The famous Tang dynasty poet Li Po (Li Bai, Li Po, A.D. 701-762) is one of the most quoted Chinese poets in China and the West. In China Li is regarded as "the fallen immortal", "the immortal of wine" and the"banished immortal"— “an immortal who misbehaved in heaven and was banished to earth" — and is considered wild, eccentric and possessing special powers.
Kaiser Kuo, a founder of China's first heavy-metal band Tang Dynasty, told the BBC: "He was quite a drunkard... and writing some of his best poetry apparently, while completely inebriated. You know, he's wild and associated with a kind of unbridled revelry, and yeah that's part of why I love him." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]
Li Po does not seem to have been very likable as a person. He has been described as "tiresome sort of bohemian, vain and untrustworthy, an irresponsible citizen, a careless friend, an indifferent husband and a terrible drunk." Other than a short stint "polishing" Imperial documents, Li never had a job and didn't seem to make much money from his poetry. He appeared to have survived by sponging off relatives. Li once referred to himself as the “god of imbibing." It was said he was capable of “producing 100 poems after drinking a whole dou of wine." A dour is equal to about 10 liters..
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: He “did not serve as an official, though he did spend two years as a scholar at the Hanlin Academy (a kind of “think tank” for the emperors). His family background may have had something to do with his failure to become an official: Li Po’s birthplace is unknown, but he was certainly not from an elite aristocratic family. Some scholars speculate that he was born in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. With no hope for an official career, Li Po spent much of his life traveling around the empire. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu
Li Po’s Poetic Life
Dr. Eno wrote: “Li Po was deeply immersed in Daoist practices and resolutely devoted to maintaining a safe distance from the entanglements of official life. He was a brilliant and talented man who could easily have risen high in Tang society had he so wished, but his temperament, much akin to those of the earlier “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” led him to use his prodigious poetic talents only to receive enough patronage from powerful men to ensure that he could sustain the pursuits that truly attracted him: chiefly, drinking wine, writing poetry, and imbibing the various potions for immortality that later Daoist religion prescribed (and which probably led to his early death). Li Po symbolizes the endurance of the Neo.Daoist persona in the early Tang Dynasty. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
In a review of “The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai” by Ha Jin, Gina Elia wrote in SupChina: “The poet’s path to literary success was meandering and, in fact, nearly accidental. He aspired to be a great statesman, a dream he never quite realized. He traveled around China trying to network with the right people, but drifted from one failed connection to the next. We learn of officials who worry about Li Bai’s bombastic, arrogant character and do not recommend him because they want to avoid future trouble, and of jealous officials who don’t recommend him because they don’t want to see him achieve success. But being a good poet could enhance one’s official prospects. Li Bai wrote poetry to help his reputation among officials he wanted to impress. He was already considered a great poet when he died, but nevertheless died in relative poverty, without ever having achieved the political career he had dreamed of all his life. [Source: Gina Elia, Sup China, January 9, 2019, “The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai” by Ha Jin]
There is dispute about Li’s ethnicity. He may have been a Uyghur or of Turkic descent. “There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. “I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.
Li Po often wrote about the moon. One famous verse goes:
Moonlight in front of my bed
I took it for frost on the ground
I lift my head, gaze at the mountain moon
Lower it, and think of home.
Yuan Haiwang, author of “This Is China: The First 5,000 Years,” told the BBC: "The moon in China has a special meaning. And when it's full, that represents the fullness and reunification of the family. So that poem struck the deep core of my heart whenever I miss my family."
Carrie Gracie of the BBC wrote: “Li Bai was a huge celebrity, showered with honours because of his genius. Portraits of Li Bai often show him in a long white gown, raising his wine glass to the moon. Drunkenness didn't have negative connotations for an 8th Century poet - it was the route to divine inspiration. The moon... symbolises poetry and dreams, so it's fitting that it plays a role in Li Bai's death - the story is that he drowned in a river when he tried to embrace the moon's reflection. "He was drunk, presumably," says translator Burton Watson. "He was drunk a good deal of the time." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]
Li Po Poems
“Summer Day in the Mountains” reads:
Lazily waving a fan of white feathers,
Stripped naked here in the green woods,
I take off my headband, hang it on a cliff,
My bare head spattered by winds through pines. [Translated by Stephen Owen]
The poem “A Yellow Crane Tower, Taking Leave of Meng Hao-Jan as He Sets Off for Kuang-ling goes:
An old friend takes leave of the west at Yellow Crane Tower,
in misty third-month blossoms goes downstream to Yang-chou.
The far-off shape of his lone sail disappears, in the blue.green void,
and all I see is the long river flowing to the edge of the sky. [Translated by Burton Watson]
The poet Meng Hao.jan (689-740) parted from Li Po at Yellow Crane Tower, overlooking the Yangtze River at Wu-ch’ang in Hupei (Hubei) province, to sail east down the river to Yang-chou, (Yangzhou) in Kiansu (Jiangsu) province.
Li Po wrote the following poem about the famous Huangshan mountains:
Huangshan is hundreds of thousands of feet high
With numerous soaring peaks lotus-like
Rock pillars shooting up to kiss empyrean roses
Like so many lilies grown amid a sea of gold.
Near Jiuhuashan in the Huangshan mountains, Li Po wrote:
Looking far ahead from Jiujang,
I saw the peaks of Mount Jiuhia
Emerging from the Heavenly River
Like nine beautiful lotus flowers.
“Spring Song” goes:
Lo Fu, the girl from Qin,
Plucks mulberry leaves by the stream.
Her hand bare on the green stems,
Red jacket and white sungleam.
I must hurry, the grubs should be fed –,
Please don’t prance your five steeds by again!
Eno wrote: The above poem “is a lighthearted jab at the officials of the Tang, a brief and simple coda to the Han poem “Mulberries by the Path,” underscoring its sour view of government officers and expressing Li Po’s own wish that to stay distant from them.”
Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Po
One of Li's most famous poems, also known as “Amidst Flowers with a Jug of Wine”, goes:
Amidst flowers with a jug of wine
I pour alone lacking companionship
With a raised cup I invite the Moon
To toast my shadow, the three of us.
Now, moon doesn't know how to drink,
And shadow only follows my form,
But, for the moment, moon and shadow friends,
Life's joy an instant springlike blooms.
I sing. Moon starts to sway,
I dance. Shadow reels and rolls.
Wine wakened, we join in delight –,
Drunk, we scatter on our ways.
Let's be ever bound in journeys passion free,
And pledge to meet beyond the Milky Way.
Fighting South of the Ramparts by Li Po
“The poem below may have been written in 751, when Li Po would have been aware of two major defeats inflicted on the Tang armies: a disastrous campaign against the independent kingdom of Dali in present-day Yunnan Province (in southwestern China) and a defeat at the hands of the Abbasid Caliphate at the Talas River in modern Kyrgyzstan.
Last year we were fighting at the source of the Sanggan;1
This year we are fighting on the Onion River road.2
We have washed our swords in the surf of Parthian seas;
We have pastured our horses among the snows of the Tian Shan.3
The King’s armies have grown gray and old
Fighting ten thousand leagues away from home.
The Huns have no trade but battle and carnage;
They have no fields or ploughlands,
But only wastes where white bones lie among yellow sands.
Where the House of Qin built the great wall that was to keep away the Tartars,
There, in its turn, the House of Han lit beacons of war.
The beacons are always alight, fighting and marching never stop.
“Men die in the field, slashing sword to sword;
The horses of the conquered neigh piteously to Heaven.
Crows and hawks peck for human guts,
Carry them in their beaks and hang them on the branches of withered trees.
Captains and soldiers are smeared on the bushes and grass;
The General schemed in vain.
1) The river that runs west to east through northern Shanxi and Hebei, north of the Great Wall. 2) The Kashgar-darya in Turkestan. 3) The “Heavenly Mountains” in China’s northwest.
Du Fu (712-770)
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Du Fu (712-770) is among the most celebrated poets of the Tang. He served as an official (although never in the high-ranking posts that he hoped for). He also lived through the An Lushan Rebellion, being taken prisoner by the rebels in 756 and escaping to rejoin the Tang court the next year. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
Du Fu was a heavy drinker like Li Po but otherwise he was very different. Carrie Gracie of the BBC wrote: he “aspired to a career as a civil servant, but he failed the exam and was too prickly to network his way into a good post. Then came a rebellion led by a general, An Lushan, and eight years of civil war. Du Fu fled the Tang capital, Xian, only to be captured and then to wander as a refugee and exile until the rebel general was assassinated by his own son, and everyone could go home. After this, he finally wangled a government post… but not for long, as Burton Watson explains. "He got an official position but he immediately did something to annoy the emperor or spoke out too openly on social problems, again and again writing poems that were critical of the regime. And he was shunted aside from his official position." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]
In his later years, Du Fu was so poor that one of his children died of starvation. He wrote a famous poem about a gale that blew the thatched roof off his cottage, over the river and into the tree-tops, allowing rain to fall on his children in their beds. Du Fu writes that he could not sleep, and fell to pondering life's injustices.
Du Fu’s Poetry
Du Fu was left us more left than 1,400 extant poems. He seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society. His poems inspired many Chinese painters. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: Du Fu “was the epitome of the Tang literatus, and perhaps the greatest poet in China's history. Despite his brilliant mastery of the Confucian classics, Du Fu did not have the type of scholastic drive to be successful in the Confucian exam system. His career failed to advance during his youth, and eventually he fell in with Li Bo, dissipating his early political promise in a dissolute, Daoist life style. Later, Du Fu returned to his Confucian family roots and for many years sought an official position by courting potential patrons with his poems. Eventually, he secured a position, but not until the eve of the great rebellion of 755, which threw his life into chaos. In the end, Du Fu's many adventures in poetry, politics, and the retirement of a hermit produced a deep and mature synthesis of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist perspectives in his poetry. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]
Du Fu is considered “the Shakespeare of China.” According to the Harvard Gazette; “Like the Bard of Avon, Du Fu’s writing is layered and shows immense range. The elusive poet wrote in a wide variety of styles and registers. Du Fu tackles the subject of war extensively, but there is also a poem about bean sauce and another about taking down a gourd trellis in which Du Fu compares the challenging, if mundane, task to the fall of the Shang dynasty. Stephen Owen, an expert of Du Fu, who spent eight years translating all his poems said, “He’s a quirky poet. When he moves to Chengdu with his family, he has to set up house and writes a poem to people asking for fruit trees and crockery. No one had ever done this kind of poem. He has a poem praising his bondservant Xinxing for repairing a water-piping system in his house. It’s a wonderful poem about the joy and discoveries of living in the real world instead of living in the rarefied poetic world...He’s forgotten what you can and can’t do in poetry, and 30 years later poets looked back and said, ‘This is the greatest poet we have.’” [Source: Harvard Gazette, April 11, 2016]
In his poem “To Li Bo,” Du Fu wrote:
Two years a sojourner in the Eastern Capital,
I saw enough of plotting and intrigue.
Coming from the wilds my taste for greens,
Has left me hungry at the meat-filled meals.
Can there truly be no vital grain,
To bring the glow of health back to my face?
I am too poor for fine medicinal herbs,
And lose my way searching the mountain woods.
“Lord Li, an elder of the Golden Court,
Has now withdrawn to seek in darkened dales;,
He wanders in the lands of Liang and Song,
I pray he'll gather up the jadelike herbs.
You ask me why I live in the gray hills.
I smile but do not answer, for my thoughts are elsewhere.
Like peach petals carried by the stream, they have gone,
To other climates, to countries other than the world of men.
Translating Four-Kilograms-Worth of Du Fu Poems
Sinologist Stephen Owen spent eight years translating more than 1,400 poems by Du Fu to produce the first complete English translation of his work, weighing in at over four kilograms. The Harvard Gazette reported: “A monumental undertaking, Owen spent nearly a decade working on the translation, which resulted in a 3,000-page, six-volume book that weighs in at nine pounds. “If you’ve got to be stuck with someone for eight years, you want it to be someone you enjoy, who can sustain your interest,” said the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard, who recently published “The Poetry of Du Fu,” the first complete English translation of the great Tang dynasty literary figure. “I didn’t believe it until I held it in my hand,” he said. “There’s something to having the physical copy.” [Source: Harvard Gazette, April 11, 2016]
“Owen, a sinologist who has written extensively about Chinese literature, counts “The Poetry of Du Fu” as his 13th published effort, and he expects the substantive book, which is free to download but retails as a hard copy for $210, to find its way into academic libraries and the homes of Chinese-American parents who want their children to grow up familiar with some of the work of the poet.“This is for general readers and scholars, but mostly for those who know some Chinese, but not enough to read Du Fu. This is to help them,” said Owen. Inside the green-bound volumes are acclaimed verses such as “Moonlit Night” and “View in Spring,” but Owen argues that Du Fu “is a lot more fun when you get out of the well-known ones.”
“In its simplest form, Chinese poetry is not easy to translate. It doesn’t have tenses and rarely uses pronouns. There is no easy way to tell whether a noun is singular or plural. If the characters read: “bird fly sky,” Owen says, that can be interpreted as either “A bird flies in the sky” or “Birds fly in the sky.” “You read the title — that’s the most important thing,” he said, adding, “Of course, it’s maddening.”
“Frustrating moments aside, the project was a long-in-the-works dream, born of a 2005 Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, which gave Owen $1.5 million to fund this and other projects. “The Complete Poetry of Du Fu” will inaugurate the Library of Chinese Humanities, an accessible series of pre-modern Chinese facing-page texts and translations published by De Gruyter. Owen expected the Du Fu translation to take three years, but teaching responsibilities and speaking engagements set him back numerous times. “It owns you. I got teaching relief for a couple of semesters, and I worked on it and I worked on it. It wasn’t that I was lazy,” he said. “You see the territory that has to be done. You have to plow the south 40, and have plowed the south 28, and see what still has to be done.” Owen, who is 69, worked primarily alone, allowing a graduate student to go over the work only after it was complete. “Du Fu’s a great person to translate, but there goes eight years of your life. Finally it’s done,” he said.
Poems by Du Fu
“On the River” goes:
On the river, every day these heavy rains —
bleak, bleak, autumn in Ching.ch’u.
High winds strip the leaves from the trees;
through the long night I hug my fur robe.
I recall my official record, keep looking in the mirror,
recall my comings and goings,
leaning alone in an upper room.
In these perilous times I long to serve my sovereign —,
old and feeble as I am, I can’t stop thinking of it!, [Translated by Burton Watson]
“I Stand Alone” reads:
A single bird of prey beyond the sky;
a pair of white gulls between riverbanks.
Hovering wind tossed, ready to strike;
the pair, at their ease, roaming to and fro.
And the dew is also full on the grasses,
spiders’ filaments still not drawn in.
Instigations in nature approach men’s affairs —,
I stand alone in thousands of sources of worry. [Translated by Stephen Owen] [Source: “I Stand Alone” from An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, edited and translated by Stephen Owen (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 426]
“Views in Springtime” goes:
The country is smashed: hills and rivers remain.
The city turns to spring: plants and trees grow deep.
Moved by the moment, flowers splash tears;
Resentful of parting, birds startle the heart.
Beacon fires have lasted for three months now;
Letters from home are worth 10,000 in gold.
I’ve scratched my white hairs even scarcer,
until none will be left to hold hairpin to head. [Source: translated by Paul Rouzer]
Another translation of “View in Spring” goes:
“The state broken, its mountains and rivers remain,
the city turns spring, deep with plants and trees.
Stirred by the time, flowers, sprinkling tears,
hating parting, birds, alarm the heart.
Beacon fires stretch through three months,
a letter from family worth ten thousand in silver.
I’ve scratched my white hair even shorter,
pretty much to the point where it won’t hold a hatpin.
[Source: Stephen Owen, The Poetry of Du Fu (De Gruyter, 2015), Owen’s six-volume, 3,000-page work and the first English translation of the complete poetic output of any individual Chinese poet in history]
“Leaving Qinzhou” by Du Fu
I've grown lazy in my declining years,
My daily tasks I don't plan for myself.
When I've no food I look to the next life,
When I've no clothes I think of southern lands.
I hear that winters in Hanyuan,
The air is mild like fall;
The greenery never wilts and dies,
The hills and streams are fair.
Liting, they say, is finer still,
Valleys of fine rich fields.
You fill your belly full with yams,
And honey hangs in easy reach,
You sail your boat on cool clear pools,
By groves of bamboo shoots.
That journey, long and hard as it may be,
Could bring my lifelong wandering to a close.
Here, bustling crossroads everywhere I look,
How close I feel the crowd of social cares.
To hob and nob is not my natural self,
Though I roam the hills my heart is never clear.
No strange stones grace the valleys in this place,
Its meager harvest gleaned from frontier fields.
How could it ever comfort an old man?
It would be hard to stay adrift here long.
Last sungleam hidden by a lonely tower,
Crow cries full above the city wall.
Midnight: the carts issue forth,
Horses watering by the cold pool.
Towering high the stars and moon,
Endless and dim the clouds of mist.
So vast, all within heaven and earth!
My way is long, so long.
Song of the Army Carts by Du Fu
Rattling carts and
Marching, bows slung by their sides;
Their fathers and mothers and children and wives
run by their ranks –
The Bridge of Xianyang all lost in the dust –
And catch at their clothes and clutch at their feet,
and stand in the roadway and cry.
Their cries rise up and strike the clouds.
By the roadside, a passerby questions
the marching men,
Who can only reply, “They call us often now:
Some were called at fifteen to guard the River north,
At forty still they tilled the fortress fields,
Sent off so young the village headmen had to wrap
the cloths about the heads
That came home white, only to return again
to the garrison frontier.
At border posts the flowing blood is like the sea –
Yet the Martial Emperor does not cease
to press the borders back.
Haven’t you heard of the two hundred counties
east of the mountains in Han,
Where the thorns of the briars have overgrown
ten thousand hamlets and towns?
Even where a sturdy wife may ply the hoe and plough,
The grain lies over patchwork fields
with borders overgrown.
Worse still it is for troops from Qin,
so able in bitter war,
Driven to and fro, no different than dogs
or flocks of farmyard fowl.
You are so good as to ask us, sir,
Yet how dare we reply?
In a winter such as this
When western forces have no rest,
Desperate magistrates will demand their taxes,
And where will these come from?
Yes, we’ve learned that bearing sons is bad,
And bearing daughters good:
Your daughters can marry your neighbors,
But your sons will lie buried beneath the wild grasses.
My lord, have you never been to the ends of Qinghai,
Where none come to gather bleached bones long dead,
And the fresh spirits fret, and the old spirits weep,
And the dark rain is full of their twittering cries?”
Meaning of Du Fu’s Poetry Today
One famous Du Fu verse goes:
Perverse by nature, I'm addicted to fine lines
If my words don't startle people, I won't give up till I die
If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,
A great shelter for all the world's scholars, together in joy,
Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.
Oh! If I could see this house before me,
I'd happily freeze to death in my broken hut!
"We constantly talk about that verse," Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong University, who grew up in the part of south-west China where Du Fu lived at this stage of his life, told the BBC. Carrie Gracie of the BBC wrote: “In fact, she and other Chinese people do not just talk about it, they produce ironic take-offs, mocking the corruption of officialdom. They turn the verse - 'Suddenly, I saw a great mansion appeared in front of me - and my father would have five rooms in that mansion.' The point of the joke is that officials look after themselves - and their families - very well. [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012 ^+^]
“I asked some of the people relaxing one warm evening on the shore of a Beijing lake for their views on poetry. When I asked whether they had any favourite contemporary poets, they could not really think of any. As one of them put it, people do not have much time for poetry nowadays. But most could still remember the Li Bai and Du Fu they had learned in childhood - and were determined their own children should have a grasp of these classics of Chinese literature.” ^+^
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated October 2021