Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142
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 drink to forget, however, Li and the recluses, musicians, poets, and vagabonds among whom he spent much of his life drank to heighten their appreciation of beauty and to loosen their tongues in the description of it. One of his most famous poems, a celebration of wine, asserts that “in life, when you are happy, you must drink your joy to the last drop.” It is in this context of the celebration of good fortune, rather than the drowning of sorrows, that his advocacy of intoxication should be understood.
This kind of joyful imbibing often figures in the various versions of how Li Bo came to meet the reigning emperor, Xuanzong, and although the exact circumstances remain a matter of conjecture, it is known that by 742 he had become a favorite of this Daoist-oriented ruler. It is claimed that the emperor was once so taken with a poem praising the accomplishments of his government that he broke tradition by serving Li food with his own hands. On another occasion, the poet impressed him by dashing off a piece when obviously very drunk. The most famous poem he wrote at court, “Ching ping tiao” (“A Song of Pure Happiness”), was inspired by the emperor’s beautiful concubine Yang Kwei-fei:
Her robe is a cloud, her face a flower;
Her balcony, glimmering with the bright spring dew,
Is either the tip of earth’s Jade Mountain
Or a moon-edged roof of paradise.
Li seems, however, to have offended either a powerful member of the court or perhaps even the emperor himself; in 744, ordered to leave the capital, he resumed his earlier pattern of wandering about the kingdom. Shortly thereafter, he met the younger poet Du Fu, and for a period of two or three years they traveled together, studying at remote Daoist monasteries and exchanging ideas about poetry. Du Fu seems to have functioned as a calming influence upon his friend; he encouraged Li to write down his verses rather than simply declaim them to an admiring circle of drinking companions. Since the two were almost polar opposites in terms of poetry as well as personality, the friendship between them came to be held up as a symbol of how artistic ideals can transcend individual differences.
After parting from Du, Li continued on his roaming life, spending most of his time in the southern and western provinces of Jiangxi and Jiangsu. In 756, he unthinkingly accepted an invitation to the court of a prince who was using the opportunity afforded by the rebellion of the Tartar general An Lu-shan to assert his own dynastic claims. When this prince’s armies were defeated in 757, Li was imprisoned; he gained release only after his old friend Guo Ziyi, now the new emperor’s minister of war, interceded on his behalf.
This experience was, in a way, a practical demonstration of the dangers of ignoring Daoist precepts about withdrawing from the world, and during the five years of life that remained to him, Li avoided any intrigues of this sort. He also seems to have been reconciled with his wife and children, with whom he settled in the town of Tan Du in the eastern province of Anhui. There they lived a contented and—because Li was still in some political disgrace—quiet life, and when he died in 762 even old friends such as Du Fu did not hear the news until several years later. His death, according to legend, was an appropriate one for a lover of wine: Drunk in his boat on a beautiful evening, he leaned far over the side to admire his reflection in the water, fell overboard, and drowned. In a culture where the manner of death was just as important as behavior in life, Li Bo’s passing ensured that he would achieve immortality as both legend and literary genius.
Li Bo’s poetry has been highly valued for its consummate grace and original choice of words. He wrote during a period when one of China’s most revered dynasties, the Tang, was at the apex of its power and prestige, and his verses seemed to catch the spirit of a self-confident and somewhat hedonistic age. He had, after all, been an intimate of the emperor himself, a fact which continued to fascinate succeeding generations as they preserved the many stories of the poet’s brash behavior to his sovereign.
If Li Bo was a sworn enemy of the mindless conformity to sterile traditions that is always a danger in highly stratified societies, he was so in a manner more like that of Henry Miller than of George Gordon, Lord Byron: It was the pursuit of pleasure, not some quixotic and suicidal act of rebellion, that marked both his life and his work. In verses that were the literary equivalent of Daoism’s injunctions to accept the universe rather than strive to change it, he sang the delights of wine, women, and song in spontaneous language that appealed to nobles and ne’er-do-wells alike.
Li Bo is one of the great romantic figures of Chinese literature, a poet whose adventurous and idiosyncratic life seems perfectly encapsulated in his direct and unhackneyed verses. The facility with which he wrote of mundane pleasures, gently grieved over their transience, and explored the possibilities of mystical communion with transcendent reality is just as attractive today as it was during his own time. Few readers of Chinese literature have remained immune to his charm.
Cooper, Arthur, comp. and trans. Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973. This is the most extensive edition of Li Bo’s work available in English. The translations are generally excellent, and the extensive background material on the history of Chinese poetry and literature is helpful, though marred by too many irrelevant asides. Li’s connection with Du Fu is usefully discussed.
Pulleyblank, E. G. The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. A sound historical treatment of the T’ang Dynasty’s major political upheaval, with which Li Bo was intimately involved. Both the specific events of the rebellion and the period’s wider societal context are thoroughly covered in dry but efficient fashion.
Schafer, Edward H. The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T’ang Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. For those with some knowledge of T’ang poetry, Schafer’s wide-ranging discussion of the era’s myths and cults of goddesses will be a fertile source of suggestive connections between poetry and culture. Even those new to the field should benefit from the vivid sense of period conveyed by this extremely well-written book, which takes a broader approach to its subject than its title indicates.
Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Almost every aspect of T’ang life is dealt with in this brilliant survey, which is especially interesting in its discussion of relations with foreign states. Crammed with information, informed by great learning, and highly readable, the book is strongly recommended to anyone curious about the culture in which Li lived.
Waley, Arthur. The Poetry and Career of Li Po. London: Allen and Unwin, 1950. A still-useful introduction, although Waley’s obsession with what he considers the immoral aspects of Li’s character sometimes prejudices his judgment of the poetry. Includes many translations, which are sound if much less graceful than Cooper’s.
Yip, Wai-lim, ed. and trans. Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A fairly technical but nevertheless accessible study of Chinese poetic language. Includes the Chinese texts and literal translations of several of Li’s poems and gives a very clear idea of the difficulties involved in rendering them into English.