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Li Bai

Li Bai
Li Bai In Stroll, by Liang K'ai (1140–1210)
Born 701
Suiye, Tang Empire (present-day Suyab, Kyrgyzstan)
Died 762
Dangtu, China
Occupation Poet
Nationality Chinese
Period Tang dynasty
Li Bai
Chinese name
Chinese 李白
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese Lý Bạch
Korean name
Hangul 이백
Hanja 李白
Japanese name
Kanji 李白
Hiragana りはく

Li Bai (701[1]–762), also known as Li Po, was a Chinese poet acclaimed from his own day to the present as a genius and romantic figure who took traditional poetic forms to new heights. He and his friend Du Fu (712–770) were the two most prominent figures in the flourishing of Chinese poetry in the mid-Tang Dynasty that is often called the "Golden Age of China".

Around a thousand poems attributed to him are extant, thirty-four in the canonical 18th-century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems. The poems were models for celebrating the pleasures of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude, and the joys of drinking wine. Among the most famous are "Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day", "The Hard Road to Shu", and "Quiet Night Thought", which appears frequently in school texts in China today. Legend holds that Li drowned when he reached from his boat to grasp the moon’s reflection in the river.


  • Name variants 1
  • Life 2
    • Background and birth 2.1
    • Early years 2.2
    • On the way to Chang'an 2.3
    • At Chang'an 2.4
    • More wandering 2.5
    • War and exile 2.6
    • Return and wandering 2.7
    • Death 2.8
    • Calligraphy 2.9
    • Surviving texts and editing 2.10
  • Themes 3
    • Poetic tradition 3.1
    • Rapt with wine 3.2
    • Fantastic imagery 3.3
    • Nostalgia 3.4
    • Use of persona 3.5
    • Technical virtuosity 3.6
  • Influence 4
    • In the East 4.1
    • In the West 4.2
      • Ezra Pound 4.2.1
  • Modern cultural references 5
    • In fiction 5.1
    • In non-fiction 5.2
    • In music 5.3
    • In public parks and gardens 5.4
    • Epcot 5.5
    • Astronomy 5.6
  • Translation 6
    • Exemplary translation 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
    • Translations 9.1
    • Background and criticism 9.2
  • External links 10

Name variants

Chinese: 李白
Pinyin: Li Bai or Li Bo
Zi (): Taibai (Tai-pai; 太白)
Hao (): Qinglian Jushi (Ching-lien Chu-shih; 青蓮居士)
aka: Shixian (Shih-hsien; 詩仙)
The Poet Xian

Li (李) is the family name, or surname; however, he has been known by various names. His given name is written with a Chinese character (), which is romanized variously as Po, Bo, Bai, Pai, and other variants. Even in Hanyu Pinyin there is ambiguity, as Bái is the common variant and the literary variant. His courtesy name was Taibai (Tai-pai; 太白), literally "Great White," literally meaning Venus (in the Chinese of the time: later the term "Gold Star" replaced "Great White" as the planetary name). Thus, combining the family name with the courtesy name, his name appears in variants such as Li Taibo, Li Taibai, Li Tai-po, and others[2]). Less commonly in English, he also may be known by the pseudonym (hao), Qīnglián Jūshì (Ching-lien Chu-shih; 青蓮居士), meaning Householder of the Azure Lotus, or the nicknames Poet Transcendent (simplified Chinese: 诗仙; traditional Chinese: 詩仙; pinyin: Shīxiān; Wade–Giles: Shih1-hsien1), Wine Immortal (Chinese: 酒仙; pinyin: Jiǔxiān; Wade–Giles: Chiu3-hsien1), Banished Transcendent (Chinese: 謫仙人; pinyin: Zhéxiānrén; Wade–Giles: Che2-hsien1-jen2), Poet-Knight-errant (simplified Chinese: 诗侠; traditional Chinese: 詩俠; pinyin: Shīxiá; Wade–Giles: Shih1-hsia2, or "Poet-Hero"). In works in which the English transliteration is derived through Japanese, his name may be given as Ri Haku or Ri Taihaku. All of these name variants, and more, with or without hyphenation, have been historically attested to. He generally referred to himself as "白".


The two "Books of Tang", The Old Book of Tang and The New Book of Tang remain the primary sources of bibliographical material on Li Bai.[3] Other sources include internal evidence from poems by or about Li Bai, and certain other sources.

Background and birth

The year of Li Bai's birth is generally considered to be 701. He was born somewhere in Central Asia.[4] Apparently, his family had originally dwelt in what is now southeastern Gansu, and later moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was perhaps five years old. Two accounts given by contemporaries Li Yangbing (a family relative) and Fan Chuanzheng stated that his family was originally from what is now southeastern Gansu. Li's ancestry is traditionally traced back to Li Gao, the founder of the state /of Western Liang.[5] Evidence suggests that during the Sui Dynasty, his ancestors, then commoners, most likely as the result of some act of crime, were forced into a form of exile from their original home in what is now Gansu to some location further west.[6] During their exile, the Li family lived in Suiye (Suyab, now an archeological site in present-day Kyrgyzstan) and perhaps also in Tiaozhi (simplified Chinese: 条枝; traditional Chinese: 條枝; pinyin: Tiáozhī), a state centered near modern Ghazni, Afghanistan.[7] These areas were on the ancient Silk Road, and the Li family were likely merchants.[8]

While Li Bai's mother was pregnant with him, she had a dream of a great white star falling from heaven. This seems to have contributed to the idea of his being a banished immortal (one of his nicknames).[9] That the Great White Star was synonymous with Venus helps to explain his courtesy name, "Tai Bai".

Early years

In 705, when Li Bai was four years old, his father secretly moved his family to Sichuan, near Chengdu, where he spent his childhood.[10] There is currently a monument commemorating this in Zhongba Town, Jiangyou, Sichuan province.

The young Bai read extensively, including Confucian classics such as The Classic of Poetry (Shijing) and the Classic of History (Shujing), as well as various astrological and metaphysical materials which the Confucians tended to eschew.[10] He also engaged in other activities, such as taming wild birds and sword play.[10] Apparently, he became accomplished in the martial arts; this autobiographical quote by Li Bai helps to illustrate the wild life that he led in the Sichuan of his youth:

"When I was fifteen, I was fond of sword play, and with that art I challenged quite a few great men."
—Li Bai[11]

Before he was twenty years of age, Li had fought and killed several men, apparently for reasons of chivalry, in accordance with the knight-errant tradition (youxia).[10]

In 720, he was interviewed by Governor Su Ting, who considered him a genius. Though he expressed the wish to become an official, he never took the civil service examination.

On the way to Chang'an

Map of eastern interior Chinese cities of Luoyang, Chang'an, Qinzhou, Chengdu, Kuizhou, and Tanzhou
The China of Li Bai and Du Fu

In his mid-twenties, about 725, Li Bai left Sichuan, sailing down the Yangzi River, through Dongting Lake, to Nanjing, beginning his days of wandering. He then went back up-river, to Yunmeng, in what is now Hubei, where his marriage to the granddaughter of a retired Prime Minister, Xu Yushi, seems to have formed but a brief interlude.[12] During the first year of his trip, he met celebrities and gave away much of his wealth to needy friends.

In 730, Li Bai stayed in the Zhongnan Mountain near the capital Chang'an (Xi'an), and tried but failed to secure a position. He sailed down the Yellow River, stopped by Luoyang, and visited Taiyuan before going home.

In 735, Li Bai was in Shanxi, where he intervened in a court martial against Guo Ziyi, who was later, after becoming one of the top Tang generals, to repay the favour, during the An Shi disturbances.[9]

By perhaps 740, he had moved to Shandong. It was in Shandong, at this time, that he became one of the group known as the "Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook", an informal group dedicated to literature and wine.[9]

He wandered about the area of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, eventually making friends with a famous Daoist priest, Wu Yun.[9]

In 742, Wu Yun was summoned by the Emperor to attend the imperial court, where his praise of Li Bai was great.[9]

At Chang'an

Emperor Minghuang, seated upon a terrace, observing Li Bai write poetry while also being assisted with having his boots off, according to a Ming dynasty illustration.

Wu Yun's praise of Li Bai led the Emperor Xuanzong (born Li Longji and also known as Emperor Minghuang) to summon Li to the court in Chang'an. Li's personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike, including another Taoist (and poet) He Zhizhang who bestowed upon him the nickname "the Transcendent dismissed from the Heaven", or "Immortal Exiled from Heaven".[9] Indeed, after an initial audience, where he was questioned upon his political views, the Emperor was so impressed that he held a big banquet in his honor. At this banquet the Emperor was said to show his favor, even to the extent of personally seasoning his soup for him.[9][13]

Emperor Xuanzong found employment for him as a translator, as Li Bai knew at least one non-Chinese language.[9] Ming Huang eventually gave him a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide scholarly expertise and poetry for the Emperor.

When the emperor ordered Li Bai to the palace, he was often drunk, but quite capable of performing on the spot.

Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor's beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, the favorite royal consort.[14] A story, probably apocryphal, circulates about Li Bai during this period. Once, while drunk, Li Bai had gotten his boots muddy, and Gao Lishi, the most politically powerful eunuch in the palace, was asked to assist in the removal of these, in front of the emperor. Gao took offense at being asked to perform this menial service, and later managed to persuade Yang Guifei to take offense at Li's poems concerning her.[14] At the persuasion of Yang Guifei and Gao Lishi, Xuanzong reluctantly, but politely, and with large gifts of gold and silver, sent Li Bai away from the royal court.[15]

More wandering

After leaving the court, Li Bai formally became a Taoist, making a home in Shandong, but wandering here and there for the next ten some years, writing poems.[15]

He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744, and again the following year. These were the only occasions on which they met. A dozen of Du Fu's poems to or about Li Bai survive, while only one from Li Bai to Du Fu remains.

War and exile

Riders on Horseback, Northern Qi Dynasty, the general area of the rebel heartland, although of an earlier date.

At the end of 756, the An Lushan disorders burst across the land. The Emperor eventually fled to Sichuan; then, later, during the confusion, the Crown Prince opportunely declared himself the head of government. As the An Shi disturbances continued, Li Bai became an adviser to one of Ming Huang's sons, who was far from the top of the primogeniture list, yet nevertheless apparently made his own bid for the imperial power. Upon the defeat of the Prince's forces, Li Bai escaped, but was later captured, imprisoned in Jiujiang, and sentenced to death. The famous and powerful army General Guo Ziyi intervened: now promoted to general, this was the very person whom Li Bai had saved from court martial a couple of decades previously. Upon General Guo Ziyi's offering to exchange his official rank for Li Bai's life, Li Bai's death sentence was commuted to exile: he was consigned to Yelang.[15] Yelang (in Guizhou) was then in the remote extreme of the empire. Towards the destination of Yelang, Li Bai headed with little sign of hurry, stopping for prolonged social visits, and writing poetry along the way, leaving detailed descriptions of his journey for posterity. Notice of an imperial pardon recalling Li Bai reached him before he even got close to Yelang.[15]

Return and wandering

When Li received the news of his imperial reprieve he then returned down the river to Jiangxi, passing on the way through Baidicheng, still engaging in the pleasures of food, wine, good company, and writing poetry: his poem "Departing from Baidi in the Morning" records this stage of his travels. Although Li did not cease his wandering lifestyle, he then generally confined his travels to Nanjing and the two Anhui cities of Xuancheng and Li Yang (in modern Zhao County).[15] Eventually, in 762, Li's relative Li Yangbing became magistrate of Dangtu, and Li Bai went to stay with him there.[15] In the meantime, Suzong and Xuanzong both died within a short period of time, and China had a new emperor.


The new emperor Daizong named Li Bai the Registrar of the Left Commandant's office in 762. However, by the time that the imperial edict arrived in Dangtu, Anhui, Li Bai was already dead.

There is a long and sometimes fanciful tradition regarding his death, from uncertain sources, that Li Bai drowned after falling from his boat when he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the Yangtze River, something later believed by Herbert Giles.[15] However, the actual cause appears to have been natural enough, although perhaps related to his hard-living lifestyle. Nevertheless, the legend that Li Bai died trying to embrace the reflection of the moon has entered Chinese culture.[16]

There is a memorial to Li Bai, just west of Ma'anshan.


The only surviving calligraphy in Li Bai's own handwriting, titled Shangyangtai (Going Up To Sun Terrace), located at the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.[17]

Li Bai was also a skilled calligrapher, though there is only one surviving piece of his work in his own handwriting that exists today.[17] The piece is titled Shangyangtai (Going Up To Sun Terrace), a 38.1 by 28.5 centimetres (15.0 in × 11.2 in) long scroll; the calligraphy is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing, China.[18]

Surviving texts and editing

Even Li Bai and Du Fu, the two most famous and most comprehensively edited Tang poets, were affected by the destruction of the imperial Tang libraries and the loss of many private collections in the periods of turmoil. Although many of Li Bai's poems have survived, even more were lost and there is difficulty regarding variant texts. One of the earliest endeavors at editing Li Bai's work was by his relative Li Yangbing, the magistrate of Dangtu, with whom he stayed in his final years and to whom he entrusted his manuscripts. However, the most reliable texts are not necessarily in the earliest editions. Song dynasty scholars produced various editions of his poetry, but it was not until the Qing dynasty that such collections as the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems) made the most comprehensive studies of the then surviving texts.[19]


Critics have focused on Li Bai's strong sense of the continuity of poetic tradition, his glorification of alcoholic beverages (and, indeed, frank celebration of drunkenness), his use of persona, the fantastic extremes of some of his imagery, his mastery of formal poetic rules – and his ability to combine all of these with a seemingly effortless virtuosity in order to produce inimitable poetry.

Poetic tradition

Li Bai had a strong sense of himself as being part of a poetic tradition. The "genius" of Li Bai, says one recent account, "lies at once in his total command of the literary tradition before him and his ingenuity in bending (without breaking) it to discover a uniquely personal idiom...."[20] Burton Watson, comparing him to Du Fu, says Li's poetry, "is essentially backward-looking, that it represents more a revival and fulfillment of past promises and glory than a foray into the future."[21] Watson adds, as evidence, that of all the poems attributed to Li Bai, about one sixth are in the form of yuefu, or, in other words, reworked lyrics from traditional folk ballads.[22] As further evidence, Watson cites the existence of a fifty-nine poem collection by Li Bai entitled Gu Feng, or In the Old Manner, which is, in part, tribute to the poetry of the Han and Wei dynasties.[23] His admiration for certain particular poets is also shown through specific allusions, for example to Qu Yuan or Tao Yuanming, and occasionally by name, for example Du Fu.

A more general appreciation for history, is shown on the part of Li Bai in his poems of the huaigu genre,[24] or meditations on the past, wherein following "one of the perennial themes of Chinese poetry," "the poet contemplates the ruins of past glory."[25]

Rapt with wine

Chinese rice wine

John C. H. Wu observed that "while some may have drunk more wine than Li [Bai], no-one has written more poems about wine."[26] Classical Chinese poets were often associated with drinking wine, and Li Bai was part of the group of Chinese scholars in Chang'an his fellow poet Du Fu called the "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup." Chinese generally did not find the moderate use of alcohol to be immoral or unhealthy. James J.Y Liu comments that zui in poetry “does not mean quite the same thing as ‘drunk,’ ‘intoxicated,’ or ‘inebriated’, but rather means being mentally carried away from one’s normal preoccupations..." Liu translates zui as "rapt with wine.”[27] The “Eight Immortals,” however, drank to an unusual degree, though they still were viewed as pleasant eccentrics.[28] Burton Watson concluded that "[n]early all Chinese poets celebrate the joys of wine, but none so tirelessly and with such a note of genuine conviction as Li [Bai]."[29]

One of Li Bai's most famous poems is Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志. Arthur Waley):[30] translated it as follows:

Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志)
處世若大夢, Life in the world is but a big dream;
胡爲勞其生. I will not spoil it by any labour or care.
所以終日醉, so saying, I was drunk all the day,
頹然臥前楹. lying helpless at the porch in front of my door.
覺來盼庭前, when I awoke, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
一鳥花間鳴. a lonely bird was singing amid the flowers.
借問此何時, I asked myself, had the day been wet or fine?
春風語流鶯. the Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.
感之欲嘆息, moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
對酒還自傾. and, as wine was there, I filled my own cup.
浩歌待明月, wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise;
曲盡已忘情. when my song was over, all my senses had gone.

Fantastic imagery

An important characteristic of Li Bai's poetry "is the fantasy and note of childlike wonder and playfulness that pervade so much of it."[23] Burton Watson attributes this to a fascination with the daoshi, Taoist recluses who practiced alchemy and austerities in the mountains, in the aim of becoming xian, or immortal beings.[23] There is a strong element of Taoism in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone, and "many of his poems deal with mountains, often descriptions of ascents that midway modulate into journeys of the imagination, passing from actual mountain scenery to visions of nature deities, immortals, and 'jade maidens' of Taoist lore."[23] Watson sees this as another affirmation of Li Bai's affinity with the past, and a continuity with the traditions of the Chuci and the early fu.[29] Watson finds this "element of fantasy" to be behind Li Bai's use of hyperbole and the "playful personifications" of mountains and celestial objects.[29]


The critic James J.Y. Liu notes “Chinese poets seem to be perpetually bewailing their exile and longing to return home. This may seem sentimental to Western readers, but one should remember the vastness of China, the difficulties of communication... the sharp contrast between the highly cultured life in the main cities and the harsh conditions in the remoter regions of the country, and the importance of family....” It is hardly surprising, he concludes, that nostalgia should have become a "constant, and hence conventional, theme in Chinese poetry."[31]

Liu gives as a prime example Li's poem "A Quiet Night Thought" (also translated as "Contemplating Moonlight"), which is often learned by schoolchildren in China. In a mere 20 words, the poem uses the vivid moonlight and frost imagery to convey the feeling of homesickness. There are several editions of the poem. This is translated from a 17th-century Kangxi edition moonlight poem.

A Quiet Night Thought
Moonlight before my bed
Perhaps frost on the ground.
Lift my head and see the moon
Lower my head and pine for home.

Use of persona

Li Bai also wrote a number of poems from various viewpoints, including the personae of women. For example, he wrote several poems in the Zi Ye, or "Lady Midnight" style, as well as Han folk-ballad style poems.

Technical virtuosity

Li Bai is well known for the technical virtuosity of his poetry and the mastery of his verses.[21] In terms of poetic form, "critics generally agree that Li [Bai] produced no significant innovations....In theme and content also, his poetry is notable less for the new elements it introduces than for the skill with which he brightens the old ones."[21]

Burton Watson comments on Li Bai's famous poem, which he translates "Bring the Wine": " so much of Li [Bai]'s work, it has a grace and effortless dignity that somehow make it more compelling than earlier treatment of the same."[32]

Li Bai especially excelled in the gushi form, or "old style" poems, a type of poetry allowing a great deal of freedom in terms of the form and content of the work. An example is his poem "蜀道難", translated by Witter Bynner as "Hard Roads in Shu." Shu is a poetic term for Sichuan, the destination of refuge that Emperor Xuanzong considered fleeing to escape the approaching forces of the rebel General An Lushan. Watson comments that, this poem, "employs lines that range in length from four to eleven characters, the form of the lines suggesting by their irregularity the jagged peaks and bumpy mountain roads of Sichuan depicted in the poem."[21] Li Bai was also noted as a master of the cut-verse, or jueju.[33]

Li Bai was noted for his mastery of the lushi, or "regulated verse", the formally most demanding verse form of the times. Watson notes, however, that his poem "Seeing a Friend Off" was "unusual in that it violates the rule that the two middle couplets ... must observe verbal parallelism," adding that Chinese critics excused this kind of violation in the case of a genius like Li.[34]


Spring Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden with quoted text by Li Bai, painted by Leng Mei, late 17th or early 18th century, National Palace Museum, Taipei

In the East

Li Bai's poetry was immensely influential in his own time, as well as for subsequent generations in China. From early on, he was paired with Du Fu. The recent scholar Paula Varsano observes that "in the literary imagination they were, and remain, the Two Greatest Poets of the Tang—or even of China." Yet she notes the persistence of "what we can rightly call the 'Li-Du debate,' the terms of which became so deeply ingrained in the critical discourse surrounding these two poets that almost any characterization of the one implicitly critiqued the other."[35] Li's influence has also been demonstrated in the immediate geographical area of Chinese cultural influence, being known as Ri Haku in Japan. This influence continues even today. Examples range from poetry to painting and to literature.

In his own lifetime, during his many wanderings and while he was attending court in Chang'an, met and parted from various contemporary poets. These meetings and separations were a typical occasion for versification in the tradition of the literate Chinese of the time, a prime example being his relationship with Du Fu.

After his lifetime, his influence continued to grow. Some four centuries later, during the Song Dynasty, for example, just in the case of his poem that is sometimes translated "Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon", the poet Yang Wanli wrote a whole poem alluding to it (and to two other Li Bai poems), in the same gushi, or Old-style Poetry form.[36] In the Ming Dynasty, Duan shuqing, dedicated her poem Taibai Tower to him. In the 20th century, Li Bai even influenced the poetry of Mao Zedong.

In China, his poem "Quiet Night Thoughts", reflecting a nostalgia of a traveller away from home,[37] has been widely "memorized by school children and quoted by adults".[38]

In the West

The ideas underlying Li Bai's poetry had a profound impact in shaping American Imagist and Modernist poetry through the 20th century. Also, Gustav Mahler integrated four of Li Bai's works into his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. These were derived from a free German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute),[39] Bethge based his version on the pioneering translation into French by Saint-Denys.[40] There is another striking musical setting of Li Bai's verse by the American composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola (an instrument of Partch's own invention) are based on the texts in The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet translated by Shigeyoshi Obata.[41] In Brazil, the songwriter Beto Furquim included a musical setting of the poem "Jing Ye Si" in his album "Muito Prazer".[42]

Ezra Pound

Li Bai is influential in the West partly due to Ezra Pound's versions of some of his poems in the collection Cathay,[43] (Pound transliterating his name according to the Japanese manner as "Rihaku"). Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"),[43] record the hardships or emotions of common people. An example of the liberal, but poetically influential, translations, or adaptations, of Japanese versions of his poems made, largely based on the work of Ernest Fenollosa and professors Mori and Ariga.[43]

Modern cultural references

In fiction

Simon Elegant novelized Li Bai's life in his 1997 work, A Floating Life.[44] Li Bai appears (under a fictional name) as a major character in Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, a fantasy novel set in Tang Dynasty China.[45]

MacDonald Harris' novel 'Herma' (Atheneum, 1981) refers to Li Bai under the name of Li Po, citing one of his poems and describing the reports of his death (page 175).

In John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, the town intellectuals reads Li Bai's poetry at the party that ends the story.

In non-fiction

In "An American Childhood," Annie Dillard distinguishing "one sort of poetry" that "was full of beauty and longing; it exhaled, enervated and helpless, like Li Po," with other kinds of poems, that were "threats and vows."

In music

In 2013, Gareth Bonello (a.k.a The Gentle Good) released a Welsh-Chinese folk album, ("The Immortal Bard")Y Bardd Anfarwol, whose lyrics were inspired by and based on the life of Li Bai. The album was partly recorded in Chengdu with local musicians.

In public parks and gardens

A statue of Li Bai is a focal point of the Ma'anshan Friendship Park in Kogarah, Sydney, Australia [1]


In both versions of Epcot's Circle-Vision 360° film in the China pavilion, Li Bai serves as the narrator and guide of the film.


A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.


Li Bai's poetry was introduced to Europe by Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, a Jesuit missionary in Beijing, in his Portraits des Célèbres Chinois, published in the series Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les mœurs, les usages, &c. des Chinois, par les missionnaires de Pekin. (1776–1797).[2] Further translations into French were published by Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys in his 1862 Poésies de l'Époque des Thang.[40]

Joseph Edkins read a paper, "On Li Tai-po", to the Peking Oriental Society in 1888, which was subsequently published in that society's journal.[46] The early sinologist Herbert Allen Giles included translations of Li Bai in his 1898 publication Chinese Poetry in English Verse, and again in his History of Chinese Literature (1901).[47] The third early translator into English was L. Cranmer-Byng (1872–1945). His Lute of Jade: Being Selections from the Classical Poets of China (1909) and A Feast of Lanterns (1916) both featured Li's poetry.

Renditions of Li Bai's poetry into modernist English poetry were influential through Ezra Pound in Cathay (1915) and Amy Lowell in Fir-Flower Tablets (1921). Neither worked directly from the Chinese: Pound relied on more or less literal, word for word, though not terribly accurate, translations of Ernest Fenollosa and what Pound called the "decipherings" of professors Mori and Ariga; Lowell on those of Florence Ayscough. Witter Bynner with the help of Kiang Kang-hu included several of Li's poems in The Jade Mountain (1939). Although Li was not his preferred poet, Arthur Waley translated a few of his poems into English for the Asiatic Review, and included them in his More Translations from the Chinese. Shigeyoshi Obata, in his 1922 The Works of Li Po, made what he claimed to be "the first attempt ever made to deal with any single Chinese poet exclusively in one book for the purpose of introducing him to the English-speaking world.[2]

Li Bai became a favorite among translators for his straightforward and seemingly simple style. Later translations are too numerous to discuss here, but an extensive selection of Li's poems, translated by a variety of translators, is included in John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature (2000)[48]

Exemplary translation

Text of Li Bai's poem Drinking Alone by Moonlight, in the classical top-to-bottom, right-to-left order.

One of Li Bai's best known poems and a good example of his writing is his Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌, pinyin: Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó), which has been translated into English by various authors, including this translation, by Arthur Waley:[49]

花間一壺酒。   A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
獨酌無相親。   I drink alone, for no friend is near.
舉杯邀明月。   Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
對影成三人。   For he, with my shadow, will make three men.
月既不解飲。   The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine;
影徒隨我身。   Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.
暫伴月將影。   Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave
行樂須及春。   I must make merry before the Spring is spent.
我歌月徘徊。   To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams;
我舞影零亂。   In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and break.
醒時同交歡。   While we were sober, three shared the fun;
醉後各分散。   Now we are drunk, each goes his way.
永結無情遊。   May we long share our odd, inanimate feast,
相期邈雲漢。   And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.

(Note: the "Cloudy River of the sky" refers to the Milky Way)

To hear the poem read in Chinese and to see another translation, go to GREAT TANG POETS: LI BO (701-762) "Drinking Alone under the Moon" Asia For Educators (Columbia University)

See also


  1. ^ Barnstone, Tony and Chou Ping (2010). The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, The Full 3000-Year Tradition.  
  2. ^ a b c Obata, v
  3. ^ Obata, Part III
  4. ^ Beckwith, 127
  5. ^ Obata, 8
  6. ^ Wu, 57-58
  7. ^ Elling Eide, "On Li Po", Perspectives on the T'ang (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1973), 388.
  8. ^ Eide (1973), 389.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Wu, 59
  10. ^ a b c d Wu, 58
  11. ^ Wu, 58. Translation by Wu. Note that by East Asian age reckoning, this would be fourteen rather than fifteen years in terms of age.
  12. ^ Wu, 58-59
  13. ^ Obata, 201
  14. ^ a b Wu, 60
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Wu, 61
  16. ^ "黃大仙靈簽11至20簽新解". 
  17. ^ a b Belbin, Charles and T. R. Wang. "Going Up To Sun Terrace by Li Bai: An Explication, Translation & History". Flashpoint Magazine. It is now housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Scholars commonly acknowledge it as authentic and the only known surviving piece of calligraphy by Li Bai. 
  18. ^ Arts of Asia: Volume 30 (2000). Selected paintings and calligraphy acquired by the Palace Museum in the last fifty years. Arts of Asia. p. 56. 
  19. ^ Paul Kroll, “Poetry of the T’ang Dynasty,” in Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). ISBN 0231109849), pp. 278-282, section "The Sources and Their Limitations" describes this history.
  20. ^ Paul Kroll, “Poetry of the T’ang Dynasty,” in Victor H. Mair, ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001; ISBN 0231109849), p. 296.
  21. ^ a b c d Watson, 141
  22. ^ Watson, 141-142
  23. ^ a b c d Watson, 142
  24. ^ Watson, 145
  25. ^ Watson, 88
  26. ^ Wu, 66
  27. ^ James J. Y. Liu. The Art of Chinese Poetry. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962; ISBN 0226486869), p. 59.
  28. ^ William Hung. Tu Fu: China's Greatest Poet. (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1952), p 22.
  29. ^ a b c Watson, 143
  30. ^ Waley, Arthur (1919). Waking From Drunkenness on a Spring Day
  31. ^ James J. Y. Liu. The Art of Chinese Poetry. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962; ISBN 0226486869) p. 55.
  32. ^ Watson, 144
  33. ^ Watson, 146
  34. ^ Watson, 147
  35. ^ Varsano (2014).
  36. ^ Frankel, 22
  37. ^ How to read Chinese poetry: a guided anthology By Zong-qi Cai p. 210. Columbia University Press [2]
  38. ^ Speaking of Chinese By Raymond Chang, Margaret Scrogin Chang p. 176 WW Norton & Company [3]
  39. ^ Bethge, Hans (2001). Die Chinesische Flöte (YinYang Media Verlag, Kelkheim, Germany). ISBN 978-3-9806799-5-4. Re-issue of the 1907 edition (Insel Verlag, Leipzig).
  40. ^ a b D'Hervey de Saint-Denys (1862). Poésies de l'Époque des Thang (Amyot, Paris). See Minford, John and Lau, Joseph S. M. (2000)). Classic Chinese Literature (Columbia University Press) ISBN 978-0-231-09676-8.
  41. ^ Obata, Shigeyoshi (1923). The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet (J. M. Dent & Co, ). ASIN B000KL7LXI
  42. ^ (2008, ISRC BR-OQQ-08-00002)
  43. ^ a b c Pound, Ezra (1915). Cathay (Elkin Mathews, London). ASIN B00085NWJI.
  44. ^ Elegant, Simon (1997). A Floating Life (Ecco Press, ). ISBN 978-0-88001-559-2
  45. ^ New York: ROC/Penguin (ISBN 978-0451463302), 2010
  46. ^ Obata, p. v.
  47. ^ Obata, v-vi
  48. ^ Ch 19 "Li Bo (701-762): The Banished Immortal" Introduction by Burton Watson; translations by Elling Eide; Ezra Pound; Arthur Cooper, David Young; five poems in multiple translations, in John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau, eds., Classical Chinese Literature (New York; Hong Kong: Columbia University Press; The Chinese University Press, 2000), pp. 721-763.
  49. ^ Waley, Arthur (1919). "Drinking Alone by Moonlight: Three Poems," More Translations from the Chinese (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), pp. 27-28. Li Bai wrote 4 poems with the same name (Quantangshi 卷182_22 《月下獨酌四首》李白); Waley published translations of three.



  • Cooper, Arthur (1973). Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes (Penguin Classics, 1973). ISBN 978-0-14-044272-4.
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-10536-7 / ISBN 978-0-374-10536-5.
  • Hinton, David (1998). The Selected Poems of Li Po (Anvil Press Poetry, 1998). ISBN 978-0-85646-291-7 .
  • Holyoak, K. (translator) (2007). Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu. (Durham, NH: Oyster River Press). ISBN 978-1-882291-04-5.
  • Obata, Shigeyoshi. (1922) The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet. (New York: Dutton). Reprinted: New York: Paragon, 1965. Free E-Book.
  • Pound, Ezra (1915). Cathay (Elkin Mathews, London). ASIN B00085NWJI
  • Stimson, Hugh M. (1976). Fifty-five T'ang Poems. Far Eastern Publications: Yale University. ISBN 0-88710-026-0
  • Seth, V. (translator) (1992). Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. (London: Faber & Faber). ISBN 0-571-16653-9.
  • Weinberger, Eliot. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry. (New York: New Directions, 2004). ISBN 0-8112-1605-5. Introduction, with translations by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and David Hinton.
  • Watson, Burton (1971). Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03464-4
  • Mao, Xian (2013). New Translation of Most Popular 60 Classical Chinese Poems. eBook: Kindle Direct Publishing.  

Background and criticism

  • Edkins, Joseph (1888). "Li Tai-po as a Poet", The China Review, Vol. 17 No. 1 (1888 Jul) [4]. Retrieved from [5], 19 January 2011.
  • Eide, Elling (1973). "On Li Po", in Perspectives on the T'ang. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 367-403.
  • Frankel, Hans H. (1978). The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-02242-5.
  • Kroll, Paul (2001). “Poetry of the T’ang Dynasty,” in Victor H. Mair. ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001). ISBN 0231109849), pp. 274–313.
  • Stephen Owen 'Li Po: a new concept of genius," in Stephen Owen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry : The High T'ang. (New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). ISBN 9780300023671.
  • Varsano, Paula M. (2003). Tracking the Banished Immortal: The Poetry of Li Bo and its Critical Reception (University of Hawai'i Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0-8248-2573-7, [6]
  • —— (2014). "Li Bai and Du Fu". Oxford Bibliographies Online (Oxford University Press). . Lists and evaluates scholarship and translations.
  • Waley, Arthur (1950). The Poetry and Career of Li Po (New York: MacMillan, 1950). ASIN B0006ASTS4.
  • Wu, John C. H. (1972). The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle. ISBN 978-0-8048-0197-3

External links

Online translations (some with original Chinese, pronunciation, and literal translation):

  • Li Bai's poems at University of Michigan
  • Poems by Li Bai at Poems Found in Translation
  • Li Bai: Poems Extensive collection of Li Bai poems in English
  • 20 Li Bai poems, in Chinese using simplified and traditional characters and pinyin, with literal and literary English translations by Mark Alexander.
  • 34 Li Bai poems, in Chinese with English translation by Witter Bynner, from the Three Hundred Tang Poems anthology.
  • CathayComplete text of , the Ezra Pound/Ernest Fenollosa translations of poems principally by Li Po (J., Rihaku) together with public domain recordings (MP3) of the same
  • 27 Recordings of "Drinking Alone by Moonlight," from the LibriVox website. Retrieved July 1, 2007.
  • : The Literary ChangesDas Lied von der Erde – synopsis of original Chinese poems, Bethge's translations and Mahler's changes
  • Profile Variety of translations of Li Bai's poetry by a range of translators, along with photographs of geographical sites relevant to his life.
  • At Project Gutenberg from More Translations From The Chinese by Arthur Waley, 1919 (includes six titles of poems by Li Po).
  • The works of Li Po, the Chinese poet, translated by Shigeyoshi Obata Google books version of Obata's 1922 translation.
  • Li Po's poems published by

Guqin related

  • John Thompson on Li Bai and the qin musical instrument
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