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