Chinese Poets by Dynasty
Chinese Poets by Pinyin Name
Chinese Poets by Wade-Giles Name
Pinyin/ Wade-Giles Conversion
Wade-Giles/ Pinyin Conversion
Contact Information
Links
HOME
 Li Bai                                        (Wade-Giles name: Li Po)

LI BAI (701-762)

Li Bai is probably the best known Chinese poet in the West, and with Du Fu is considered the finest poet of the Tang dynasty. He has attracted the best translators, and as influenced several generations of American poets, from Ezra Pound to James Wright. Yet there is considerable confusion surrounding something as basic as his name. He is best known in the West as Li Po, though he is also called Li Pai, Li T' ai-po, and Li T' ai-pai, all of these being Wade-Giles transliterations of variations of his Chinese names ("Pai" and "Po" are different English transliterations of the same character). For each of these names there is a new English version, according to the now-accepted Pinyin transliteration system (Li Pai = Li Bai). To add to the confusion, Ezra Pound, in Cathay, his famous sequence of Chinese poems in translation, refers to him as Rihaku, a transliteration of the Japanese pronunciation of his name.
The facts of his life come to us through a similar veil of contradictions and legends. Where he was born is unknown--and there are those who say he was of Turkik origin--but it seems he was probably born in central Asia and was raised in Sichuan province. His brashness and bravado are characteristic of a tradition of poets from this region, including the great Song dynasty poet Su Shi. He claimed he was related to the imperial family, though this claim is likely to be spurious. Perhaps he wondered as a Taoist hermit in his teens; certainly Taoist fantasy permeates his work. He left his home in 725 and wondered through none Yangtze River Valley, hoping to gain recognition for his talents, though he was alone among the great Tang poets in never taking the Imperial Examination. He married the first of his four wives during this period. In 742, he was summoned to the capital of Changan, modern Xian, and was appointed to the Hanlin Academy (meaning "the writing brush forest") by Emperor Xuanzong, and during his time in the capital he became close friends with Du Fu, who addresses a number of poems to him. Within a few years he was expelled from the court and made to leave Changan, and he began presenting himself as an unappreciated genius, or as one friend named him, "a banished immortal." In 755, the An Lushan rebellion took place, in which a Turkish general led his group of Chinese border armies against the emperor. Li Bai was forced to leave Hunan for the South, where he entered the service of the Prince of Yun, sixteenth son of the Emperor, who led a secondary revolt. Eventually, Li was arrested for treason, sent into exile, and was later given amnesty. He continued his wanderings in the Yangtze Valley, seeking patrons, until his death at sixty-two.

About one thousand poems attributed to Li Bai have come down to us, though some of them were probably written by imitators. While most of his poems were occasional poems (poems written for specific occasions), others incorporated wild journeys, Sichuan colloquial speech, and dramatic monologues such as his famous "A Song of Zhanggan Village." Perhaps the most remarkable subject for his poems, however, was himself. He portrays himself as a neglected genius, a drunk, a wanderer through Taoist metaphysical adventures, and a lover of moon, friends, and women. His colloquial speech, and confessional celebration of a sensual flamboyance and fallible self made him the best loved and most imitated Chinese poet in English and helped to establish a conversational, intimate tone in modern American poetry. Ezra Pound's Cathay put him at the center of the revolution in modern verse. All these qualities, plus an extraordinary lucidity of image, made him extremely popular in China as well, in his day and to this day. A number of his poems are in the Han dynasty yuefu form, which allowed him to indulge in radically irregular lines that gave his imagination free play. He was an influential figure in the Chinese cult of spontaneity, which emphasized the poet's genius in extemporizing a poem: "Inspiration hot, each stroke of my pen shakes the five mountains." Among the many legends about Li Bai, the most enduring is the account of his death. Like Ishmael in the crow's nest, wanting to penetrate the illusory world that he saw reflected in the water, Li Bai was said to be so drunk in a boat that he fell overboard and drowned, trying to embrace the moon reflected in the water. Since the "man in the moon" is a woman in Chinese myth, the legend of Li's death takes on an erotic meaning, mixing thanatos and eros. As in Moby Dick, to "strike through the mask" and see the face of truth is to embrace death.
___________________

A Poem for Wang Lun

On board and about to set sail
suddenly I hear you stamping and singing on the shore.
Peach Blossom Spring is a thousand fathoms deep
but your love for me is deeper as I leave.

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________

Sitting Alone, Facing the Jingting Mountains

A mass of birds flies up and disappears.
A solitary cloud walks solitary. Loafing.
Looking at each other and never bored,
just myself and the Jingting Mountains.

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________

Song of the Emei Mountain Moon

Ermai mountain moon, half wheel of autumn.
Shadows come floating on the Pingjan River.
At night I leave Clear Brook for Three Gorges.
I miss you, unseen, as I pass by Yuzhou.

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone and Chou Ping

___________________

Lao Lao Shelter

In all the world this place hurts most.
At Lao Lao Shelter we say goodbye.
Spring wind knows its bitterness
and doesn't green the willow.

        ---Translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone and Chou Ping


 

 
     
copyright 2004 | Whittier College | all rights reserved