Li Bo Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Li’s clever, sensuous, and mystical verse has led many to consider him China’s foremost lyric poet.

Early Life

According to tradition, Li Bo’s ancestors had been exiled to the remote area of northwestern China now known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region early in the seventh century. When he was about five, his father, a small businessman whose income was supplemented by his wife’s work as a washerwoman, successfully petitioned the authorities for permission to move his family to the city of Zhang Ming in Sichuan Province, a more civilized, if still decidedly provincial, community.

In the course of their exile, Li Bo’s ancestors had intermarried with the Mongolian peoples of the northwest frontier, as a result of which he was taller and sturdier than the average Chinese, and his wide mouth and bulging eyes were also commented upon in several contemporary descriptions. Li Bo’s unusual background was reflected in his schooling, for he concentrated on the study of esoteric religious and literary works rather than the prescribed Confucian Classics, although he certainly read and was familiar with the latter. He became deeply interested in Daoism, a more mystical and romantic philosophy than the thoroughly practical Confucianism that dominated Chinese society of the time, and received a diploma from the Daoist master Gao Dianshi in recognition of these studies. In 720, his exceptional scholastic abilities were recognized by the governor of his province, who predicted that he would become a famous poet.

After a turbulent adolescence, during which he fell in with a group of roughnecks devoted to sword-fighting, Li Bo became interested in more contemplative pursuits. Between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, he lived as a recluse with a fellow student of Daoism in a remote part of Sichuan Province, there acquiring even more of a reputation for wisdom and literary ability. Now emotionally as well as intellectually mature, he resolved to broaden his horizons by seeing what the world outside his native province had to offer.

Life’s Work

Li Bo began his travels by exploring those areas of China through which the Yangtze River passed. In the central province of Hubei, he met and married Xu Xinshi, the granddaughter of a retired prime minister, in 727. Although they had several children and Xu Xinshi seems to have been a model wife, Li’s wanderlust was evidently untamed. He continued to ramble about the country, sometimes with his wife and sometimes not, visiting other poets and scholars and becoming something of a legend among his fellow intellectuals. In 735, while traveling in the northern province of Shanxi, he saved the life of the soldier Guo Ziyi, who would later be pleased to return the favor when he rose to high political rank. A short time after this, Li Bo is mentioned in accounts of a celebrated group of hard-drinking men of letters, the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook,” who resided in the northeastern province of Shandong.

While engaged in his travels across the length and breadth of China, Li had begun to write the deceptively simple lyrics that posterity would consider among the finest achievements in Chinese verse. The majority of his work cannot be accurately dated, but since both his life-style and his literary accomplishments remained relatively constant throughout his career, determining dates is not as important as it might be for a less precocious writer.

His early interest in Daoism was one of the most significant influences upon his poetry, one that has sometimes been insufficiently appreciated by Western commentators. Laozi and Zhuangzi, respectively the founder and the chief apostle of this philosophy, emphasized the necessity of living in harmony with the Dao, or Way, giving up the trivial concerns of conventional social life and cultivating the virtues of simplicity and directness. Withdrawal from the world was encouraged, and at their most extreme Li’s verses take an almost sinful pride in their creator’s capacity for achieving the heights of heavenly bliss:

You ask what my soul does away in the sky,
I inwardly smile but cannot reply;
Like the peach-blossom carried away by the stream,
I soar to a world of which you cannot dream.

As the poet grew older, however, these early expressions of mystical communion with inexpressible realities gave way to more down-to-earth recipes for pleasuring the soul. Just as twentieth century readers buy self-help books far more frequently than the classic works of religion and philosophy, so did the people of Li Bo’s day seek practical formulas for attaining peace of mind. Thus, when Daoist recluses discovered that the drinking of wine offered a close approximation of the mental states reached through serious meditation, alcohol soon became a respectable as well as popular means of attuning the senses to the subtle harmony of nature’s underlying unities.

It was as a singer of the praises of wine that Li first impressed his fellow countrymen, and even centuries later he is a kind of unofficial patron saint of serious drinkers. Unlike those who...

(The entire section is 2142 words.)

Li Bo Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China, the ability to compose poetry became a part of the official examination system, through which candidates obtained government appointments and entered the upper echelons of society. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty thousand poems were composed by twenty-three hundred poets. The age became a golden one for poetry, particularly during the period extending from 713 to 765, which scholars have designated the High Tang, when the poetic genius of the time reached its pinnacle. Li Bo (lee boh), also known as Li Po, along with Du Fu (Tu Fu) and Wang Wei, is one of the three major poets of this period. He is one of China’s, and the world’s, best-loved poets.{$S[A]Li Po;Li Bo}

Because Li Bo was born in Turkestan and was known to be able to compose poetry in “another language,” people have often conjectured that he might have been Turkish in origin. It seems, however, that he was the descendant of a Chinese nobleman named Li Gao (related distantly to the founder of the Tang Dynasty, Li Yuan), who got into trouble in China and fled with his family to Turkestan. Li Ge, Li Bo’s father, moved the family back to the Chinese city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, when Li Bo was four years old.

As a young man, Li Bo’s inclinations lay in the direction not only of poetry but also of what might be called “natural science” and what his contemporaries considered Daoist magic; for example, he is said to have learned the art of taming wild birds. He was also an accomplished swordsman, a kind of Chinese knight-errant who took to heart the injustice of the world and righted the wrongs inflicted upon others. By the age of twenty, he had fought and won several duels.

By the time he was twenty-four, Li Bo had left home to make a name for himself and to initiate what would become a lifetime of wandering. He sailed east down the Yangtze River as far as Nanjing and Yangzhou, then returned upstream to Yumen in Hebei Province, where he married the granddaughter of a retired prime minister. He next appeared in Shanxi, where his testimony helped save a soldier named Guo Ziyi from court-martial.

Because of the extent to which poetry and government service were linked in traditional Chinese...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Li Bo Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

Li Bo lived at the height of one of China’s richest eras of cultural and political greatness. The Tang Empire stretched in some places beyond the borders of China today, and trade flourished, ranging to India, Japan, the Middle East, and even Greece. The poets of Li Bo’s generation rode the crests of twin waves of innovation and the consolidation of earlier achievements. Despite the political instability that marred the final period of Li Bo’s life, he lived for forty-four of his sixty-odd years under an emperor whose reign is rightly called a golden age.

It is difficult to pin down the facts of Li Bo’s life. So colorful a figure naturally has inspired a number of legends. The poet evidently encouraged such...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

Li Bo Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Though legends about Li Bo (lee boh)—also known as Li Bai, Li Po, or Li Pai—abound, relatively little reliable biographical information about him has been preserved. Despite claiming an illustrious background, he, in fact, was born to an obscure family (the origins of which are impossible to trace, though it is variously thought to have been from Iran, Turkey, or Afghanistan) in 701, in Xinjiang Uygur, China (now in Chinese Turkistan). Wherever his birthplace, early in his life his family moved to Szechwan, a mountainous province in southwest China known for its sizable foreign merchant community; perhaps in that fact lies a clue to his family’s occupation. His undistinguished origins meant that in the capital, where...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Li Bo Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Contemporary readers often want a poet to enable them to see the familiar world afresh, but Li Bo’s readers expected his work to reveal knowledge of ancient poetic traditions. He gave them what they wanted—and more. To the old familiar subjects and themes, he brought a fresh vision that charged his poetry with spontaneity. His unrestrained vitality gives a scattered, exuberant energy to many of his poems. The inebriation that is so often associated with the man and his work could serve as poetic metaphor; life and nature in his poetry come across as intoxicating.

(The entire section is 97 words.)