Biography of Li Po (701 – 762)
Li Po (or Li Bai, 701-762, Simplified Chinese: Pinyin: Lǐ Bái), Zi Taibai (Simplified Chinese: Pinyin: Tàibái), was a Chinese poet living in Tang Dynasty.
Renowned as the Poet Immortal, Li Po was among the most well-respected poets in China’s literary history. Approximately 1,100 poems of his remain today. The western world was introduced to Li Po’s works through the very liberal translations of Japanese versions of his poems made by Ezra Pound.
Li Po 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 Po was the son of a rich merchant; his birthplace is uncertain, but one candidate is Suiye in Central Asia (near modern day Tokmak, Kyrgyzstan). His family moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was 5 years old. He was influenced by Confucian and Taoist thought, but ultimately his family heritage did not provide him with much opportunity in the aristocratic Tang dynasty. Though he expressed the wish to become an official, he did not sit for the Chinese civil service examination. Instead, beginning at age 25, he travelled around China, affecting a wild and free persona very much contrary to the prevailing ideas of a proper Confucian gentleman. This portrayal fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike and he was introduced to the Emperor Xuan Zong around 742.
He was given a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide a source of scholarly expertise for the emperor. Li Po remained less than two years as a poet in the Emperor’s service before he was dismissed for an unknown indiscretion. 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 Po survive, compared to only one by Li Po 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 being exiled a second time, to Yelang. He was pardoned before the exile journey was complete.
Li Po died in Dangtu in modern day Anhui. Some scholars believe his death was the result of mercury poisoning due to a long history of imbibing Taoist longevity elixirs while others believe that he died of alcohol poisoning.
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”) often adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist, and many of his occasional verses are fairly conventional.
Much like the genius of Mozart there exist many legends on how effortlessly Li Po composed his poetry, even (or some say, especially) when drunk; his favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Using striking, unconventional imagery, Li Po is able to create exquisite pieces to utilize fully the elements of the language. His use of language is not as erudite as Du Fu’s but equally effective, impressing through an extravagance of imagination and a direct connection of a free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Po’s interactions with nature, friendship, and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some of the rest, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as A River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter), records the hardships or emotions of common people. Like the best Chinese poets, Li Po often evades translation.
One of Li Po’s most famous poems is Drinking Alone under the Moon (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.
Biography By: This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Li Po.