Li Bai

From New World Encyclopedia

Chinese: 李白
Pinyin: Lǐ Bó or Lǐ Bái
Wade-Giles: Li Po or Li Pai
Also known as: Poet Immortal
(Shīxiān, 詩仙)
Li Bai Chanting a Poem by Liang Kai (Thirteenth Century)

Li Bai or Li Bo (701-762 C.E.) was a Chinese poet who lived during the Tang Dynasty. Called the Poet Immortal, Li Bai is often regarded, along with Du Fu, as one of the two greatest poets in China's literary history. Approximately 1,100 of his poems remain today. The Western world was introduced to Li Bai's works through the very liberal translations of Japanese versions of his poems made by Ezra Pound.

Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor (many of his poems are about the comical and occasionally enlightening adventures of a wandering drunk). Like Du Fu, he spent much of his life traveling; in accordance with Taoism, Li Bai's constant travels allowed him to live a life of innocent and joyful mindfulness, exploring and experiencing as much of the world as he possibly could. That he occasionally found himself exploring bottles of wine instead of beautiful nature is true, but it is important to stress that to a Taoist, Li Bai's drunkenness would not necessarily be seen as a vice. One must recall that such ways are consistent with the Taoist principle of challenging social conventions. Liquor is the product of natural fermentation, and even some of the Taoist immortals are often depicted in drunken states. It is likely that much of his great poetry was rendered in such drunken states. It can be seen naturally as part of "the Way." According to legend 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, and this in itself has become a parable with significant meaning in Chinese folklore.

Along with Du Fu, Li Bai is one of the greatest poets of the Tang period. In assessing his poetry and the poetry of other Tang poets, it must be noted that the Tang period was not just a time of prosperity; it was also one of the unstable periods in Chinese history. The Empire of China was overstretched, and in the middle of Li Bai's career, it would suffer a violent rebellion that would ultimately lead to its downfall. During the eighth century, Li Bai was in the center of a civilization that was undergoing one of the most radical changes in its history. Hence, Li Bai, as a poet, is important not only because of the beauty of his verse (which, as it was written in Classical Chinese, is available to most of us only in translation) but because his poetry contains a record of one of China's greatest minds in the middle of one of China's most fascinating times.


Li Bai was the son of uncertain parentage; his birthplace also is unclear, although one candidate is Suiye in Central Asia (near modern day Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan). His family moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was five 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 traveled around China, enjoying wine and leading a carefree life very much contrary to the prevailing ideas of a proper Confucian gentleman. His personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike, and he was introduced to the Emperor Xuanzong around 742.

He was given a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide a source of scholarly expertise and poetry for the Emperor. Li Bai remained less than two years as a poet in the Emperor's service before he was dismissed for an unknown indiscretion. 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 Bai survive, compared to only one by Li Bai 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 Bai died in Dangtu, or modern day Anhui. Traditionally he was said to have drowned attempting to catch the moon's reflection in a river; 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 one 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 of the wonders of nature they express and in their spontaneous tone. Many of his greatest poems embody a Taoist aesthetic; the poems seem to rise effortlessly out of a handful of spare elements, creating a whole that is far greater than just the sum of its parts. At other times, Li Bai's poetry, particularly in the form known as gufeng are more Confucian both in tone and moralizing style. Other verses that have at least been collected under the name Li Bai are unremarkable and seem fairly conventional.

It is somewhat difficult to get a sense of Li Bai's oeuvre or his evolution as a poet due to the nature of Chinese poets in the Tang period. Li Bai, like most poets of his time, did not collect any of his poems in a book. Almost all of his poems are occasional verses—that is, they were written on the spot for a given occasion such as a wedding or holiday—which, after being written, would be left in the possession of whomever the poem was written for. As a result of this, Li Bai's poetry was not collected in any cohesive form until after his death. A great deal of his poems may have been lost, and a good number of those that have been collected under his name may not be by him after all.

Much like the genius of Mozart, many legends exist about how effortlessly Li Bai composed his poetry; he was said to be able to compose at an astounding speed, without correction. His favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Li Bai's use of language is not as erudite as Du Fu's but impresses equally through an extravagance of imagination and a direct correlation of his free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as A River Merchant's Wife: A Letter), record the hardships or emotions of common people.

One of Li Bai's most famous poems is Drinking Alone under the Moon (月下獨酌, 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:

Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine
I pour alone but with no friend at hand
So I lift the cup to invite the shining moon,
Along with my shadow we become party of three
The moon although understands none of drinking, and
The shadow just follows my body vainly
Still I make the moon and the shadow my company
To enjoy the springtime before too late
The moon lingers while I am singing
The shadow scatters while I am dancing
We cheer in delight when being awake
We separate apart after getting drunk
Forever will we keep this unfettered friendship
Till we meet again far in the Milky Way


Li Bai is known in the West partly due to Ezra Pound's versions of some of his poems in Cathay, and due to composer Gustav Mahler's integration of four of his works into Das Lied von der Erde. These were in a German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), that in turn, followed a French translation.

A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Buckler, McKay Hill. 1999. A History of World Societies. Fourth Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. 328-329.


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