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Li Bai - The Greatest Poet in Chinese History

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As the most outstanding poet in the history of Chinese poetry, Li Bai was born in Qinglian Village, Jiangyou of Sichuan Province on the 28th of February in 701, whose ancestral home is actually Chengji County, Longxi Prefecture (present Pingliang of Gansu Province). With Li Ke as his father, Li Bai has two sons (Boqin and Tianran) and a daughter Pingyang. He has many pseudonyms throughout his life, including Recluse of the Azure Lotus, the Transcendent Poet and the Banished Transcendent. The beauty of mountains and rivers and his delicate inner feeling are fully depicted in Li Bai's poems, which features in an ethereal and powerful style, and many rhetoric techniques were used in his poems, including vivid metaphors, bold hyperboles and strong contrasts, so he was awarded"the Greatest Romantic Poet in Chinese History" by the later generations. Li Bai and Dufu (the greatest realistic poet) are known to the world as "Lidu".

Li Bai is famous all over the world for his ethereal, bold and unconstrained poetic style as well as his violation of the rules in versification in the Tang dynasty (618-907), and he leaves behind about 1,000 precious poems for the later generations, of which his noted poems are Invitation To Wine, Liang's Garden poems, Contemplation in the Quiet Night and Seeing Meng Haoran off from Yellow Crane Tower.

Life Experience:

A Promising Boyhood

Li Bai read very extensively during his boyhood, ranging from Confucian classics to the famous historical masterpiece to works from Hundred Schools of Thoughtsï¼?and he was very fond of swordsmanship as well. Taoism was prevailing owing to advocating of the sovereigns in the Tang dynasty, in which Li Bai had firmly believed since his early age, so he enjoyed living in seclusion and seeking immortals in the mountains and forests. He had serious aspirations to his career in politics and claimed that he would follow the example of Guan Zhong (Prime Minister of Qi Kingdom in the Spring and Autumn Period) to assist the emperor in governing the country, enabling it richer and more stable with his own intelligence.

Actually he swayed on whether living in a secluded or a secular life all the time. On one hand, he yearned for a celestial lifestyle like the immortals. On the other hand, he expected to become a high-ranking official assisting the emperor in royal court. Compared with the two life styles, the later one (living a secular life) is the mainstream in his ideological system, constituting the foundation of his progressive poems, and his earlier poems were mostly written in Sichuan, of which the most famous one was Mount Emei Moon Song, showing his exceptional artistic talent in poetry.

Goodbye to Relatives and Wandering Far

Saying goodbye to his parents and friends to travel far in the 13th year (725) of Kaiyuan Period, Li Bai sailed down to Jiangling (Hubei Province) from his hometown to seek interviews with magistrates, expecting being drafted by the emperor through magistrates' recommendations. Much surprisingly, he encountered the nationally-renowned Taoist priest Sima Chengzhen in Jiangling. Sima Chengzhen not only mastered a set of Taoist theurgy, but he wrote seal characters (a style of Chinese calligraphy, often used on seals) and poems well, highly respected and summoned to the imperial court to preach for emperor Xuanzong (Li Longji) several times, and Yangtai Temple was established in Chang'an for him under Emperor Xuanzong's order, what was more, Emperor Xuanzong sent his sister Princess Yuzhen to learn Taoism from Sima Chengzhen. Talking with Sima Chengzhen, Li Bai was very excited and presented his latest poems to the eminent Taoist priest who marveled at his artistic talent and appraised him as immortal. Inspired by Sima's encouragement, Li Bai decided to pursuit the celestial world that he dreamed of.

Out of excitement, Li Bai impromptu wrote a poem called Roc Meeting the Rare Bird Fugues (Fugues is a kind of writing style originated in the Han dynasty) to present Sima Chengzhen, comparing himself as roc in the poem and depicting its soaring freely in the sky, which fully embodied his romantic poetic style in a hyperbolical way.

Li Bai carried on his way from Jiangling to Dongting Lake via Yueyang (Hunan Province) with his companion Wu Zhinan, and Wu Zhinan died from a sudden disease on the way. Li Bai was so grieved at Wu's death that he cried out over his body for 3 days, and even the passer-bys shed sad tears on hearing his heart-broken cries. Burying Wu Zhinan by Dongting Lakeshore for the time being, Li Bai went on his journey to Lushan Mountain in Jiangxi Province, where he wrote a famous poem called Watching Lushan Waterfalls. In autumn of 725, he arrived at Jinling (present Nanjing of Jiangsu Province), an ancient capital city of six dynasties, where the ancient imperial palaces were visible before his eyes, arousing his sighs with all sorts of feelings and his sense of pride of the Tang dynasty, and he claimed that great changes had taken place in Nanjing because the peace reigned over world, so the emperor could lower the garment and administrate state affairs. He visited numerous places of interests and made lots of friends in Jinling during his short stay, sighting with deep feeling by meditating on the ancient historical sites. A number of good friends sent off Li Bai at a tavern at his departing from Jinling, which made him so moved that he spent a whole morning with them in drinking, one cup of wine after another. At the very sight of farewell, Li Bai felt a strong urge to write poems and wrote a famous poem called Parting at a Tavern in Jinling, in which he compared the abstract friendship as the visible flowing water, vividly expressing his deep friendship to his friends. He left for Huainan (present Yangzhou of Jiangsu Province) from Nanjing in 726, where he was sick with a myriad of thoughts crowing into his mind, including his homesickness, his yearning for making attributions and achievements and his missing for bosom friends, so he wrote several letters to his friends in hometown to express his bittersweet feeling.

Recovering from illness, He moved to Yuezhou (present Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province), a famous bustling city for its beautiful mountains and rivers, where he indulged himself in the scenic spots, including Kuaiji Mountain, the Mirroring Lake, the Orchid Pavilion, Tianmu Mountain and Dong Mountain, and over 100 poems were written over this period. He went westward to Jingmen from Yuezhou without stop and stayed in Jingmen for three months. In spite of missing hometown, he felt rather embarrassed to return home without any achievements in his career, so he decided to keep on his wandering. He revisited Dongting Lake, disinterring Wu Zhinan's corpse and reinterring it in Jiangxia (present Wuchang of Hubei Province). He got acquainted with idyllist Meng Haoran in Xiangyang (in Hubei Province), where they found each other congenial and became bosom friends, and Li Bai wrote a poem called To Meng Haoran to express his admiration. He came to Anlu from Xiangyang and lived a reclusive life in a Taoist temple on Xiaoshoushan Mountain, where he communicated with the local officials in the form of self-recommendation poems, expecting to seek for a successful official career and improve his reputations. His poems were deeply appreciated by the old retired Prime Minister Xu Yushi who betrothed his granddaughter to Li Bai through introduction of Meng Haoran, and Li Bai lived a happy marriage life with his wife in Anlu for years, however, his enthusiasm in making contributions and achievements wasn't annihilated by his happy marriage life, continuing his wandering life with Anlu as base, and he made friends with local officials and sons of officials on his way. He paid a formal visit Han Chaozong, magistrate of Jingzhou, in the 22nd year (734) of Kaiyuan period, which was an important event in Li Bai's life.

Visiting Chang'an for the First Time

As a rule, the emperors in feudal society often go hunting in winter. Emperor Xuanzong went hunting for several times after his ascending the throne, bringing foreign envoys with him every time to show off military prowess, and he went hunting once more in 23rd year (735) of Kaiyuan Period, when Li Bai happened to wander in Taiyuan (Shanxi Province), so he wrote Great Hunting Fugues for emperor Xuanzong in order to be recognized. In the long Great Hunting Fugues, He boasted that the Tang Empire covered a vaster territory and was more abundant in natural resources than that of the Han dynasty (206-220), preaching the profound Taoist theory tailored to emperor Xuanzong's taste. He departed from Taiyuan to Chang'an (present Xi'an) to appreciate the sceneries in the imperial city, living at the foot of Zhongnan Mountain (south of Chang'an), at the top of which he often stood to watch the great and impressive city.

Li Bai was very proud to live in such an extraordinary golden age, but his official career was full of twists and turns. He got acquaintance of Zhang Ji (emperor's son-in-law) and Princess Yuzhen in Chang'an, and he presented a poem to Princess Yuzhen (emperor Xuanzong's sister) to wish her to be an immortal by learning Taoist theurgy, approaching figures of governing class step by step. Li Bai stayed in Chang'an without any accomplishment in career for one year, upset and discontented owing to his self-recommendation to high officials not answered, and he left Chang'an for Shandong Province with so much regrets in 741.

Living in a reclusive life with the other five hermits (Han Zhun, Pei Zheng, Kong Chaofu, Zhang Shuming) in Culai Mountain, Li Bai was known to the world as one of "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook" then, and he became good friends with famous Taoist priest Wu Yun for the cause of seeking for immortals and discussing Taoist theory. He also wandered in the South of Yangtze River (Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces) during his stay in Shandong Province, visiting places of interest in Hangzhou, Xuancheng, Suhou and Yangzhou and writing plenty of famous poems along his way, and his deep love for the magnificent rivers and hills were fully expressed in his poems as well.

Retuning Home with Gold under Imperial Order

Li Bai became more and more popular owing to his outstanding poems and self-recommendation to high officials in the Tang dynasty, and his poems were known to every household and even emperor Xuanzong. Through strong recommendation of Wu Yun (Taoist priest) and Princess Yuzhen, Li Bai was summoned to attend the imperial court under imperial edict, where emperor Xuanzong warmly received him in person. Greatly impressed by his poems, emperor Xuanzong held a grand banquet for him, granted him delicate and delicious food and even seasoned soup for him in the banquet, making all the high-ranking officials surprised.

When questioned about hot current events, Li Bai answered the questions without any hitch owing to his long observation and meditation on social issues, gaining full marks from emperor Xuanzong, so he was appointed Hanlin Academician to provide professional academic knowledge and poems for emperor and draw up documents. Whenever an imperial banquet was held in the court, Li Bai would be ordered by emperor to write poems to commemorate it and make a parade of the spectacular screen to the subsequent generations, making his poems more fashionable. He was favored by emperor Xuanzong so much that he was greatly envied by his colleagues. Another important event for him was that he met and presented He Zhizhang with his poems (a well-known poet) in the Purple Palace, including Crow Resting Song and Hard Road to Success. After reading the poems, He Zhizhang was so amazed that he invited Li Bai to a luxurious tavern, exchanging wine with a golden turtle to treat him and calling him the Banished Transcendent. Overwhelmed by the unexpected favor, Li Bai made friends with He Zhizhang despite their great difference in age.

Besides serving as Hanlin academician and accompanying emperor's outing, Li Bai often drank wine and went sightings in Chang'an, and he sensitively found that serious crisis was deeply rooted in the prosperous scene in the Tang Empire, of which the tyrannous eunuchs and imperious relatives of the emperors did whatever they wished without any restraint, obscuring the sky like clouds and causing a strong sense of oppression to Li Bai, so he satirized them in his poems and was greatly hated by them. Meanwhile, he was attacked by malignant slanders one after another from his colleagues owing to his high-minded speeches, and bad words about him were also spoken by emperor's favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan, all of which made him very gloomy and indignant, so he applied for leaving Hanlin Academy to live a reclusive life in the mountains. The application was eventually permitted, and he went home with lots of gold and silver granted by emperor Xuanzong in spring of 744. Living in Chang'an for 3 years enabled Li Bai to observe the corruptions and darkness in the imperial court more clearly, and he was more mature in mind than he used to.

Wandering Once More

Li Bai arrived in Luoyang (Henan Province) in summer of 744, where he encountered Du Fu who was 11 years younger than Li Bai. Li Bai was famous all over the county then, however, Du Fu lived a hard life in Luoyang. In spite of their difference in social statuses, Li Bai never showed a little arrogance before Du Fu, so the deep friendship was firmly established and a pledge was made between them to meet in Liangsong (present Kaifeng and Shangqiu of Henan Province) next time, and they met in Liangsong in autumn of 744 as scheduled, where they happened to meet Gao Shi (a famous Frontier fortress poet). All of them cherished high aspirations and shared similar interests, so they wrote poems, commented on current events, discussed rises and falls of the previous dynasties and expressed their concerns to the potential crisis in the Tang Empire along the way together, and they got departed in winter with their discussion on poetic theory greatly influencing on their poems in the future.

At the time of farewell, Li Bai and Du Fu had another date to meet in Donglu (in Shandong Province). Li Bai continued on his way to Qizhou (present Jinan of Shandong Province), where he received Taoist ritual in the Purple Temple (Zi Ji Gong) and formally became a Taoist owing to his great disappointment upon the dark social reality. In autumn of the 4th year (745) of Tianbao period, Du Fu came to Qizhou and met Li Bai for the 3rd time. As their friendship became deeper and deeper, they travelled during the day and shared the same bed during the night. In addition to writing poems and going sightseeing in Qizhou, they paid a visit to the outstanding calligrapher Li Yong before their departing in winter.

Li Bai sailed to Yangzhou from Donglu via Rencheng (in Shandong Province) later, but he didn't stay for long in Yangzhou because he was eager to meet Yuan Danqiu (an eminent and learned Taoist priest) in Kuaiji (present Shaoxing of Zhejiang Province), where he mourned his deceased old friend He Zhizhang first, and then he visited places of interests of Kuaiji with Yuan Danqiu and Kong Chaowen. The fantastic natural sceneries and profound historical connotation of Kuaiji were vividly depicted in his poems, including the Great Yu's Cave, the Orchid Pavilion, the Mirroring Lake and the Shan Stream. Li Bai sailed down to Jinling (present Nanjing) eventually, where he encountered the demoted official Cui Chengfu, and they both were congenial as underdogs in politics, so they sailed along the Qinhuai River hand in hand, singing, dancing and writing poems to entertain themselves on the boat all day long.

Being an advisor of General Li Lin

Emperor Xuanzong fled to Sichuan Province with Anshi Turmoil breaking out in the 14th year (755) of Tianbao period, when Li Bai lived a reclusive life in Lushan for avoiding social upheaval, rather contradicted on whether going on living a reclusive life or saving the world with his intelligence. It was during Anshi Turmoil that Li Heng (the 3rd son of emperor Xuanzong) hastily declared himself state head of country in Linwu (in Gansu Province) and made emperor Xuanzong the retired emperor, and Li Lin (the 23rd son of emperor Xuanzong) was appointed genera-in-chief in the south by emperor Xuanzong to fight against Anshi rebels, however, Li Lin was intent to compete for the thorn with his elder brother Li Heng. At Li Lin's invitation, Li Bai became an advisor in Li Lin's office and made an upmost effort to advise Li Lin to smash the rebels and serve emperor Xuanzong. With his advice denied by general (Li Lin), Li Bai was ordered to make self-criticisms several times for his short-sight in politics. Li Lin's army was completely defeated by Li Heng's in the competition of the throne, with Li Lin killed under Li Heng's secret order, and Li Heng became emperor of the Tang dynasty, concentrating preponderant arm forces to smash Anshi rebels.

Being a victim in the struggle of royal power, Li Lai was put into jail in Xuanyang (Jiangxi Province), and he was luckily enough to be saved from jail by Song Ruosi and drafted as a private assistant in Song Ruosi's office, sailing down to Wuchang with Song Ruos. Li Bai also wrote a long self-recommended article to Emperor Li Heng (or emperor Suzong) in the name of Song Ruosi, expressing his innocent in the struggle of imperial power and his wishes to be an official to serve the country. Much to his surprise, not only was he not appointed an official by emperor, but he was sentenced to exile to Yelang (in Yunan Province) in the 2nd year (757) of Zhide period for unknown reasons. Being an old man, Li Bai was very sad for all his sufferings during his life, writing many sorrowful poems along his way to Yelang.

Died of Serous Illness

Arriving at Wushan Mountain (in Chongqing) in the 2nd year (759) of Qianyuan period, Li Bai was pardoned accidentally by emperor Suzong's proclaiming a general amnesty owing to the great drought in Central Shaanxi Plain. He gained his freedom eventually after numerous twists and turns, sailing down from Baidi City (Sichuan Province) to Jiangling (Hubei Province) in one day, so he wrote a poem called Setting out Early in the Morning from Baidi City with an ecstasy, which read "We set sail at dawn from Baidi City under a rosy sky. One-thousand-li trip down to Jiangling and back in the same day. The noisy chatter of apes from the shores followed us all the way. Lightly, our boat skipped past ten-thousand green mountains", and the poem fully expressed his happy mood along his way.

Staying in Jiangxia (Hubei Province) for one year after being pardoned, Li Bai sailed on Dongting Lake with the demoted official Gu Zhi, appreciating the moon in the lake, musing over the memories of the past and writing poems to express their ambitions. Li Bai returned to Xuancheng (in Anhui Province) and Jinling in 760, who shuttled between the two cities for two years and lived a dependent life on his old friends. He returned to Dangtu (in Anhui Province) from Jinling and turned to his distant relative Li Yangbing for help owing to poverty-stricken life in the 2nd year (761) of Shangyuan period. Li Bai was seriously ill in winter of 762 and handed his poems over to Li Yangbing, writing his last poem the Dying Song, and he died at the age of 62.

The above article is written is written by Young Qingwei, and he is experienced in Chinese literature, especially in Tang poem. More information for the visitors who are interested in Chinese history and Li Bai are also avaiable in my website.


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