Li Bai (701–762), styled Taibai, was a great romantic poet born in the High Tang (ca. first half of the eighth century). His poems, featuring rich imagination and clear imagery, employed exaggerated yet spontaneous language in a bold and free style. They have become symbols of the openness and diversity of the High Tang society.
There is no definitive account regarding Li Bai’s ancestral home, family origin, or birthplace. It is generally believed that his ancestral home was Chengji, Longxi (in today’s Gansu province). Born in Suiye (Suyab) in modern Kyrgyzstan and raised in Mianzhou, Sichuan, Li Bai experienced a cultural blending not only between southern and northern China, but also between China and the outside world. He had an unconventional education in his youth. He could declaim the controlling incantations of the talismans representing the six days in the sexagesimal cycle beginning with the graph jia. He is said to have “learned the classics of a hundred different schools,” and to have enjoyed swordsmanship. It was also said that he “associated with divine transcendents,” and read “unconventional books.” During his early adulthood, he traveled to different parts of the country, lived with hermits, and studied with the renowned tactician Zhao Rui (659–742). These life experiences had a huge formative influence on his poetry.
The Ruist attitude of responsibility toward life influenced Li Bai and his desire to “aid all mankind” and to “stabilize the state.” Unfortunately, he was unable to apply his talent during his lifetime. In 742, at the age of forty-two, Li Bai was summoned to the imperial capital as a Hanlin daizhao (academician awaiting assignment) and was treated with respect at first. However, Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) appreciated only his literary talent and never gave him any real responsibility. The later years of the Kaiyuan reign were marked by corruption in Xuanzong’s court. Li Bai left Chang’an (the Tang capital) in frustration because he despised the treachery he saw. In 756, the third year of the An Lushan Rebellion, Li Bai, at age fifty-five, was so stirred by the vicissitudes of the time, entered government service for a second time; he joined the staff of Li Lin (d. 757), Prince Yong. Unfortunately, because of his involvement in the struggle between Prince Yong and Emperor Suzong (r. 756–762), Li Bai was exiled to Yelang (in today’s Guizhou). He was later released from his banishment by an imperial amnesty.
As Li Bai was unable to realize his aspiration of serving the state and improving the well-being of the common people, he turned to poetry to convey his indignation and distress. His attacks on an ugly reality, his spirit of defiance, his fortitude, and his pursuit of personal liberty were all perfectly expressed in his poems. Proud and unbending, he held officials and the nobility in contempt: “How can I furrow my brow and bend my waist before men in power? / This only makes me incapable of relaxing heart or face.” He was amiable and humble when he was with ordinary people. Seeing the disrupted lives of displaced people during the An Lushan Rebellion, he remarked: “The giant sea-turtle [An Lushan] has not been slain, and the sea waters continue to roil, / Like fish and dragons ministers and commoners scurry about—how will they find peace?” Yearning for personal freedom, he often compared himself to a soaring roc (a legendary bird of great size): “If one day the roc could rise with the wind, / He would soar ninety thousand miles up into the skies.” Denied his opportunity at greatness, he resorted to seclusion and the pursuit of immortality to vent his bitterness. “Since my life has not gone as I had wished, / I shall let down my hair and float away in a small boat.” His life experience and poetry were deeply influenced by a swordsman’s spirit. In poems like “Xiake xing” (Ballad of a swordsman) and “Fufeng haoshi ge” (Song of a swordsman from Fufeng), he passionately praised these heroes. He spent most of his life travelling throughout the country recording landscapes and people in his poems. He composed masterfully on a wide range of themes, from landscapes to frontier lives and to the sorrow of forgotten or abandoned women.
It was a lifelong pain for Li Bai not to realize his ambitions. In 761, the sixty-one-year-old poet volunteered to fight the country’s rebels. Regrettably, halfway on his journey he returned home due to an illness and died the next year. Before his death, he wrote these poignant lines to express his regret: “The great roc soared forth and stirred the realm, / Cast down from mid-heaven, its strength did not save him.” Li Bai was laid to rest at Qingshan in present-day Dangtu county, Anhui province.
Li Bai is an outstanding poet in Chinese literature. His gifted creativity greatly broadened the scope of traditional Chinese poetry and brought it to new heights. His voluminous poems, which are an invaluable cultural heritage, have inspired generations of Chinese poets.