The Poet Li Bai
Known as the “Immortal Poet,” Li Bai (701–762) is often considered the greatest Chinese poet of all time. His was the epitome of the classic Tang Dynasty poetry (tang shi). Li Bai was a wandering spirit, and his travels across China led him into the company of Daoists, literary men, and high officials, who often admired him greatly.
In addition to being a prolific writer and a student of Daoism, Li Bai (also spelled Li Bo and Li Po), is famous for the fact that much of his inspiration for poetry came after drinking. The contemporary Chinese poet Du Fu wrote of Li Bai in his poem Song of Eight Drinking Deities:
Li Bai, challenging others to drink, creates
one hundred verses,
Sleeping in the bars of Chang-an,
Even if the emperor calls him to board the ship
he does not oblige,
Calling himself the great immortal of wine.
On some occasions, however, Li Bai’s drinking backfired. During the reign of Tang emperor Xuanzong, Li Bai had the honor of serving as a court scholar. But after a drinking episode one day, he badly insulted one of the emperor’s favorite eunuchs. The eunuch soon found an opportunity to slander Li Bai in front of the emperor, prompting the poet’s removal from the palace.
A few years later, a friend of Li Bai’s received a prominent position and was able to arrange for the poet to be invited back to work for the emperor. But again, Li Bai’s luck turned sour when his acquaintance revolted against the ruler, causing all those who worked under him, including Li Bai, to be sent away from the capital.
Shortly after, another associate of Li Bai’s who worked for the emperor, managed to rescue the poet from banishment. Li Bai then wrote some of the most famous lines of Chinese poetry:
White King City I left at dawn in the morning
glow of the clouds,
The thousand-mile journey to Jiang Ling,
completed in a single day,
On either shore the gibbons' chatter sounds
While my light boat skims past thousands of crags.
According to historical records, Li Bai concluded his life’s journey in the town of Xuan, passing away from “excessive drinking.” He left behind 20 volumes of writing and some 900 poems. The popularity of Li Bai’s poems continues to dominate Chinese poetry today and various nicknames capture his legacy—“Wine Immortal,” “Poet Transcendent,” “Immortal Exiled from Heaven,” and “Poet Knight-Errant.”