Li Bai the prince of Chinese poetry

António Graça de Abreu*

Li Bai (Li Po or Li Tai-pé) was born in the year 701 B. C. in Tokmak on the northeast of lake Issik-kul, the present Russian Turkistan in Central Asia. His great grandfather, or his grandfather, probably for crimes committed by the privileged mandarin class, had presumably been exiled to the remote regions of China.

But, at the age of five, Li Bai was already in the province of Sichuan, which the poet always considered to be his homeland.

Educated by his father in the classical style of ancient China, Li Bai turned out to be an exceptionally irreverent and imaginative student, eager to observe and to understand.

At the age of 19, he starts his pilgrimage throughout the vast Chinese empire. He visits taoist and buddhist monks living in hermitages on the top of mountains, far away from the villainy and trickery of men, but in contact with books and the ultimate supremacy Nature. Master in the art of swordmanship and in martial arts, young Li Bai does not hesitate to draw the sword or use his fists in defence of the weak or of a lady. He himself confesses having put to death some men in his young days. He wanders from place to place, a paladin and a wandering minstrel, in search of friends and poets, the serenity of the mountains, of inner peace, and the pure pleasures of life. He writes and composes verses with incredible ease. Tipsy with the wine - one of his great loves and a theme often used in his poetry-he can compose a number of poems. Of course, there is a long list of famous wine drinking poets; Horatio, Omar Khayyan, Charles Baudelaire and our own Fernando Pessoa.

In the year 725 B. C., Li Bai goes on a long journey that takes him to Xiangyang, to lake Dongting, to the Lushan mountains, and to the fascinating bohemian city of Zangzhou.

He has written poems, portraits of the landscape of the places he visited, a fantastic combination of words, a marvellous world carved out in characters. He marries at the age of 26, and his first two sons are born. But Li Bai is a person of permanent restlessness - he gets married three more times - and at the age of thirty he finds himself at Chang'an (the actual Xi'ain in the province of Shanxi), the then capital of the empire and the cultural centre of China in the Tang dynasty (618-908). He continues to travel through the empire, and some of the famous poets of that period, men like Du Fu, Meng Haoran, Gao Shi, are his friends. Du Fu, the saint of ancient Chinese poetry, wrote on Li Bai:"his words stun the wind, his poems move the gods". Between 742 and 744 he is again in Chang'an. Already famous, he let himself be seduced by the life of the court, and at the invitation of emperor Xuangzong, he joins the Hanlin academy where eminent men of letters of that period come together.

It doesn't take long before the irreverence of Li Bai shall before long bring a new and radical change in his life. Being half drunk during a palace festivity, he demands the presence of the untouchable eunuch Gao Lishi, the zealous inspector of the imperial harem and of some important state affairs, and ask him to remove his boots in front of the Emperor. The Emperor considers it a good joke, approves with a nod of his head and, before a merrymaking crowd, Li Bai's boots are removed by one of the most powerful men of China. Gao Lishi, the skillful palace intrigant, does not waste time and manoeuvres Li Bai out of Chang'an. At the time of his departure, the Emperor gives him a bagful of gold coins. There we have him, once again, journeying through China, meeting old and new friends drinking heavily in taverns and in lodging-houses of good and of ill fame, making love to women he adored, climbing mountains, glancing at the landscape and writing poems.

In 755, a rebellion is instigated by An Lu shan, a Tartar general who pretends to substitute Emperor Xuangzong to establish a new dynasty. Chang'an is conquered and plundered and the inmates of the palace escape and take refuge in Sichuan. Li Bai who, in the meantime, has found a protector in prince Li Ling, the 16th son of the emperor, is put to jail and sentenced to death. Later on he is pardoned but nevertheless sent in exile to Hunan. He writes: "I see the road of exile that leads to Chang'an/and am searching in vain for my people and my home".

In 759, after the defeat of the local revolts and the An Lushan rebellion, an amnesty is decreed and the poet can return home. He then undertakes a long new journey, halting for long periods in the houses of his old friends. It is the final phase in the life of the poet.

A well-known legend says that on a fascinating moonlight night, Li Bai decided to make a boat trip. Completely drunk, he tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the water and was drowned. In real life, Li Bai, who loved the moon as much as he loved wine, died in 762 in the house of his cousin Li Jangping, the executor of his will, to whom we are indebted for the preservation of Li Bai's poems.

Li Bai is, along with Du Fu, one of the most outstanding poets of the thirty centuries Chinese poetry, and it can be safely said that he was the greatest poet of the era of the Tang dynasty, the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. For over twelve hundred years he has excercised a magnetic influence over his fellow countrymen and, today any ordinarily educated Chinese knows half a dozen of his poems by heart. A friend of both the emperor, and prostitutes, scholars and innkeepers, ministers and monks, Li Bai strolled through his life like a short lived star twinkling in the night sky of magic and dreams.

Li Bai was discovered in 1886 by Eça de Queirós who at the age of twenty one used to read avidly the translations of Chinese poetry by Hervey de Saint-Deny s. Our great novelist praised the poet with the following words:

"But what is dream? What are visions? They are the fantastic and disorderly disposition the Shadow bestows upon the truth. The poet Li Tai-pe had already this thought in mind and between porcelain and lacquer, by the fragrance of water-lilies, dressed in yellow silk, perfumed with sweet sandalwood, musing in blank thoughts, in front of a vase of daisies, he wrote about the good things of China", (in Prosas Bárbaras, Misticismo Humorístico).

Translated by João Libano


THE clouds make me think of her trailing garments and the flowers of her face; The spring wind brushes the balustrade where she was enclosed, The dew lies heavy on the flowers.


We who live on earth are but travellers; the dead like hose who have returned home; all people are as if living in some inn, in the end each and every one going to the same place; the rabbit in the moon emptily goes on grinding his elixir of life; even - the tree of Fusang eventually become ordinary firewood; see the white bones of the dead outside the city walls! What can they say? Green pines, how do they know what is spring, what winter? Looking back at past events, forward to those of the future, we can but sigh; majesty that impresses soon like the clouds passes by.


Where the dogs bark by roaring waters,

Whose spray darkens the petals' colours,

Deep in the woods deer at times are seen;

The valley noon: one can hear no bell,

But wild bamboos cut across bright clouds,

Flying cascades hang from jasper peaks;

No one here knows which way you have gone:

Two, now three pines I have leant against! (1)


Wine of the grapes,

Goblets of gold

And a pretty maid of Wu

She comes on pony-back: she is fifteen.

Blue-painted eyebrows

Shoes of pink brocade

Inarticulate speech

But she sings bewitchingly well.

So feasting at the table

Inlaid with tortoise shell,

She gets drunk in my lap.

Ah, child, what caresses

Behind lily-broidered curtains!


In Szechwan (I met) a monk clasping a guitar in a green brocaded cover

Descending the west side of Omêi Shan.

When he plucked the strings for me, I listened to the sighing of ten thousand pines in mountain valleys;

My heart was cleansed as with flowing water,

The scattering echoes mingled with the temple bells.

And I did not perceive that the green hills had grown grey

Nor that autumn clouds had darkened fold upon fold of the hills.


Night and I stayed at Feng Ting Szu, so high a peak that if one puts out a hand, one reaches the stars; I scarcely daring to speak lest I upset the immortals.

(The poems were translated by various translators)

(1)One of the foremost poems of Li Bai written probably when he was 19 years old, during the period of Taoist vagrancy and apprenticeship by hermitages of the northern province of Sichuan. A common theme in Chinese poetry - in the absence of master, Wu Wei is acted, forcing the student to learn Yang Pu Jiao (concede, furnish without teaching), by contemplation and communion with the Nature. Arthur Cooper, in his translation of the poem, compares this system of teaching to a fundamental concept of Ludwig Wittgenstein expressed in his Philosophiche Untersuchungen: "Don't-contemplate, observe stop!"

Fernando Pessoa, through Alberto Caeiro, in the poem XXIV of

"The Shepherd", says:

"The essential is to know to look, To know to look without thinking, To know to look when looking at, And not to think when looking at, Nor look when thinking"

Behold the design of oriental thinking in the poem of Fernando Pessoa, the interesting article of Armando Martins Janeira, Zen na Poesia de Fernando Pessoa, Nova Renascença, no. 23/24, Porto, 1986 pag. 285 e sgs.

*Assistant professor of the University Nova de Lisboa; Orientalist, Reader of Portuguese in the Department of Foreign Languages, Peking University.

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