gigatos | February 10, 2022
Li Bai (Chinese: 李白, pinyin: Lǐ Bái, Wade-Giles: Li Pai) (701-762) was a Chinese poet considered the greatest romantic poet of the Tang dynasty. The character 白, pronounced bái in modern Mandarin, had in the past an alternative pronunciation bó, which is why his name was formerly transcribed as Li Po, a Wade-Giles representation of this obsolete pronunciation.
Known as the immortal poet, he is among the most respected in the history of Chinese literature. Approximately nine hundred of his poems are preserved today, although the attribution of many of them is uncertain, which makes the count of his works vary depending on the sources consulted. In the West, Li Bai”s works became known through very liberal translations of Japanese versions of his poems by Ezra Pound, who admired Li Bai for his visual capacity and who, in fact, he considered the greatest example of visuality in Japanese literature. In Spanish, Marcela de Juan”s direct versions of his poems are well known.
Li Bai is known for his overflowing imagination and Taoist imagery in his poetry as well as his love of drinking. Like Du Fu, Li Bai spent much of his life traveling, which he was able to afford because of his relaxed economic situation. It is said that he drowned in the Yangzi River, after falling from his boat while trying to embrace the moon”s reflection, while under the influence of alcohol.
Li Bai or Li Po, a contemporary of Wang Wei, sired himself. His birthplace is uncertain, but one candidate is Suiye in Central Asia (in the vicinity of present-day Tokmak in Kyrgyzstan). When he was only five years old his family moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province. He was influenced by Confucian and Taoist thought, but ultimately his family heritage did not allow him great opportunities within the aristocratic Tang dynasty. Despite expressing his desire to become a civil servant, he did not take the Chinese civil service examination. Instead, at the age of 25, he devoted himself to traveling around China, developing a wild and free personality, quite contrary to the prevailing ideas of a proper Confucian gentleman. This image fascinated aristocrats and common people alike, and Li Bai was eventually presented to Emperor Xuan Zong in 742.
He was given a position at the Hanlin Academy, which trained expert intellectuals for the imperial court. Li Bai remained for less than two years as a poet in the service of the emperor, as he was eventually dismissed for an unknown indiscretion. Consequently he wandered around China for the rest of his life. He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744 and met him again the following year. These were the only occasions when they met, but their friendship remained very important to Du Fu (there are a dozen of his poems to or about Li Bai, while there is only one from Li Bai to Du Fu). At the time of the An Lushan rebellion he became involved in a subsidiary revolt against the emperor, although it is not known for sure to what extent this was a voluntary action-Li Bai knew how to maintain an ambiguous position by producing poems that did not clearly determine his stance towards the revolters. The failure of the rebellion resulted in his second exile in Yelang. He was acquitted before the end of his exile.
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In 705, when Li Bai was four years old, his father secretly moved his family to Sichuan, near Chengdu, where the poet spent his childhood. There is now a monument commemorating this in the town of Zhongba, Jiangyou, Sichuan province (the area of the modern province then known as Shu, for a former independent state that had been annexed by the Sui dynasty and then incorporated into the lands of the Tang dynasty) . Young Li spent most of his growing-up years in Qinglian (青莲), a town in Chang-ming County, Sichuan, China that now nominally corresponds to the city of Qinglian (青蓮 鎮) in Sichuan.
Young Li read widely, including Confucian classics such as the Classic of Poetry and the Classic of History, as well as various astrological and metaphysical materials that Confucians tended to avoid. Reading the “Hundred Authors” was part of the family literary tradition, and he was also able to compose poetry before he was ten years old. The young Li also engaged in other activities, such as taming wild birds and swordsmanship. He also engaged in horseback riding, hunting, traveling, and helping the poor or oppressed with money and weapons. Finally the young Li seems to have become quite skilled at swordplay; as this autobiographical quote from Li himself testifies and also helps to illustrate the wild life he led in the Sichuan of his youth:
“When I was fifteen years old I loved swordplay, and with that art I challenged quite a few great men.”
Before he was twenty, Li had fought and killed several men, apparently for reasons of chivalry, in accordance with the tradition of knight-errant (youxia).
In 720, he was interviewed by Governor Su Ting, who considered him a genius. Although he expressed a desire to become a civil servant, he never took the civil service examination.
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Marriage and family
Li is known to have married four times. His first marriage, in 727, in Anlu, Hubei, was to the granddaughter of a former government minister. His wife was from the well-connected Wú (吳) family. Li Bai lived for about ten years in a house owned by his wife”s family on Mount Bishan (碧山). In 744 he married a second time in what is now the Liangyuan district of Henan. This marriage was to another poetess, surnamed Zong (宗), with whom he had children and exchanges of poems, including many expressions of love for her and her children. His wife, Zong, was a granddaughter of Zong Chuke (宗 楚客, died 710), an important government official during the Tang dynasty and the interregional Wu Zetian period.
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On the way to Chang”an
At the age of twenty-five, around 725, Li Bai left Sichuan by sailing up the Yangzi River through Dongting Lake to Nanjing, beginning his days of wandering. He then returned upriver to Yunmeng, in what is now Hubei, where his marriage to the granddaughter of a retired prime minister, Xu Yushi, seems to have been only a brief interlude. During the first year of his journey he met celebrities and gave away much of his wealth to friends in need.
In 730 Li Bai stayed on Zhongnan Mountain near the capital, Chang”an (Xi”an), and tried, but failed, to secure a position. He sailed up the Yellow River, stopped at Luoyang, and visited Taiyuan before returning home. In 735 Li Bai was in Shanxi, where he intervened in a council of war against Guo Ziyi, who later, after becoming one of the leading Tang generals, was to return the favor during the An Shi riots. By 740 he had moved to Shandong, where he became a member of the group known as the “Idle Six of the Bamboo Stream,” an informal group devoted to literature and wine. He wandered around the Zhejiang and Jiangsu area and eventually befriended a famous Taoist priest, Wu Yun. In 742 the Emperor summoned Wu Yun to attend the imperial court, where he highly praised Li Bai.
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Wu Yun”s praise of Li Bai led Emperor Xuanzong (born Li Longji and also known as Emperor Minghuang) to summon Li to the court at Chang”an. Li”s personality fascinated both aristocrats and common people, including another Taoist and poet, He Zhizhang, who bestowed upon him the nickname “Immortal Exiled from Heaven.” In fact, after an initial audience in which Li Bai was questioned about his political views, the Emperor was so impressed that he held a grand banquet in his honor. At this banquet, it was said that the Emperor showed him favor, even to the point of personally spicing his soup for him.
Emperor Xuanzong hired him as a translator, as Li Bai knew at least one language other than Chinese. Ming Huang eventually gave him a position at Hanlin Academy, which served to provide academic experience and poetry to the Emperor.
When the emperor ordered Li Bai to go to the palace, Li Bai was often drunk, but he was able to sing his poems at the events.
Li Bai wrote several poems about Emperor Yang Guifei”s beautiful beloved, the favorite royal consort. A story, probably apocryphal, circulates about Li Bai during this period. Once, while drunk, Li Bai had soiled his boots, and Gao Lishi, the most politically powerful eunuch in the palace, was asked to help him remove them, in front of the Emperor. Gao was offended at being asked to perform this menial service, and later managed to persuade Yang Guifei that he was offended by Li”s poems about her. At the persuasion of Yang Guifei and Gao Lishi, Xuanzong reluctantly, but courteously, 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 and settled in Shandong, but continued to wander everywhere for the next ten years and write poems.
Li Bai lived and wrote poems in Bishan (碧山), today Baizhao (白 兆 山)) in Yandian, Hubei. In the poem Question and Answer Among the Mountains (山 中 问答 Shanzhong Wenda) he refers to this mountain.
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Knowledge of Du Fu
More information: Du Fu
He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744, when they shared a single room and various activities together, such as travel, hunting, wine and poetry, and thus established a close and lasting friendship. They met again the following year. These were the only occasions when they saw each other in person, although they continued to maintain a relationship through poetry. This is reflected in Du Fu”s dozen or so poems about Li Bai and Li Bai”s poem addressed to Du Fu that have survived.
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War and exile
At the end of 755 disorders instigated by the rebel general An Lushan broke out throughout the country. The emperor finally fled to Sichuan and abdicated. During the turmoil the crown prince declared himself emperor and head of the government. The An Shi riots continued (this is what they were later called, as they lasted beyond the death of their instigator, continued by Shi Siming and others). Li Bai became personal advisor to Prince Yong, one of the sons of Ming Huang (Emperor Xuanzong), who was far from the top of the primogeniture list, but was appointed to share imperial power as a general after Xuanzong abdicated in 756.
However, even before the external enemies of the empire were defeated, the two brothers began to fight each other with their armies. After the defeat of the Prince”s forces by his brother and new emperor in 757, Li Bai escaped, but was later captured, imprisoned in Jiujiang and sentenced to death. The famous and powerful army general Guo Ziyi and others intervened; Guo Ziyi was the same person whom Li Bai had saved from court-martial a couple of decades earlier. His wife, Lady Zong, and others (such as Song Ruosi) wrote pleas for clemency. After General Guo Ziyi offered to exchange his official rank for Li Bai”s life, Li Bai”s death sentence was commuted to exile and he was consigned to Yelang. Yelang (in what is now Guizhou) was in the remote southwestern corner of the empire and was considered to be outside the main sphere of Chinese civilization and culture. Li Bai made his way to Yelang without much haste, stopping for extended social visits (sometimes for months) and writing poetry along the way, leaving detailed descriptions of his journey for posterity. Notification of an imperial pardon to Li Bai reached him before he neared Yelang. He had only made it as far as Wushan, when news of his pardon reached him in 759.
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Return and other trips
When Li received news of his imperial pardon, he returned downriver to Jiangxi, passing through Baidicheng in Kuizhou prefecture, still indulging in the pleasures of food, wine, good company, and writing poetry; his poem “Leaving Baidi in the Morning” records this stage of his travels, as well as poetically mocking his enemies and detractors, implicit in his inclusion of monkey imagery. Although Li did not cease in his wandering lifestyle, he generally confined his travels to Nanjing and the two Anhui cities of Xuancheng and Li Yang (in the modern Zhao district). During this time he composed poems about nature and of socio-political protest. Finally, in 762, Li”s relative Li Yangbing became magistrate of Dangtu, and Li Bai went to stay there with him. Meanwhile, Suzong and Xuanzong died within a short period of time and China had a new emperor. In addition China engaged in renewed efforts to suppress further military disorders stemming from the Anshi rebellions, and Li volunteered to serve on the staff of Chinese commander Li Guangbi. However, at the age of 61, Li became seriously ill and his health did not allow him to fulfill this plan.
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Li Bai Memorial Hall in Jiangyou, Sichuan
The new Daizong Emperor appointed Li Bai the Secretary of the Left Commander”s office in 762. However, when the imperial edict arrived in Dangtu, Anhui, Li Bai was already dead.
Li Bai died in Dangtu, present-day Anhui. Some scholars believe his death was the result of mercury poisoning after a long history of consuming Taoist elixirs for longevity, while others believe he died from his excesses with alcohol.
There is a long and sometimes fanciful tradition regarding his death, from uncertain Chinese sources, that Li Bai drowned after falling out of his boat one day when he had become very drunk while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, something believed by Herbert Giles. However, the actual cause seems to have been quite natural, though perhaps related to his hard lifestyle. Nevertheless, the legend has its place in Chinese culture.
Li Bai was also a skilled calligrapher, although there is only one piece of his calligraphy work in his own handwriting preserved today. The piece is entitled Shàng yáng tái (Climbing the Solarium), a scroll 38.1 by 28.5 centimeters long (with the later addition of a title written by Emperor Huizong of Song and a postscript added by Emperor Qianlong himself; the calligraphy is in the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.
Even Li Bai and Du Fu, the two most famous and most fully edited Tang poets, were affected by the destruction of the Tang imperial libraries and the loss of many private collections in the periods of upheaval (An Lushan and Huang Chao rebellions). Although many of Li Bai”s poems have survived, even more were lost and there are difficulties regarding variant texts. One of the earliest efforts to edit Li Bai”s work was that of his relative Li Yangbing, the magistrate of Dangtu, with whom he stayed in his later years and to whom he entrusted his manuscripts. However, the most reliable texts are not necessarily found in the earliest editions. Song dynasty scholars produced several editions of his poetry, but it was not until the Qing dynasty that collections such as Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems) produced the most comprehensive studies of the surviving texts at that time.
Critics have focused on Li Bai”s strong sense of the continuity of poetic tradition, his glorification of alcoholic beverages (and, indeed, frank celebration of drunkenness), the fantastic extremes of some of his imagery, his mastery of formal poetics, rules, and his ability to combine all this with seemingly effortless virtuosity to produce inimitable poetry. Other themes of Li”s poetry are sympathy for the common people and antipathy to unnecessary wars, even when led by the emperor himself.
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Li Bai had a strong sense of his belonging to a poetic tradition. Li Bai”s “genius,” says a recent account, “lies at once in his total mastery of the literary tradition before him and in his ingenuity in adapting it (without breaking it) to discover a uniquely personal idiom …” Burton Watson, comparing him to Du Fu, says that Li”s poetry “is essentially retrospective, representing more a rebirth and fulfillment of past promises than a foray into the future.” Watson adds, as evidence, that, of all the poems attributed to Li Bai, approximately one-sixth are in the form of yuefu, or, in other words, reworked lyrics from traditional folk ballads. As further evidence, Watson cites the existence of a collection of fifty-nine poems by Li Bai entitled Gu Feng, or In the Old Way, which is, in part, a tribute to the poetry of the Han and Wei dynasties. His admiration for particular poets is also shown through specific allusions, for example, to Qu Yuan or Tao Yuanming, and occasionally by name, for example to Du Fu.
A more general appreciation for history is shown by Li Bai in his poems of the huaigu genre, or meditations on the past, where following “one of the perennial themes of Chinese poetry,” “the poet contemplates the ruins of past glory.”
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Enraptured by the wine and the moon
John CH Wu observed that “while some may have drunk more wine than Li , no one has written more poems about wine.” Classical Chinese poets were often associated with drinking wine, and Li Bai was part of the Chang”an group of Chinese scholars, his fellow poet Du Fu called the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.” In general, the Chinese did not consider the moderate use of alcohol immoral or unhealthy. James J. Y Liu comments that zui in poetry “does not mean exactly the same as ”drunk,” ”intoxicated,” or ”inebriated,” but rather to be carried away mentally from one”s normal preoccupations…” Liu translates zui as “enraptured by wine.” The “Eight Immortals,” however, drank to an unusual degree, although they were still seen as agreeable eccentrics. Burton Watson concluded that “all Chinese poets celebrate the pleasures of wine, but none so tirelessly and with a note of genuine conviction as Li
One of Li Bai”s most famous poems is “Awakening from Drunkenness on a Spring Day” (春日 醉 起 言 志). The following version follows the English translation by Arthur Waley.
Awakening from drunkenness on a spring day (春日 醉 起 言 志).
處世 若 大 夢, Life in the world is but a big dream;
胡 爲 勞 其 生. I will not spoil it with any work or care.
所以 終日 醉, saying I was drunk all day,
頹然 臥 前 楹. Lying helpless on the porch in front of my door.
覺 來 盼 庭前, When I woke up, I blinked at the sight of the lawn in the garden;
一 鳥 花 間 鳴. A lone bird was singing among the flowers.
借 問 此 何時, I wondered, had it been a wet or pleasant day?
春風 語 流鶯. The spring wind whispered to the bird”s song.
感 之 欲 嘆息, Moved by his song, I soon began to sigh,
對 酒 還 自 傾. And, as there was wine there, I filled my own glass.
浩歌 待 明月, Singing wildly, I waited for the moon to rise;
曲 盡 已 忘情. When my song ended, all my senses were gone.
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An important characteristic of Li Bai”s poetry “is the fantasy and note of childlike wonder and joy that pervades much of it.” Burton Watson attributes this to a fascination with Taoist monks who practiced alchemy and austerities in the mountains, with the goal 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 halfway modulate into journeys of the imagination, moving from the actual mountain to visions of nature deities, immortals, and ”jade maidens” of Taoist tradition.” Watson sees this as another affirmation of Li Bai”s affinity with the past and a continuity with the traditions of the Chuci and early fu. Watson finds that this “element of fantasy” is behind Li Bai”s use of hyperbole and “amusing personifications” of mountains and celestial objects.
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The critic James J.Y. Liu notes that “Chinese poets seem to be perpetually lamenting their exile and longing to return home. This may seem sentimental to Western readers, but one must remember the vastness of China, the difficulties of communication, the stark contrast between the highly cultured life in the major cities and the harsh conditions in the more remote regions of the country, and the importance of family. “No wonder, he concludes, that nostalgia has become a constant, and therefore conventional, theme in Chinese poetry.”
Liu gives as an excellent example Li”s poem “Quiet Night Thoughts” (also translated as “Contemplating Moonlight”), which is often learned by schoolchildren in China. In just 20 words, the poem uses vivid moonlight and frosty imagery to convey a sense of nostalgia. This version is based on the English translation by Yang Xianyi and Dai Naidie.
Contemplating the moonlight (静夜思).
床前明月光 ， Beside my bed I see a pool of light.
疑 是 地上 霜 ， Is there frost on the ground?
舉 頭 望 明月 ， I raise my eyes and see the moon,
低頭 思 故鄉。 I lower my face and think of my home.
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Use of the person
Li Bai also wrote several poems from various points of view, including women”s personalities. For example, he wrote several poems in the Zi Ye, or “Lady of the Night” style, as well as Han folk ballad style poems.
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Li Bai is well known for the technical virtuosity of his poetry and the mastery of his verse. In terms of poetic form, “critics generally agree that Li did not produce significant innovations. Also in theme and content, his poetry is notable less for the new elements he introduces than for the skill with which he illuminates the old.”
Burton Watson comments on Li Bai”s famous poem, which he translates as “Bring the Wine”: “like much of Li”s work , it has an effortless grace and dignity that somehow make it more compelling than previous treatment of it.”
Li Bai”s yuefu poems have been called among the best of all time by Ming dynasty scholar and writer Hu Yinglin. Li Bai especially excelled in the gushi form, or “old style” poems, a type of poetry that allows great freedom in terms of the form and content of the work. An example is his poem “蜀道 難,” “Paths in Shu.” Shu is a poetic term for Sichuan, the refuge destination that Emperor Xuanzong chose to flee from the approaching forces of the rebel general An Lushan. Watson comments that this poem “employs verses varying in length from four to eleven characters, the verse form suggesting by its irregularity the jagged peaks and bumpy mountain roads of Sichuan depicted in the poem.”
Li Bai was also known as a master of jueju or cut verse. The Ming dynasty poet Li Pan Long said that Li Bai was the greatest jueju master of the Tang dynasty.
Li Bai was noted for his mastery of lüshi, or “regulated verse,” the most formally demanding verse form of the time. Watson notes, however, that his poem “Farewell to a Friend” was “unusual in that it violates the rule that the middle two couplets must observe verbal parallelism,” and adds that Chinese critics excused such a violation in the case of a genius like Li.
Li Bai is depicted in Jin Guliang”s Wu Shuang Pu (無雙 譜, Tablet of Incomparable Heroes).