Li Bai

Li Bai
(Li Po, Li T’ai-po)
   Li Bai was one of the greatest poets of the high TANG DYNASTY, the high point of medieval Chinese culture. In contrast to his great contemporaries DU FU, a Confucian spokesman for social responsibility, and WANG WEI, a Buddhist ascetic, Li Bai defied conventions—both aesthetic and social—and wrote Taoist-influenced poems of imagination, individuality, and indulgence.
   In looking at Li-Bai’s life, it is difficult to separate truth from legend, and many apocryphal stories have grown up about him because of the personae of his poems. But it is generally believed that he was born in Central Asia, probably Chinese Turkestan. It has been suggested that his family may have been of Turkish origin; another possibility is that one of his ancestors had been banished there from China proper. In any case at about the age of five Li Bai moved with his family to Sichuan (Szechuan), where he was probably raised as a gentleman would be, studying the Confucian classics, as well as how to use a sword and how to write a poem.
   Li Bai does not seem to have had the family connections to attain an important position in society, nor to provide the training for the civil service examination that would have helped him obtain a position. He is said to have left home at the age of 19 to stay with a Taoist recluse and to travel extensively in northern and central China. He seems to have loved to travel all his life: He mentions a wide variety of places and describes scenic natural sites in verse, and many of his poems are written to thank friends for their hospitality. Around this time he became known as the “Old Wine Genius.”
   According to one story, he stopped wandering long enough to settle in Yun Meng as a young man, where he married the granddaughter of a former prime minister. After moving to Shanxi (Shansi), he is said to have testified for a young soldier named Guo Ziyi (Kuo Tzu-i), saving the soldier from a court-martial—an act that became significant later in his life. His marriage, however, was not so successful, and it is said his carousing with fellow poets as part of a group known as the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Valley” eventually led to the end of his first marriage. He was to marry three more times in his life.
   Li Bai became acquainted with a Taoist wizard named Sima Zhengshen (Si-ma Cheng-shen) and, through this contact, became an initiate into Taoism. As such, he experimented with drugs and with Taoist “elixirs,” which were taken in hope of achieving immortality. His Taoism certainly, and possibly the associated substances as well, may have influenced the imagery of some of his poems, which often depict fantastic descriptions of Taoist heavens, as in the following poem with its flying Taoist immortal:
   There was once one Undying on a crane
   Who flew and flew up over Purest Ether
   He raised his voice within sapphire clouds
   And said that his name was An-qi.
   (Owen 1996, “The Old Airs,” 401)
   Two other Taoist priests befriended by Li Bai in his travels were Wu Yun and He Jizhang (Ho Chichang), who gave him the name of “Banished Immortal,” the Taoist name for a heavenly being that, for some violation, was banished from the heavens to live out a lifetime in the mortal realm. It was through Wu Yun that Li Bai was introduced to the imperial court.
   At the age of 42, Li Bai met the Tang emperor Xuanzong (Hsuän-tsung),who seems to have been impressed by the eccentric genius and appointed him to the Hanlin Academy, a prestigious imperial establishment for intellectuals who had not risen through the normal channels. As a member of the academy, Li Bai was commissioned by the emperor to compose a variety of commemorative poems for state occasions. But in court Li Bai seems to have only added to his reputation as a drunk and an eccentric, and apparently offended enough powerful members of the court that after only three years in the emperor’s service, he was dismissed in 744. Li Bai returned to his life of wandering, this time through eastern and southern China, apparently using Shandong (Shantung) as a home base. He glorified his dismissal from the court by claiming it was an exile brought about by powerful enemies jealous of his genius. And though he had lost the support of the emperor, there were still a large number of intellectuals who admired his talent. Du Fu, his friend and fellow poet, referred to him as one of the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.”
   In 755, during the revolt of An Lushan, Li Bai threw in his lot with one of the emperor’s sons, the prince of Yun, who reportedly intended to set up an independent kingdom in southeast China. When the rebellion was put down, the prince was executed, and Li Bai was arrested.According to legend, Guo Ziyi, the soldier he had saved earlier, was now minister of war, and spared Li Bai’s life. Instead the poet was exiled to southwestern China. An amnesty later allowed him to return from exile to travel again, this time along the lower Yangtze, where he died shortly thereafter in 762. One legend claims that an intoxicated Li Bai died when he fell out of a boat while trying to embrace a reflection of the Moon in the water. This almost certainly is a myth stemming from his poetry, which so often talks about drinking and about the Moon. A more realistic guess is that he died of either pneumonia, cirrhosis of the liver, or mercury poisoning from one of his Taoist elixirs. Li Bai has been called the most “romantic” of the Tang poets, and his ability to see everyday things in fresh ways, his delight in the natural world, and his emphasis on personal imaginative experience certainly have affinities with romantic poetry. But these are also Taoist concerns, as are his depictions of imaginary, otherworldly landscapes and his unusual familiarity with alchemy and its technical terms. He is best remembered for his championing of individual spontaneity against social conformity, and for his persona of the wild, intoxicated poet-genius.
   ■ Owen, Stephen, ed. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: Norton, 1996.
   ■ Owen, Stephen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.
   ■ Waley, Arthur. The Poetry and Career of Li Po. London: Allen and Unwin, 1950.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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