li poIntroduction

Of the three great poets of the Tang dynasty, Li Bai (Li Po in older texts) is probably the one most familiar to western readers. He was born in 701 in Gang Xiao Sheng, a territory of China, and when five years old followed his merchant father to Sichuan. Of an independent and bohemian nature, and well-off, Li Bai never sat the shin-shih examinations, nor bothered much about finding a position, but by impressing the many scholars who befriended him with his poetry, he was brought to court notice in 742 and appeared before Emperor Hsüan-tsung.

He became a member of the Han-lin Academy, an appointment that lasted only two years. The association between China's most gifted literary magician and its dilettante emperor was not a happy one, and Li Bai was exiled from court on several occasions, the result of dubious political connections and the poet's distaste for tradition and authority. Many poems praise the light-headed simplicity that wine brings, and their author sometimes appeared less than sober before the Son of Heaven. Li Bai continued his wanderings, and in 755 he joined the force led by the emperor's 16th son, Prince Lin, a move probably forced on him by the troubled times of the An Lushan rebellion. Lin was defeated, captured and executed. A similar fate was ordered for Li Bai, but the poet was reprieved, exiled to Yunnan, and pardoned before arrival when the old emperor died. There are many legends surrounding Li Bai's death, but he probably died at Dangtu, possibly of cirrhosis of the liver or mercury poisoning, in Anhui province in 762.

An enormous quantity of poetry was written throughout the Tang period, and its greatest exponents illustrate the three fundamental strands of Chinese thought: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Du Fu was more Confucian, looking steadfastly at life, even its most harrowing aspects, with an understanding stoicism. Duties and responsibilities are what make the virtuous man, who learns from correctness in family relationships to adopt proper attitudes to society. Wang Wei was a Buddhist mystic, viewing the world with a detached compassion. Life is an illusion, and its ensnaring passions and appetites keep us from our better natures The mercurial Li Bai exemplified the Taoist attitude: his sudden inspiration, brilliant improvisations and unmatched technical felicity. The Tao, unknown and unfathomable, is behind the flow of pattern and process in the universe, which we can abstract into concepts but not fully comprehend. Some 1,100 of Li Bai's poems survive, and are noted for their rich imagination, fantasy, taoist and alchemical interests. Li Bai was a strong character, making a vivid impression on everyone he met, but he was also boastful, callous, dissipated, irresponsible and untruthful. His saving quality is the poetry, which is as unforgettable now as the man was in life.

Chinese poetry Chinese is notoriously perplexing to Europeans, particularly in its writing system, use of tones and tone patterns, etymology, concision (no conjunctions, articles or plurals) fluid relationship between nouns and verbs, free word order, and allusion to previous events or poems (often hundreds of years in the past. There are problems of understanding: educated Chinese can read these poems fairly readily, but they are often at a loss to explain exactly what they mean. Worse still, Chinese characters link up nicely in compounds that have no literal equivalents in English. Finally, Chinese poetry takes many forms, all of them a good deal more complicated than this brief summary can cover, so it's not surprising that translations tend to employ free verse, drawing support from the idiomatic and sometimes beautiful renderings of Ezra Pound, Arthur Waley and Kenneth Rexroth. Unfortunately, classical Chinese poetry is nothing like free verse. Allusive, compact and musical, it follows very demanding rules on number of characters to the line, rhyme, parallelism and tonal arrangements. Li Bai wrote in many forms, including regulated verse, but he preferred the rhapsodic fu and yuefu quatrain styles without their onerous restrictions.

Readable introductions to Chinese poetry include Neinhuaser, Hartman and Galer's The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (1998), J.J.Y. Liu's The Art of Chinese Poetry (1962). B.S. Miller's Masterworks of Asian Literature (1994), B. Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), S. Owen's The Great Age of Chinese Poetry (1977) W-L. Yip's Chinese Poetry (1997) and A.C. Graham's Poems of the Late T'ang (1965). Works specifically on Li Bai include D. Young's Five Tang Poets (1990), A. Waley's The Poetry and Career of Li PO (1950), A. Cooper's Li PO and Tu Fu (1974) and J. Hightower's Topics of Chinese Literature: Poetry and Career of Li PO (1950/53) and S. Elegant's A Floating Life: The Adventures of Li PO (2000).

Suggestion: How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. Zong-Qi Cai (ed) Columbia University Press. 2007. $29.25

Probably the best of many books now appearing on the structure of Chinese poetry: a detailed guide to styles and periods, with 140 explained poems providing themes, imagery, prosodic features and (through a linked website) sound recordings.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.