisely, alcoholic beverages, such as choujiu, baijiu, or even grape wine. In fact, Li Bai was part of the group of Chinese scholars during his time in Chang’an, called the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup“, as mentioned in a poem by fellow poet Du Fu. However, Li Bai is of special note in this respect. As John C. H. Wu put it, “[w]hile some may have drunk more wine than Li [Bai], no one has written more poems about wine.” Or as Burton Watson put it, “[n]early all Chinese poets celebrate the joys of wine, but none so tirelessly and with such a note of genuine conviction as Li [Bai].”
One of Li Bai’s most famous titles is Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志. A translation by Arthur Waley): is as follows:
- Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day 春日醉起言志
- 处世若大梦, Life in the World is but a big dream;
- 胡为劳其生. I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
- 所以终日醉, So saying, I was drunk all the day,
- 颓然卧前楹. Lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
- 觉来盼庭前, When I woke up, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
- 一鸟花间鸣. A lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
- 借问此何时, I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
- 春风语流莺. The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.
- 感之欲叹息, Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
- 对酒还自倾. And as wine was there I filled my own cup.
- 浩歌待明月, Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
- 曲尽已忘情. When my song was over, all my senses had gone.
An important characteristic of Li Bai’s poetry “is the fantasy and note of childlike wonder and playfulness that pervade so much of it.” Burton Watson attributes this to a fascination with the daoshi, Taoist recluses who practiced alchemy and austerities in the mountains, in the aim of becoming xian, or immortal beings. There is a strong element of Taoism in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone, and “many of his poems deal with mountains, often descriptions of ascents that midway modulate into journeys of the imagination, passing from actual mountain scenery to visions of nature deities, immortals, and ‘jade maidens’ of Taoist lore.” Watson sees this as another affirmation of Li Bai’s affinity with the past, and a continuity with the traditions of the Chuci and the early fu.Watson finds this “element of fantasy” to be behind Li Bai’s use of hyperbole and the “playful personifications” of mountains and celestial objects.
Use of personae
Li Bai also wrote a number of poems from various viewpoints, including the personae of women. For example, he wrote several poems in the Zi Ye, or “Lady Midnight” style, as well as Han folk-ballad style poems.
Li Bai is well known for the technical virtuosity of his poetry and the mastery of his verses. In terms of poetic form, “critics generally agree that Li [Bai] produced no significant innovations….In theme and content also, his poetry is notable much less for the new elements it introduces than for the skill with which it handles the old ones.”
Burton Watson comments on Li Bai’s famous poem, which he translates “Bring the Wine”: “…like so much of Li [Bai]’s work, it has a grace and effortless dignity that somehow make it more compelling than earlier treatment of the same.”
Li Bai especially excelled in the gushi form, or “old style” poems, a type of poetry allowing a great deal of freedom in terms of the form and content of the work. An example is his poem “蜀道難”, translated by Witter Bynner as “Hard Roads in Shu.” Shu is a poetic term for Sichuan, the destination of refuge that Emperor Xuanzong considered fleeing to escape the approaching forces of the rebel General An Lushan. Watson comments that, this poem, “employs lines that range in length from four to eleven characters, the form of the lines suggesting by their irregularity the jagged peaks and bumpy mountain roads of Szechuan depicted in the poem.”
Li Bai was also noted as a master of the cut-verse, or jueju.
Li Bai was noted for his mastery of the lushi, or “regulated verse”, the most formally-demanding verse form of the times: however, he was especially noted for his successful violations of its strict rules.
In the East
Li Bai’s poetry was immensely influential in his own time, as well as for subsequent generations in China. His influence has also been demonstrated in the immediate geographical area of Chinese cultural influence, being known as Ri Haku in Japan. This influence continues even today. Examples range from poetry to painting and to literature.
In his own lifetime, during his many wanderings and while he was attending court in Chang’an, met and parted from various contemporary poets. These meetings and separations were a typical occasion for versification in the tradition of the literate Chinese of the time, a prime example being his relationship with Du Fu.
After his lifetime, his influence continued to grow. Some four centuries later, during the Song Dynasty, for example, just in the case of his poem that is sometimes translated “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”, the poet Yang Wanli wrote a whole poem alluding to it (and to two other Li Bai poems), in the same gushi, or Old-style Poetry form. In the Ming Dynasty, Duan shuqing, dedicated her poem Taibai Tower to him. In the Twentieth century, Li Bai even influenced the poetry of the long time leader of China, Mao Zedong.
In China, his poem “Quiet Night Thoughts”, reflecting a nostalgia of a traveller away from home, has been widely “memorized by school children and quoted by adults”.
In the West
The ideas underlying Li Bai’s poetry had a profound impact in shaping American Imagist and Modernist poetry through the 20th Century. Also, Gustav Mahler integrated four of Li Bai’s works into his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. These were derived from a free German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), Bethge based his version on the pioneering translation into French by Saint-Denys. There is another striking musical setting of Li Bai’s verse by the American composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola (an instrument of Partch’s own invention) are based on the texts in The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet translated by Shigeyoshi Obata.
Li Bai is influential in the West partly due to Ezra Pound‘s versions of some of his poems in the collection Cathay. Li Bai’s interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”, record the hardships or emotions of common people. An example of the liberal, but poetically influential, translations, or adaptations, of Japanese versions of his poems made, largely based on the work of Ernest Fenollosa and professors Mori and Ariga.
Simon Elegant novelized Li Bai’s life in his 1997 work, A Floating Life. Li Bai appears (under a fictional name) as a major character in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, a fantasy novel set in Tang Dynasty China. A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.
MacDonald Harris’ novel ‘Herma’ (Atheneum, 1981) refers to Li Bai under the name of Li Po, citing one of his poems and describing the reports of his death (page 175).
First information of Li Bai in modern Europe is documented in Jean Joseph Marie Amiot‘s in his Portraits des Célèbres Chinois of his Mémoires (1776–1797). Further translations into French were accomplished by Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys in his 1862 Poésies de l’Époque des Thang.
Joseph Edkins read a paper, “On Li Tai-po”, to the Peking Oriental Society in 1888, which was subsequently published in that society’s journal. The English-speaking world was introduced to Herbert Allen Giles translations of Li Bai in Gile’s 1898 publication Chinese Poetry in English Verse, and again in his History of Chinese Literature, in 1901. The third “old school” translator of Li Bai into English was L. Cranmer-Byng (Launcelot Alfred Cranmer-Byng, (1872–1945), whose Lute of Jade: Being Selections from the Classical Poets of China appeared in 1909 and whose A Feast of Lanterns was published in 1916 – both volumes featuring translations of “Li Po”.
More modern renditions of Li Bai’s poetry into English were performed by Ezra Pound (in Cathay, 1915) and Amy Lowell (in Fir-Flower Tablets, 1921), though neither directly from the Chinese: Pound relying on the work of Ernest Fenollosa and professors Mori and Ariga, and Lowell on Florence Ayscough. Witter Bynner with the help of Kiang Kang-hu made some translations (in The Jade Mountain); and, Arthur Waley made a few translations of Li Bai, although not his preferred poet, into English (in the Asiatic Review, and included in his More Translations from the Chinese). Shigeyoshi Obata, in his 1922 The Works of Li Po, made what he claimed to be “the first attempt ever made to deal with any single Chinese poet exclusively in one book for the purpose of introducing him to the English-speaking world.
Li Bai’s poem Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌, pinyin: Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó), translated by Arthur Waley, reads:
- 花間一壺酒。 A pot of wine, under the flowering trees;
- 獨酌無相親。 I drink alone, for no friend is near.
- 舉杯邀明月。 Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
- 對影成三人。 For her, with my shadow, will make three people.
- 月既不解飲。 The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
- 影徒隨我身。 Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
- 暫伴月將影。 Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
- 行樂須及春。 I must make merry before the Spring is spent.
- 我歌月徘徊。 To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
- 我舞影零亂。 In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
- 醒時同交歡。 While we were sober, three shared the fun;
- 醉後各分散。 Now we are drunk, each goes their way.
- 永結無情遊。 May we long share our eternal friendship,
- 相期邈雲漢。 And meet at last on the paradise.