Li Bo (Li Bai, Li Po)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Li Bo (Li Bai, Li Po)

Li Bo (Li Bai, Li Po) (701-762) Chinese poet An ambitious Chinese courtier who wrote at the height of Tang dynasty culture, Li Bo left some 1,100 poems as evidence of his times. He came from Suyab (present-day Tokmok in northeastern Kyrgyzstan) in the Mongolian desert; from age five, he grew up influenced by Confucianism and Daoism outside Chengdu in Sichuan Province in southeastern China. He appears to have been bilingual in Chinese and Turkish or perhaps Persian and was an accomplished writer by age 10. Literary historians surmise that he was the grandson of an exile living on the country's western frontier. In his mid-20s, he journeyed across China and developed a liking for indolence, taverns, gaiety, and women. He admitted, “Three hundred sixty days a year / Drunk I lie, like mud every day” (Li Po 1922, 62). After marriage, he tried to establish a placement in civil service and wangled an appointment from the Emperor Xuanzong, a promoter of cultural opportunity for which the Tang dynasty was famous. Li Bo's wife's desertion from their home in Nanjing left him the job of rearing their daughter Bingyang and son Bojin.

In 742, Li Bo became a court darling in the capital city of Changan. Of his departure from Nanjing, in “On the Road of Ambition” (ca. 745), he chuckled, “I laugh aloud and go” (119). In one of his odes, “To His Friend Departing for Shuh” (ca. 745), he discredited the court prophet by declaring, “Go, my friend! Our destiny's decided” (36), an example of Li Bo's lax attitude toward morality and serious purpose. He cloaked skepticism about law and justice in a metaphoric couplet: “When the hunter sets traps only for rabbits, / Tigers and dragons are left uncaught,” a model of his aphoristic style (37). While writing at the Hanlin Academy among the cream of Chinese scholars, the poet disgraced himself in drunken stunts and was dismissed. He spent the rest of his life traveling the country. At the suppression of the An Shi Rebellion against Xuanzong, Li Bo, then 54 years old, was believed to be implicated, and he was sent into exile in Yehlang (present-day Yunnan Province on China's south-central border). He died at Dangtu in Anhui Province near the coast, where the governor erected a monument on his grave.

With apparent ease, Li Bo produced short and long works, including yue fu (fantasy) about stars and butterflies, jueju (quatrains) on homesickness and leave-taking, and the Changgan xing (Song of Changgan), an ode to Chinese peasants who marry young. In his early years, he wrote “Gazing into Antiquity at Su Terrace” and “Gazing into Antiquity in Yueh” (ca. 742) about the disappearance of the family of Empress Wu, who had held power in the poet's early boyhood before sinking into oblivion; both poems provide striking examples of NATURE LORE. In middle age, he pondered the death of a Japanese visitor in “Mourning Chao” (ca. 755). Daoism and Zen Buddhism infused his writings with stoicism and a willingness to accept change as the natural state of earthly life.

For Li Bo's skillful verse, admirers called him the “poem god.” Once away from the intrigues and coteries of courts and palaces, he turned to nature, especially the moon and flowing water, as sources of solace for their predictable alterations of shape. For his own peace of mind, he claimed that he had withdrawn from troubled court life to “a jade green mountain … in another world / not among men” (quoted in Roberts 1991, 49).


Li Bo. The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet. Translated by

Shigeyoshi Obata. New York: E. P Dutton, 1922. Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth

Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.