Life. Though he was once believed to have been born in Chengji (Qinan) or in Central Asia, Li is now generally believed to have been born to a wealthy family that settled in Changlong (Jiangyou), Sichuan Province, when he was five. He read widely and mastered swordsmanship as a teenager. Known for his generosity and chivalry, he loved drinking and swordplay. He was also unconventional and ignored the normal path to success through taking the civil examination. Instead, when he was eighteen or nineteen, he went into seclusion with a Daoist recluse, sincerely studied the Daoist religion, and at twenty-three began touring China. Four years later he married the granddaughter of a former prime minister. Eventually the court heard of his poems and invited him to the imperial palace, where Tang emperor Xuanzong (ruled 712-756) welcomed the poet with great honor and offered him a position at the Imperial Academy. Soon, however, the proud and ambitious Li Bai came under attack from envious noblemen. Falling victim to court intrigues, he was allowed to return to his simple previous life. At about this time he met Du Fu, with whom he shared social concerns, and the two poets became good friends. Though living a life away from court politics, Li was still concerned about national affairs. Around 756, he joined the army of Prince Li Lin, who was trying to depose his father. After the prince was defeated, Li Bai was exiled, but he was given amnesty and released, an event that inspired his poem “Early Departure from White Emperor Fortress.” By then he was fifty-nine, but he joined the imperial army to suppress the rebels and died of natural causes soon thereafter.
Poetry. Among the spectacular poems of the Tang period (618-907), Li Bai’s are the most touching, romantic, and optimistic, fully reflecting the spirit of his era. Many Chinese children are still able to recite Li’s 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. Though idealism is often identified as the main feature of the Tang poetic style, Li’s poems were more idealistic than most. They 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” are filled with means of blunting individual loneliness and fostering a sense of identity between the individual and the eternal. Expressing his love for and disappointment with life, Li’s poems can make a reader want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Bin Ouyang and Xu Shenzhi, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi (Tainan, Taiwan: Great China Press, 1978).
Arthur Waley, The Poetry and Career of Li Po (London: Allen &, Unwin, 1950).