BORN: 701 ce, China
DIED: 762 ce, China
The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet (1922)
Li Po, one of the most popular Chinese poets, was noted for his romantic songs on wine, women, and nature. His writings reflect the grandeur of the Tang dynasty at the height of its prosperity. Li Po is one of the great figures of Chinese literature, a poet whose adventurous life is mirrored in his verses. Few readers of Chinese literature have been able to resist his charm.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Precocious Youth Li Po was most likely born in central Asia, where his ancestors had lived in exile since the early seventh century. When he was about five, his father, a businessman, and his mother, a washerwoman, successfully petitioned the authorities for permission to move to the city of Chang Ming in Szechwan Province, a more industrialized and cosmopolitan community.
The precocious Li Po started his poetic compositions early in childhood but was bored by formal education. He tended to concentrate on esoteric religious and literary works rather than the Confucian Classics, although he certainly read and was familiar with the latter. He received a diploma from the Taoist master Kao Tien-Shih in recognition of his Taoist studies; Taoism emphasizes a connection with nature, compassion for people and other living things, and self-discipline. In 720, his exceptional abilities were recognized by the governor of his province, who predicted that he would become a famous poet.
Adventure Seeker After a turbulent adolescence, during which he was an adventurer and a sword fighter, Li Po became interested in more contemplative pursuits. Between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, he lived as a recluse in a remote part of Szechwan 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.
Except for this period of seclusion in the mountains, Li Po spent his youth in search of adventures abroad. He traveled extensively in Szechwan and, later, in his twentyfifth year, northward to central China. In 727 he married Hsu Hsin-shih, the daughter of a retired prime minister at An-lu in Hupei, where he stayed the next eight years. Although they had several children and Hsu Hsin-shih 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 Shansi, he saved the life of the soldier Kuo Tzu-i, who would later be pleased to return the favor when he rose in the political ranks.
Journeys Abroad and Times at Court In 735 Li started a long journey that took him northward to the central plains of the Yellow River and eastward to the coastal areas of the Yangtze. This was the most flourishing period of the dynasty and the most prolific time of his life. The climax came in 742, when he went to the capital, Ch'ang-an, and was presented to the emperor, Hsüantsung, who honored him personally. Li was appointed a member of the Hanlin Academy and was lionized by fellow scholar-officials. At the zenith of his poetic power, he wrote songs for court festivities. He often frequented taverns and got excessively drunk, earning the reputation, together with seven other notables of the court, as the “Eight Immortals of the Wine-cup.” He has been mentioned as one of the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook” as well.
Li Po 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. In the fall of that year, Li Po met the younger poet Tu Fu, and for a period of two or three years they traveled together, studying at remote Taoist monasteries and exchanging ideas about writing. Tu Fu seems to have been 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 Tu Fu, Li Po continued his roaming life, spending most of his time in the southern and western provinces of Kiangsi and Kiangsuu Fu, in the eastern capital of Loyang. After having settled his family (he had remarried by this time) in Shantung, Li Po journeyed once again for ten years in northern and eastern China. In the poems of this period, he showed even more interest in Taoism, which replaced his youthful ardor for chivalry. He was beset, however, by worldly troubles; he began to complain of the lack of money and property.
Political Uprisings At the time of the An Lu-shan rebellion in December 755, which shook the Tang empire to its core, Li Po had gone to the Yangtze region, where he had moved his family. He was spared many of the hardships that his fellow poets in the north suffered when the rebels succeeded in capturing Loyang and Ch'ang-an. But a worse fate awaited Li Po.
He was involved for a short while in the unsuccessful uprising of Li Lin, Prince of Yung, who was then commander in chief of the Tang forces in central China. As Li Lin's fleet sailed down the Yangtze, Li Po joined him in Kiukiang in early 757. After the prince's defeat by royalist troops, Li Po was imprisoned and threatened with a death sentence. Eventually, this was lessened to banishment to Yeh-lang (Tsun-i in Kwei-chow) in the remote southwest interior. Li Po traveled slowly to his destination, but amnesty was granted while he was en route. He happily retraced his steps eastward and wandered in the Yangtze area for another two years.
He died in Tang-t'u in southern Anhwei in December 762, and 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 Po's passing ensured that he would achieve immortality as both legend and literary genius.
Works in Literary Context
Romance and Spirits An aura of romanticism pervades Li Po's life and poetry. With his fondness for adventure and traveling, his search for alchemy and the elixir of life, and his love of nature, he exemplifies these typical Taoist trends in his poetry. In addition, his work often reflects the kind of melancholy that a man feels when he finds his talents unused and his life wasted.
To drown his sorrows, or just to enjoy himself, Li Po drank heavily. Wine provided him with inspiration for poetry. In those moments of exhilaration, when alone or in company, he would dash off verses without restraint. His finest lyrics are characterized by spontaneity of feeling and lofty imagination. When Taoist 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 harmonies of nature.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Po's famous contemporaries include:
Wu Zetian (625–705): Empress who seized the throne and began her own dynasty (the Zhou) in the midst of the Tang dynasty.
Han Gan (706–783): Tang dynasty–era artist best known for his paintings of horses.
Tu Fu (712–770): Friend of Li Po and another of China's great Tang poets.
Charlemagne (747–814): Frankish king who led numerous European conquests and is considered the Father of Europe.
Taoism Li Po's early interest in Taoism was one of the most significant influences upon his poetry. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, respectively, the founder and the chief apostle of this philosophy, emphasized the necessity of living in harmony with the Tao, or Way, giving up the trivial concerns of conventional life and celebrating instead the virtues of simplicity and directness. Withdrawal from the world was encouraged.
As the poet grew older, however, these mystical expressions gave way to more down-to-earth advice. 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 Po's day seek practical formulas for attaining peace of mind.
Works in Critical Context
Li Po'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 hedonistic age.
Li Po was a sworn enemy of the mindless conformity to sterile traditions that often characterizes imperial dynasties. He has been compared with Henry Miller, George Gordon, and Lord Byron: the pursuit of pleasure, not some quixotic and suicidal act of rebellion, marked both his life and his work. In verses that were the literary equivalent of Taoism'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.
The Works of Li Po Among the poems of the Tang period, Li Po's are the most romantic and optimistic, fully reflecting the spirit of his era. Many Chinese children are still taught to recite his five-character quatrain “Quiet Night Thought.” The vicissitudes of his life developed his individualism and heightened his ability to empathize with every part of society. His poems display his belief in heroism, his hatred of social injustice, and his desire to remove political power from the hands of the aristocracy. Poems such as “Bring On the Wine” and “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” seek to eradicate individual loneliness and foster a sense of identity between the individual and the eternal. Expressing both love for and disappointment with life, these poems can make a reader want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Still, some critics have questioned the depth of Li Po's body of work. Arthur Waley, in The Poetry and Career of Li Po (1950), contends that the poet “is like most great poets known to the general reader by a relatively small number of pieces. The rest are indeed worth studying…. But much of his work inevitably consisted of slight, complimentary poems addressed to friends at fare-well parties or on other social occasions.”
Responses to Literature
- Ezra Pound was a fan of Li Po. See Pound's “The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter” and decide why Pound chose that poem to translate.
- Research the philosophical ideas related to Taoism. Find examples of Taoism in Li Po's descriptions of nature. What is the poet's relationship to the physical world?
- Do you think it seems odd that Li Po celebrated wine so much? What would we think of that subject matter today?
- Compare Li Po to his contemporary Tu Fu. Why might the former be better known than the latter?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Despite his attention to hedonistic drinking and mystical connection, Li Po is probably most revered for his depictions of nature. Here are some other works that celebrate the natural world and our interaction with the physical realm around us:
The Starry Night (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Perhaps the Dutch painter's most famous painting, it celebrates the night sky amid a whorl of stars.
The Song of the Earth (1908–1909), a musical composition by Gustav Mahler. This lengthy and celebrated musical piece emphasizes Chinese motifs and Li Po's poetry.
Baraka (1992), a film directed by Ron Fricke. This documentary film set to music highlights various scenic places around the globe.
Bin Ouyang and Xu Shenzhi. Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi. Tainan, Taiwan: Great China Press, 1978.
Cooper, Arthur, comp. Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Baltimore: Penguin, 1973.
“Li Po (701–762).” In Poetry Criticism, vol. 29, edited by Linda Pavlovski, 131–91. Detroit: Gale, 2000, pp.
Schafer, Edward H. The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T'ang Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.
Waley, Arthur. The Poetry and Career of Li Po. London: Allen and Unwin, 1950.
Yip Wai-lim, ed. Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.