You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest, and I smile, and am silent, and even my soul remains quiet: it lives in the other world which no one owns. The peach trees blossom. The water flows. – Li Po
Li Bai (Li Pai; Chinese: 李白; pinyin: Lǐ Bái; Wade–Giles: Li3 Pai2, 701 – 762), also known as Li Bo (or Li Po; pinyin: Lǐ Bó; Wade–Giles: Li3 Po2), is a Chinese poet acclaimed from his own day to the present as a genius and romantic figure who took traditional poetic forms to new heights. He and his friend Du Fu (712-770) are the two most prominent figures in the flourishing of Chinese poetry in the mid-Tang Dynasty that is often called the “Golden Age of China.”
Around a thousand poems attributed to him are extant, thirty-four in the canonical 18th-century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems. The poems were models for celebrating the pleasures of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude, and the joys of drinking wine. Among the most famous are “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day”, “The Hard Road to Shu”, and “Quiet Night Thought“, which appears frequently in school texts in China today. Legend holds that Li drowned when he reached from his boat to grasp the moon’s reflection in the river.
Critics have focused on Li Bai’s strong sense of the continuity of poetic tradition, his glorification of alcoholic beverages (and, indeed, frank celebration of drunkenness), his use of persona, the fantastic extremes of some of his imagery, his mastery of formal poetic rules – and his ability to combine all of these with a seemingly effortless virtuosity in order to produce inimitable poetry.
Li Bai had a strong sense of himself as being part of a poetic tradition. The “genius” of Li Bai, says one recent account, “lies at once in his total command of the literary tradition before him and his ingenuity in bending (without breaking) it to discover a uniquely personal idiom….” Burton Watson, comparing him to Du Fu, says Li’s poetry, “is essentially backward-looking, that it represents more a revival and fulfillment of past promises and glory than a foray into the future.” Watson adds, as evidence, that of all the poems attributed to Li Bai, about one sixth are in the form of yuefu, or, in other words, reworked lyrics from traditional folk ballads. As further evidence, Watson cites the existence of a fifty-nine poem collection by Li Bai entitled Gu Feng, or In the Old Manner, which is, in part, tribute to the poetry of the Han and Wei dynasties. His admiration for certain particular poets is also shown through specific allusions, for example to Qu Yuan or Tao Yuanming, and occasionally by name, for example Du Fu.
A more general appreciation for history, is shown on the part of Li Bai in his poems of the huaigu genre, or meditations on the past, wherein following “one of the perennial themes of Chinese poetry,” “the poet contemplates the ruins of past glory.”
In the East
Li Bai’s poetry was immensely influential in his own time, as well as for subsequent generations in China. His influence has also been demonstrated in the immediate geographical area of Chinese cultural influence, being known as Ri Haku in Japan. This influence continues even today. Examples range from poetry to painting and to literature.
In his own lifetime, during his many wanderings and while he was attending court in Chang’an, met and parted from various contemporary poets. These meetings and separations were a typical occasion for versification in the tradition of the literate Chinese of the time, a prime example being his relationship with Du Fu.
After his lifetime, his influence continued to grow. Some four centuries later, during the Song Dynasty, for example, just in the case of his poem that is sometimes translated “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon”, the poet Yang Wanli wrote a whole poem alluding to it (and to two other Li Bai poems), in the same gushi, or Old-style Poetry form. In the Ming Dynasty, Duan shuqing, dedicated her poem Taibai Tower to him. In the 20th century, Li Bai even influenced the poetry of Mao Zedong.
In the West
The ideas underlying Li Bai’s poetry had a profound impact in shaping American Imagist and Modernist poetry through the 20th century. Also, Gustav Mahler integrated four of Li Bai’s works into his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. These were derived from a free German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte(The Chinese Flute), Bethge based his version on the pioneering translation into French by Saint-Denys. There is another striking musical setting of Li Bai’s verse by the American composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola (an instrument of Partch’s own invention) are based on the texts in The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet translated by Shigeyoshi Obata. In Brazil, the songwriter Beto Furquim included a musical setting of the poem “Jing Ye Si” in his album “Muito Prazer”.
Li Bai is influential in the West partly due to Ezra Pound‘s versions of some of his poems in the collection Cathay, (Pound transliterating his name as “Rihaku”). Li Bai’s interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best[original research?] poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”), record the hardships or emotions of common people. An example of the liberal, but poetically influential, translations, or adaptations, of Japanese versions of his poems made, largely based on the work of Ernest Fenollosa and professors Mori and Ariga.
Modern cultural references
Simon Elegant novelized Li Bai’s life in his 1997 work, A Floating Life. Li Bai appears (under a fictional name) as a major character in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, a fantasy novel set in Tang Dynasty China.
MacDonald Harris’ novel ‘Herma’ (Atheneum, 1981) refers to Li Bai under the name of Li Po, citing one of his poems and describing the reports of his death (page 175).
In “An American Childhood,” Annie Dillard distinguishing “one sort of poetry” that “was full of beauty and longing; it exhaled, enervated and helpless, like Li Po,” with other kinds of poems, that were “threats and vows.”