A hundred poems per gallon of wine– that's Li Po, Who sleeps in the taverns of the market of Ch'ang-an. The Son of Heaven summoned him, and he couldn't stagger on the boat, Said, "Your servant is indeed an immortal in his wine." From Tu Fu, "Eight Drinking Immortals" Trans. Stephen Owen
In the history of Chinese classical poetry, the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762; also romanized as Li Pai or Li Po) is, along with his younger contemporary Du Fu, unequivocally hailed as one of the greatest poets ever to write. Neither a scholar-official nor a recluse, the two accepted poetic personas of the Chinese literary tradition, Li Bai’s fame was built not only on his virtuosic poetic ability but also on his skill in developing his image as an eccentric poet whose divine genius placed him above the conventions of mere mortals. Even in his lifetime, Li Bai had earned a reputation as a “banished immortal,” or a spirit exiled to wander the earth for a mortal life as punishment for some misdemeanor in Heaven (Kroll, 2010; Owen, 1981).
Dialogue in the Mountains You ask me why I lodge in these emerald hills; I laugh, don’t answer—my heart is at peace. Peach blossoms and flowing waters go off to mysterious dark, And there is another world, not of mortal men. (Trans. Stephen Owen)
Unlike the other famous scholar-official poets of the Tang, such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi, Li Bai’s family background was undistinguished, featuring no prominent government officials or otherwise illustrious ancestors. Despite this, Li Bai claimed—boldly—to descend from the fifth-century Li Kao, an ancestor also claimed by the royal family of the Tang Dynasty. This ancestry was probably meant to lend Li Bai a sense of legitimacy in an environment where background and ancestry were highly regarded, but in truth, Li Bai’s family were from the northwestern border regions of the Chinese empire, in primarily Turkic-speaking areas; Li Bai himself grew up in Shu, or modern-day Sichuan province, and he never took the imperial examinations sat by almost every other poet of his time (Owen, 1981; Kroll, 2010). Instead, he was a true outsider among his literary peers, without any familial connections to help ease his way (Owen, 1981; Watson, 1984.)
As the sinologist Stephen Owen writes, Li Bai was the poet “without legitimate background… who had to ‘invent himself’… in a poetry largely concerned with creating and defining Li Po” (1981:136). Li Bai cultivated an image of himself as a “knight-errant,” a poet who had been a swordsman in his youth. Traveling throughout much of China to meet various well-known poets and other figures, Li Bai continued to build his persona as a boldly courageous gallant who spent or gave money away freely (Owen, 1981; Kroll, 2010). He also had a deep interest in Daoism, and it was eventually a Daoist master who recommended him to court in 742. Managing to impress Emperor Xuanzong, Li Bai earned an imperial appointment to the Hanlin Academy, a special bureau outside of the normal jurisdiction of the governmental offices.
Li Bai's time at court has been recorded in various anecdotes that emphasize his eccentricity, his drinking, and his flouting of proper decorum; however, these stories may have been influenced by the stories and poems Li Bai wrote of himself (Owen, 1981; Kroll, 2010). Li Bai depicts himself as an immortal poet beyond the rules of men, and his writing featured poetic choices which often broke from the preferred court aesthetics. These qualities may eventually have led to rivals’ slandering him or to a loss of favor due to some offense, but whatever the reason, the “Banished Immortal” was eventually dismissed and exiled in 744. After his exile, Li Bai continued to travel and write until the An Lushan Rebellion began in 755; during the rebellion, he entered the service of Prince Yong, who later fomented his own rebellion and was defeated. Exiled for treason, Li Bai later earned a pardon, but he died a few years after in 762 (Kroll, 2010; Owen, 1981; Watson, 1984).
In addition to his image as an immortal poet and gallant knight-errant, Li Bai is famous for his love of wine and use of moon imagery, characteristics which gave rise to the legend that he died by drowning while attempting to reach the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River. In fact, this love of wine and the moon, along with other topics in Li Bai’s poetry, were traditional themes in Chinese literature to which Li Bai gave new life through his own poetry. According to sinologist and well-regarded translator Burton Watson, about a sixth of the approximately 1,000 poems attributed to Li Bai “are in yüeh-fu [yuefu] style, which means they are reworkings of themes drawn from the old folk song tradition” (1984:205). However, Li Bai’s eloquence, imagination and ability to create fiction, and playfulness helped him to embody the yuefu voices of soldiers, farmers, capital dwellers, peasant girls or those affected by love in innovative and moving ways (Watson, 1971; Watson, 1984). An example of Li Bai’s imaginative voice in the yuefu form is his poem “Song of the Roosting Crows,” whose title refers to an older Southern Dynasties yuefu (Fuller, 2018).
Song of the Roosting Crows
The time when crows are roosting
on the terrace of Ku-su
Is when, in the Wu king’s palace,
Hsi Shih is growing drunk.
The songs of Wu and dances of Ch’u—
their pleasure had not reached its height,
As the green hills were about to swallow
a half side of the sun.
From the waterclock more and more drips away,
from the basin of gold with its silver arrow,
And they rise and they watch the autumn moon
sink down in the river’s waves,
As in the east the sun grows higher,
what shall be their joy then?
(Trans. Stephen Owen)
This retells the legend of the 5th-century beauty Xi Shi (Hsi Shih), one of the four great beauties of China, whose loveliness bewitched the King of Wu to the extent that he never noticed his kingdom was about to fall to the forces of Yue. As Owen highlights, an innovative aspect of this poem was Li Bai’s powerful use of dramatic irony: “It is we, the readers, who bring tragedy to the poem” through our knowledge of the fate of the kingdom of Wu (Owen, 1981:122). In a departure from his contemporaries’ style of writing about the past through poetry that focuses on the poet’s reflections on a historic event, Li Bai instead centers his poem on a single night of carousing the palace of Wu and reimagines the atmosphere surrounding Xi Shi. He uses the imagery of the hills “about to swallow / a half side of the sun,” the water dripping from the waterclock, and the waves swallowing the moon to foreshadow the end that readers know is coming but does not reflect directly on that tragedy.
Li Bai’s mastery of poetry extended not only to yuefu themes but also to the brief quatrain at which he excelled (Kroll, 2010). His short poem “Still Night Thoughts” has been studied and memorized by Chinese students for centuries, and many Chinese schoolchildren and foreign students of Chinese, including this writer, can still recite it by heart. Adding to Li Bai’s fame is his connection to his fellow poet Du Fu (Tu Fu), who often wrote poetry about or dedicated to Li Bai. Along with Li Bai’s love of wine and his immortal poetic skill, this friendship with Du Fu is another of the characteristics which mark him forever in Chinese history.
Still Night Thoughts
Moonlight in front of my bed—
I took it for frost on the ground!
I lift my head, gaze at the bright moon, lower it and dream of home.
(Trans. Burton Watson)
To Send to Tu Fu as a Joke
I ran into Tu Fu by a Rice Grain Mountain,
In a bamboo hat with the sun at high noon.
Hasn’t he got awfully thin since our parting?
It must be the struggle of writing his poems.
(Trans. Elling Eide)
Li Bai, the Banished Immortal, is the venerated archetype of the wine-loving poet who drinks as easily as he composes verse. None would argue that he is not one of the greatest Chinese poets in all of history. Perhaps the only question left about Li Bai’s preeminence is whether he or Du Fu was the more influential poet.
Fuller, M. A. (2018). An Introduction to Chinese Poetry: From the Canon of Poetry to the Lyrics of the Song Dynasty. Harvard University Asia Center.
Kroll, P. (2010). Poetry of the T’ang Dynasty. In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press.
Liu, J. J. Y. (1962). The Art of Chinese Poetry. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Owen, S. (1981). The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. Yale University Press.
Owen, S. (1996). An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. W.W. Norton.
Watson, B. (1971). Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth century, with Translations. Columbia Univ. Pr.
Watson, B. (1984). The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century. Columbia University Press.
Figure 1: Moritama, K. T. (Edo Period). Ri Haku by waterfall in the Lu mountains [Ink and color on silk]. British Museum. Retrieved June 19, 2022, from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1881-1210-0-1556
Figure 2: Ku, G. (Edo Period). The poet Li Bai resting on a barrel of sake. [Painting]. British Museum. Retrieved Jun 16, 2022, from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1990-0605-0-1
Figure 3: Yoshitoshi, T. (1839-1892). Li Bai in drunken repose. [Painting]. Retrieved June 16, 2022 from https://www.thatsmags.com/shanghai/post/32748/how-china-s-baijiu-is-entering-a-new-era-of-innovation
Figure 4: Baoshi, F. (1963). Poet Li Bai. [Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper]. Met Museum. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/76709