Authors: Li Bo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Chinese poet

Author Works


“Ballad of Chang-an” (as “The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter,” in Cathay, 1915; Ezra Pound, translator)

The Poetry and Career of Li Po, 1950 (Arthur Waley, editor)

Li Po and Tu Fu, 1973 (Arthur Cooper, editor)


During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China, the ability to compose poetry became a part of the official examination system, through which candidates obtained government appointments and entered the upper echelons of society. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty thousand poems were composed by twenty-three hundred poets. The age became a golden one for poetry, particularly during the period extending from 713 to 765, which scholars have designated the High Tang, when the poetic genius of the time reached its pinnacle. Li Bo (lee boh), also known as Li Po, along with Du Fu (Tu Fu) and Wang Wei, is one of the three major poets of this period. He is one of China’s, and the world’s, best-loved poets.{$I[AN]9810001759}{$I[A]Li Bo}{$S[A]Li Po;Li Bo}{$I[geo]CHINA;Li Bo}{$I[tim]0701;Li Bo}

Li Bo

(Library of Congress)

Because Li Bo was born in Turkestan and was known to be able to compose poetry in “another language,” people have often conjectured that he might have been Turkish in origin. It seems, however, that he was the descendant of a Chinese nobleman named Li Gao (related distantly to the founder of the Tang Dynasty, Li Yuan), who got into trouble in China and fled with his family to Turkestan. Li Ge, Li Bo’s father, moved the family back to the Chinese city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, when Li Bo was four years old.

As a young man, Li Bo’s inclinations lay in the direction not only of poetry but also of what might be called “natural science” and what his contemporaries considered Daoist magic; for example, he is said to have learned the art of taming wild birds. He was also an accomplished swordsman, a kind of Chinese knight-errant who took to heart the injustice of the world and righted the wrongs inflicted upon others. By the age of twenty, he had fought and won several duels.

By the time he was twenty-four, Li Bo had left home to make a name for himself and to initiate what would become a lifetime of wandering. He sailed east down the Yangtze River as far as Nanjing and Yangzhou, then returned upstream to Yumen in Hebei Province, where he married the granddaughter of a retired prime minister. He next appeared in Shanxi, where his testimony helped save a soldier named Guo Ziyi from court-martial.

Because of the extent to which poetry and government service were linked in traditional Chinese civilization, almost every Chinese poet was an official of some sort, and therefore sat for the official examinations. Li Bo is remarkable for always having refused to do so, thus bypassing the usual avenue to renown. Instead, he attracted the attention of Emperor Xuan Zong through the recommendation of the Daoist wizard Wu Yun, who had befriended Li Bo south of the Yangtze. Summoned to court in the capital of Changan, Li Bo met another famous Daoist, He Zhizhang, who exclaimed, “Why, you do not belong to this world. You are an immortal fallen from Heaven!” From then on, Li Bo was referred to as the Fallen Immortal. Impressed with his intellectual and poetic abilities, the emperor in 742 appointed him directly to the Hanlin Academy, an academy for poets and entertainers, appointment to which bypassed the usual bureaucratic channels. It was at this time that Li Bo, a founding member of the literary group that came to be known as the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, became famous for his love of wine and for writing his poetry in a state of intoxicated transport.

Because of his brash outspokenness, Li Bo kept this post only three years before falling from favor and being politely but firmly banished from Changan. He moved to Shandong but recommenced his characteristic wanderings throughout most of the provinces of China. Then the military rebellion of An Lushan took place in 755 and the emperor was forced to flee to Sichuan. After the crown prince assumed control of the government the following year, he was challenged by another son of the emperor, Prince Yong, with whom Li Bo had found service. When the troops of Prince Yong were defeated in 757, Li Bo was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

However, Guo Ziyi–the humble soldier whose career Li Bo had saved with his testimony years before–was now minister of war and commander in chief of the imperial forces: He interceded with the emperor on Li Bo’s behalf, offering to give up his position in exchange for the poet’s life. The death sentence was changed to banishment to Yelang, and that too was remitted while Li Bo was on the journey there.

Upon a new emperor’s accession to the throne in 762, Li Bo was appointed, for the first time, to an official government position. He died, however, in Sichuan, before the news of the appointment could reach him. Popular legend has always insisted that Li Bo drowned after leaning too far over the edge of a boat one night in a drunken effort to embrace the image of the moon upon the waters.

Li Bo represents everything that might be called romantic in Chinese, and indeed world, literary traditions. A lover of nature and of the irrational and magical, he was an individualist who treasured freedom and spontaneity over prudence and convention. His life was a celebration of the joys of the open road and of the illumination and insight born of transport and intoxication–what William Blake meant when he wrote that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Understandably, Li Bo’s work influenced that of the poets of the American Beat generation.

BibliographyAiken, Conrad. A Letter from Li Po, and Other Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955. Li Bo’s letter provides insight into his poems selected in this collection.Bornstein, George, ed. Ezra Pound Among the Poets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. A study of the influence of several poets on Pound, including Li Bo as well as Homer, Ovid, Dante, Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, William Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot.Cooper, Arthur, comp. and trans. Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1973. The translations are generally excellent, and the extensive background material on the history of Chinese poetry and literature is helpful. Li’s connection with Du Fu is usefully discussed.Hagett, James M. “Li Po (701-762) and Mount Emei.” Cahiers d’Extreme-Asie 8 (1995): 101-118. Sheds insight into Li Bo’s poetic creativity and nature.Li Bo. Banished Immortal: Visions of Li T’ai-po. Translated by Sam Hamill. Fredonia, N.Y.: White Pine Press, 1987. A collection of translations of poetry by Li Bo.Li Bo. Li Pai: Two Hundred Selected Poems. Translated by Rewi Alley. 1980. Reprint. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1987. A selection of poetry by Li Bo.Li Bo. The Selected Poems of Li Po. Translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 1996. A translation of Li Bo’ poems. Includes some analysis.Owen, Stephen. The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Provides information on Li Bo in the political and cultural milieu of the Tang Dynasty.Pine, Red, trans. Poems of the Masters: China’ Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2003. A collection of poetry from the Tang and Song Dynasties that includes the work of Li Bo. Indexes.Pulleyblank, E. G. The Background of the Rebellion of An Lu-Shan. London: Oxford University Press, 1955. A sound historical treatment of the T’ang Dynasty’s major political upheaval, with which Li Bo was intimately involved. Both the specific events of the rebellion and the period’s wider societal context are thoroughly covered in dry but efficient fashion.Schafer, Edward H. The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T’ang Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. For those with some knowledge of T’ang poetry, Schafer’s wide-ranging discussion of the era’s myths and cults of goddesses will be a fertile source of suggestive connections between poetry and culture. Even those new to the field should benefit from the vivid sense of period conveyed by this extremely well-written book, which takes a broader approach to its subject than its title indicates.Schafer, Edward H. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Almost every aspect of T’ang life is dealt with in this brilliant survey, which is especially interesting in its discussion of relations with foreign states. Crammed with information, informed by great learning, and highly readable, the book is strongly recommended to anyone curious about the culture in which Li lived.Seaton, J. P., and James Cryer, trans. Bright Moon, Perching Bird: Poems by Li Po and Tu Fu. Scranton, Pa.: Harper & Row, 1987. This work, part of the Wesleyan Poetry in Translation series, features the works of Li Bo and Du Fu, two Tang poets. Provides some information on Tang Dynasty poetry.Seth, Vikram, trans. Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992. A collection of poems by Li Bo, Wang Wei, and Du Fu. Commentary provides useful information.Waley, Arthur. The Poetry and Career of Li Po. 1950. Reprint. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1979. A still-useful introduction, although Waley’ obsession with what he considers the immoral aspects of Li’ character sometimes prejudices his judgment of the poetry. Includes many translations.Wong, Siu-Kit. The Genius of Li Po. Hong Kong: Center of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 1974. A concise analysis of Li Bo’s poetic talent and imagination.Yip, Wai-lim, ed. and trans. Chinese Poetry: Major Modes and Genres. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A fairly technical but nevertheless accessible study of Chinese poetic language. Includes the Chinese texts and literal translations of several of Li’s poems and gives a very clear idea of the difficulties involved in rendering them into English.Young, David, trans. Five T’ang Poets: Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-yin. [S.l.]: Oberlin College Press, 1990. Provides an opportunity to appreciate Li Bo along with other contemporary poets in the Tang Dynasty.Yu, Sun, trans. Li Po: A New Translation. Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 1982. A substantial collection in English and Chinese. It provides a good comparison with other translations of Li Bo’s poems by English-speaking natives.
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