Timothy Wai Keung CHAN

Li Bai has come to be regarded as a poet par excellence of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). Although he achieved a level of fame in early mid-life, his talent was not recognized by the Tang emperor. Li’s poetry can be characterized by his strong passion, his use of powerful rhetorical devices, and the innovative changes he made to traditional verse forms.

Li Bai (also known as Li Bo) is regarded, along with Du Fu (712–770 CE), as one of the leading literary figures to emerge from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) golden age of poetry. Li is traditionally called the “poet transcendent,” an appellation that befits his poetic style and characteristics.

The life of Li Bai is legendary. His courtesy name “Taibai” (the Chinese term for the planet Venus) was adopted because the planet appeared in his mother’s dream when she was about to give birth to him. (A courtesy name, or zi, is a two-syllable pseudonym that replaced the given name, but was never used in conjunction with the family name, of an educated Chinese man.) Some people suggested that Li was descended from an ethnic minority, but most believe that Li’s grandfather moved the family from the heartland of China to inner Asia and that Li’s father moved to Shu (modern Sichuan Province) when Li was a child. Li regarded Shu as his homeland because he grew up there before leaving at the age of twenty-six.

Li’s worldview was idiosyncratic. On the one hand he was interested in Daoist immortality and was once converted to Daoism, but on the other hand he wished to serve the court, a standard desire of a Confucian gentleman. This synthesis might have come from his wide range of interests since youth in such subjects as Confucian classics, philosophical treatises, swordsmanship, and archery.

Traveling occupied a large part Li’s life. Leaving Shu as a young man he sailed down the Yangzi (Chang) River and participated in a carefree lifestyle—drinking, meeting celebrities, sharing whatever wealth he could with needy friends—all the while cultivating the persona of a wildly obsessed poet. Later Li Bai journeyed to central-east China. On the recommendation of his Daoist friend Wu Yun (d. 778), Li was appointed at the age of forty-one as a scholar of the Hanlin Academy in the capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Li quickly became famous after the poet He Zhizhang (659–744 CE), upon reading Li’s poem “The Road to Shu Is Harsh,” praised him as “a transcendent banished from Heaven” (Meng Qi, 28). But soon afterward Li offended powerful officials and the emperor himself; he was sent away from court and lost his position at the academy. Thereafter, Li wandered from place to place in despair and poverty.

The appeal of Li’s poetry comes from his strong passion, powerful rhetorical devices, and, above all, creativity. Li wrote in traditional poetic forms but made innovative changes, such as special arrangements of verse length, rhythm, tonal pattern, and repetition. Like all traditional writers, Li borrowed extensively from earlier texts, and the most poignant provenance of Li’s diction and imagery was the Zhuangzi, a book about the life and thoughts of Zhuang Zhou (mid-fourth to late third century BCE), a foundational philosopher of early Daoism. These borrowed elements were often recouched in hyperbolic language, thereby assuming new life in his poetry.

The Poetry of Li Bai


A jug of wine among the flowers…
I drink alone; there is no one with me.

Raising my cup, I invite the bright moon.

Together with my shadow, it makes three

Alas, the moon does not know how to

And my shadow follows me thoughtlessly.

But, still, I have these temporary friends.

We shall enjoy ourselves before the
spring passes away.

I sing, and the moon cheers me.

I dance, and my shadow joins me.

While I am conscious, we associate

After I am intoxicated, we separate

To seek a friendship without passions

I look up and think of long distance of the
Milky Way.

Source: Kiang Kang Hu & Gaarrett, W.. (Trans.). (1920, April). Three poems of the T’ang dynasty. The Far Eastern Republic 2(7) 11.

Li’s authorial voice is presented in many guises—as a recluse, a transcendent, a warrior, a homesick traveler, a drinker, the lonely wife missing her absent husband, and even the mythological Peng Bird and Celestial Horse. These personas find their best presentations in his valedictory verse, poetry of the frontier, love songs (mostly in the yuefu [ballad] mode), accounts of historical events with remarks, landscape poetry, poems of personal frustration, and Daoist cantos.

Li’s disappointment over his lack of recognition by the emperor permeates much of his poetry. His idiosyncrasies and perceived lack of success laid the groundwork for a poetic legacy as bright as Venus itself. Li Bai ended his life—according to legend that is perhaps reinforced by the title of one of his most well-known poems, “Drinking Alone under the Moon”—in an attempt to embrace the moon’s reflection on a lake.

Further Reading

Eide, E. O. (1973). On Li Po. In D. Twitchett & A. F. Wright (Eds.), Perspectives on the T’ang (pp. 367–403). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kroll, P. W. (1986). Li Po’s transcendent diction. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 106(1), 99–117.

Levy, H. S. (Trans.). (1969). The Original Incidents of Poems. Sinologica 10, 1–54.

Meng Qi . (870s [1986]). Benshi shi. In Ding Fubao (Ed.), Lidai shihua xubian, (pp. 1–22). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Obata, S. (1922). The works of Li Po, the Chinese poet. New York: Dutton.

Owen, S. (1981). Li Po: A new concept of genius. The great age of Chinese poetry: The high T’ang (pp. 109–43). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Waley, A. (1950). The poetry and career of Li Po. London: Allen & Unwin.

Source: Chan, Timothy Wai Keung (2009). LI Bai. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1309–1310. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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