More than a thousand years after he roamed the earth under the moon’s light, there has never been a more influential poet than Li Bai. He is one of China’s most beloved poets and famously invoked by the Beat poets of the 1960s. For Bookstr’s next poet in our Most Influential Poets of All Time series, let’s take a closer look at Li Bai.
Becoming The Most Outstanding Poet of Tang
Li was born in 701 during Tang China, a time which is well-regarded for its cultural achievements in art, music, dance, and especially literature–Tang China was a time during which the arts and culture flourished due to a plentiful economy and stable government. Originally born in present day Kyrgyzstan, Li’s father later moved the family to what is now considered to be modern day Chengdu in Sichuan where Li lived until young adulthood.
Growing up, Li displayed a love for literature, reading Chinese classics, specifically Confucian classics such as The Classic of Poetry (Shijing) and the Classic of History (Shujing). Following the Li family tradition, Li read the “Hundred Authors” and quickly delved into composing poetry at a very young age. He was not only a consummate scholar, although he refused to take the examination, he was an expert swordsman, hunter, and rider–in all, Li embodied the virtues of a young gentleman of Tang China. Li was indeed skilled in both the brush and the sword.
Soon, Li would travel extensively, most famously Chang’an where the Tang court was located, and his presence and skills with literature would impress Emperor Xuanzong. Li was appointed as court translator and allowed to hold a respected position in the Hanlin Academy by the emperor. It was during this time that Li would make the acquaintance of Du Fu, a poet and politician, who he would establish a close literary friendship with, most often communicating though poetry alone.
Courting the Moon With Wine and Poetry
Li’s poetry is one of the most read poetry in Chinese curriculum today and considered a standard in Chinese literature. His poetry stuck to the traditional poetic form, entering him as a master of Chinese poetry. Although he mastered the formal poetic rules, this also enabled Li to bend the rules of formal poetry to command a personal form of writing. The common themes in Li’s poetry were personal introspection, nostalgia, country, peace, and humanity. What regarded Li’s poetry as unique was his ingenuity with imagery. His ability to accurately recall scenes in his poetry with clear vividness demonstrates his skill to evoke memory and emotion.
What most readers of Li’s poetry would identify him with is his infatuation with the moon and especially wine, often enjoyed at the same time. The moon and moonlight is a popular subject in his poetry, often propelling him into reliving a long ago memory.
There is moonlight shining before my bed,
I suspect that there is frost on the ground,
Raising my head, I gaze at the moonlight,
Lowering my head, I think of my home village.
The above poem demonstrates the moonlight as a central force of imagery in Li’s poetry that when gazed upon, cause him to think of home. His ability to concentrate on a single memory, thought, and emotion would influence and inspire the American Modernist and Beat poets of the early and mid 20th century.
Li’s propensity to overdrink would cause him to be considered as one of the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” by Du Fu who were actually a group of very capable scholars with a love for wine. Li’s romanticizing of moon gazing whilst drinking would be a popular image to recreate in Chinese art and literature. Even now, drinking while moon gazing is a popular trope in Chinse wuxia novels and dramas, often associated with scholarly and poetically romantic characters.
Li Bai’s poetry left a literary mark around the world. His ability to communicate glimpses of his memory and thoughts were vividly and simply executed–Li Bai is a poet that is timeless in his simplicity and poignant in his insight.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at another of our featured poets, Langston Hughes, here!