Chinese flute

Li Bai

Li Bai or Li Po (701-762) was a Chinese poet. He was part of the group of Chinese scholars called the "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup" in a poem by fellow poet Du Fu. Li Bai is often regarded, along with Du Fu, as one of the two greatest poets in China's literary history. Approximately 1,100 of his poems remain today. The first translations in a Western language were published in 1862 by Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys in his Poésies de l'Époque des Thang. The English-speaking world was introduced to Li Bai's works by a Herbert Allen Giles publication History of Chinese Literature (1901) and through the liberal, but poetically influential, translations of Japanese versions of his poems made by Ezra Pound.

Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor. Like Du Fu, he spent much of his life travelling, although in his case it was because his wealth allowed him to, rather than because his poverty forced him. He is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

Li Bai, according to various historians was Turkic, from the Xiongnu tribes in the altaic region


Li Bai's birthplace is uncertain, but one candidate is Suyab in Central Asia (near modern-day Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan). However his family had originally dwelled in what is now southeastern Gansu , and later moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was five years old. At the age of ten, his formal education started. Among various schools of classical Chinese philosophies, Taoism was the deepest influence, as demonstrated by his compositions. In 720, he was interviewed by Governor Su Ting, who considered him a genius. Though he expressed the wish to become an official, he could not be bothered to sit for the Chinese civil service examination. Perhaps he considered taking the examination below his dignity. Instead, beginning at age twenty-five, he travelled around China, enjoying liquor and leading a carefree life: very much contrary to the prevailing ideas of a proper Confucian gentleman. His personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike, and he was introduced to the Emperor Xuanzong around 742.

Chinese: 李白
Pinyin: Lǐ Bái or Lǐ Bó
Wade-Giles: Li Po or Li Pai
Cantonese: Léih Baahk
Japanese Rōmaji: Rihaku
Korean: 이백 or 이태백
Zì 字: Tàibái 太白
Hào 號: Qīnglián Jūshì 青蓮居士
aka: Shīxiān, 詩仙
The Mage of Poems
Vietnamese: Lý Bạch

In 725, when he was twenty-five years old, Li Bai sailed down the Yangtze River all the way to Weiyang (Yangzhou) and Jinling (Nanjing). During the first year of his trip, he met celebrities and gave away much of his wealth to needy friends. He then turned back to central southern China, met Xu Yushi, the retired prime minister, married his daughter, and settled down in Anlu, Hubei.

In 730, Li Bai stayed in the Zhongnan Mountain near the capital Chang'an (Xi'an), and tried but failed to secure a position. He sailed down the Yellow River, stopped by Luoyang, and visited Taiyuan before going home.

In 740, he moved to Shangdong. In 742, he traveled to Zhejiang and befriended a Taoist priest. The same year, he traveled with his friend to the capital. Poet He Zhizhang called Li Bai "the god dismissed from the Heaven" after their initial meeting, and thus the epithet of "the Poem-God". Consequently, he was interviewed by the emperor (Li Longji, but commonly known by his posthumous title Xuanzong), who personally prepared soup for him, and gave him a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide scholarly expertise and poetry for the Emperor. When the emperor ordered Li Bai to the palace, he was drunk, but he improvised on the spot and produced fascinating love poems alluding to the romance between the emperor and Yang Guifei, the favorite concubine. Once, Li Bai was drunk and asked Gao Lishi, the most powerful eunuch in the palace, to take off his boots in front of the emperor. Gao was offended and managed to persuade Yang Guifei to stop the emperor from naming Li Bai for a prominent position. Li Bai gave up hope thereafter and resigned from the academy.

Thereafter he wandered throughout China for the rest of his life. He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744, and again the following year. These were the only occasions on which they met, but the friendship remained particularly important for the starstruck Du Fu (a dozen of his poems to or about Li Bai survive, compared to only one by Li Bai to Du Fu). At the time of the An Lushan Rebellion he became involved in a subsidiary revolt against the Emperor, although the extent to which this was voluntary is unclear. The failure of the rebellion resulted in his exile to Yelang. He was pardoned before the exile journey was complete.

Finally, Daizong named Li Bai the Registrar of the Left Commandant's office in 762. When the imperial edict arrived in Dangtu, Anhui, Li Bai was already dead. According to legend, he was drowned attempting to embrace the moon's reflection in a river. In reality, Li Bai committed suicide as evidenced by his farewell poem.

Simon Elegant novelized Li Bai's life in his 1997 work, A Floating Life.


Over a thousand poems are attributed to him, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain. He is best known for his yue fu poems, which are intense and often fantastic. He is often associated with Taoism: there is a strong element of this in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone. Nevertheless, his gufeng ("ancient airs") might adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist.

Much like the genius of Mozart, there exist many legends on how effortlessly Li Bai composed his poetry; he was said to be able to compose at an astounding speed, without correction. His favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Li Bai's use of language impresses through his extravagance of imagination and a direct communication of his free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter, record the hardships or emotions of common people. He also wrote a number of very oblique, allusive poems on women.

In his poems, Li Bai tried to avoid the use of obscure words and historical references. Unlike other ancient Chinese poets such as Du Fu, Li Bai had no need to prove himself to the public; instead, he could afford to concentrate on communicating his genuine feelings to the readers. His ability to create extraordinary out of ordinary was an unusual gift among his contemporaries, and was most likely the reason why he was considered the "Poem-God". The fact that his Chinese nickname was "詩仙" (shīxiān, which translates literally into god of poetry) should itself prove it. The spontaneity of his language combined with the extravagance of his imagination distinguished Li Bai from any other poets in the Chinese history.

As one of the many followers of Lao Zi and a practitioner of Taoism in Tang Dynasty (Xuanzong included) and, above all, a free-spirited person, Li Bai paid no respect to Confucius and his ideology. Consequently, he has often been attacked by the Neo-Confucian "moralists," ever since the Song Dynasty. Among the common people in China, however, Li Bai is unquestionably the most beloved figure in Chinese poetry.

One of Li Bai's most famous poems is Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌, pinyin: Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó), which is a good example of some of the most famous aspects of his poetry -- a very spontaneous poem, full of natural imagery and anthropomorphism. Li Bai actually wrote several poems with the same title; Arthur Waley's version of the most famous reads:

花間一壺酒。 A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
獨酌無相親。 I drink alone, for no friend is near.
舉杯邀明月。 Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
對影成三人。 For her, with my shadow, will make three people.

月既不解飲。 The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
影徒隨我身。 Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
暫伴月將影。 Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
行樂須及春。 I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

我歌月徘徊。 To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
我舞影零亂。 In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.
醒時同交歡。 While we were sober, three shared the fun;
醉後各分散。 Now we are drunk, each goes their way.
永結無情遊。 May we long share our eternal friendship,
相期邈雲漢。 And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.


Li Bai is influential in the West partly due to Ezra Pound's versions of some of his poems in the collection Cathay, such as The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Although not completely accurate as translations, the ideas underlying them had a profound impact in shaping American Imagist and Modernist poetry through the 20th Century. Also, Gustav Mahler integrated four of Li Bai's works in his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. These were in a free German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), Bethge based his version on the pioneering translation into French by Saint-Denys. There is another striking musical setting of Li Po's verse by the American composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola (an instrument of Partch's own invention) are based on the texts in The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet translated by Shigeyoshi Obata.

A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.

In both versions of Epcot's Circle-Vision 360° film in the China pavilion, Li Bai serves as the narrator and guide of the film.

See also



  • Cooper, Arthur (1973). Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes (Penguin Classics, 1973). ISBN 978-0140442724 .
  • Hinton, David (1998). The Selected Poems of Li Po (Anvil Press Poetry, 1998). ISBN 978-0856462917 .
  • Varsano, Paula M. (2003). "Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and its Critical Reception" (University of Hawaii Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0824825737
  • Waley, Arthur (1950). The poetry and career of Li Po (MacMillan Co., New York, 1950). ASIN B0006ASTS4.
  • Weinberger, Eliot. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2004). ISBN 0-8112-1605-5. Introduction, with translations by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton.

External links

Online translations (some with original Chinese, pronunciation, and literal translation):

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