Li Bai, Li Bo

李白 (701–762)

In English he is known as Li Bai or Li Bo, in Chinese 李白,  he was and is one of China’s two superstars, one of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup. Often compared to the poet Du Fu, the bookend the pair.

Li Bai Chanting a Poem, pen and ink image by Liang Kai (Thirteenth Century)
Li Bai Chanting a Poem, image by Liang Kai of the Southern Song Dynasty (13th Century)

He was China’s Don Quixote, Sir Lancelot, and Falstaff, known as the “Banished Immortal” because of his plotting against the Emperor, condemnation to death, and pardon. Shakespeare would have said of him, he played many roles in his lifetime, knight errant, poet, drunkard, braggart, and Doaist priest.

Li Bai married four times. The first time, in 727. His wife’s name is given as  Zong, the granddaughter of Zong Chuke (宗楚客), a poet, prime minister, and foreign official during the Tang dynasty. Much of his service was during the reign of the Empress Wu Zetian. Li Bai lived with his wife at Mt. Bi (Bishan) for ten happy years.

Someone once asked me why I live in Bishan,
I laughed but didn’t answer, my heart and soul at ease.
Here, there are peach blossoms in the flowing water, dimly disappearing.
This place with its unique beauty is like living in a fairyland.

In 742 Emperor Xuanzong gave him a position in the Hanlin Academy as poet and entertainer. Two years later he lost this position because of his love of drink and carousing in the Blue Houses of Chang’an. Subsequently, he would encounter poet Du Fu and they would become drinking companions.

Li Bai would spend the following years in the north of China.

In 755, the An Lushuan Rebellion began. Li Bai stayed in Jiangnan out of danger. Two years later while the rebellion was still in progress, Li Bai joined cause with the Royal Prince Li Lin in Jiujiang, who plotted his own rebellion against the Tang. Li Bai floated down the Chanjiang River. The An Lushun Rebellion was quashed and the forces of Prince Li Lin defeated. Li Bai was condemned to death, but granted a pardon and banished to his hometown in Jiangnan.

He died in 762. Legend says he was drunk on a boat and fell in the river trying to embrace the moon.

His love of wine was well known in his lifetime and fellow poet Du Fu said this of him:

Li Bai could drink 10 liters of wine and produce 100 poems
He sleeps in the winehouses of Chang’an after he drinks
When summoned by the emperor to write a song, he defers
Because he floats far away in a celestial boat
Drinking wine with the Immortals.