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Li Bai: An Earthly Immortal of Poem and Free Soul of Ancient China

Who was Li Bai?

The ancient painting themed with Li Bai reciting his famous poem: Jing Ye Si(静夜思)

Li Bai(701—762),whose courtesy name was Tai Bai(Grand Whiteness, 太白) and literal name was Qinglian Jushi(Lay Buddhist of Green Lotus, 青莲居士), was a world-famous representative of Chinese ancient literature, especially in the realm of classical poem, which in China is extensively called Tang Shi, or Poem of Tang Dynasty, and he was highly crowned to be The Immortality of Poem and Poetic Swordsman, and He Zhizhang(贺知章, 659 - 744), another leader of literature in Tang Dynasty and could be the teacher of Li Bai, once highly praised Li Bai as ”Earthly Immortal ” (谪仙人) for the imagery of Li Bai’s poem was deeply characterized of the immortal’s life in heaven or paradise, and also his poems were all rooted deeply in his special personality and fantastic imagination. Li Bai was a talented man expert in literature, prose, essay and martial arts of swordsman.
Besides, many people adored his vast and free character. Also, Li Bai was an alcoholic drinker, and he could drink a lot at a time, so many people also regarded him to be The Immortal of Alcoholics. Li Bai was historically considered to be a great poet of romanticism, this is the widely-accepted comment of the modern people when the western literary theory popularized in China. But this comment is acceptable to a most degree. On the other hand, Li Bai was a professional travel expert of China, because he nearly spent most of his life in traveling and visiting since his age of 20 years old. According to the historical records, in his life, Li Bai visited most parts of ancient China. So we comment him as the great forerunner or explorer of China Tourism in ancient time.

What was he famous for?

Li Bai was born at the summit period of Tang Dynasty, but where his hometown was is still in dispute. Some hold his hometown was in Gansu province, and some think was in Qinglian Village of Jiangyou city, Sichuan province, and some suppose his hometown was in Tokmak of The Kyrgyz Republic. This is a special point of Li Bai research. Li Bai was famous for its poem, and this is the convention in the history of Chinese literature, and in the past thousands of years, many people or literature scholars believed it was the truth. But different people still have different comments. Li Bai superficially was famous for his poem, but the deeper thing behind his poem was his character of pursuing freedom and harmony with nature as well as his identity of Taoist. Li Bai liked alcohol and swords martial arts. So traditionally, rather than his splendid poem, the most classic impression of Li Bai left to his fans and poem lovers was that his free and drunk visit to mountains, waters and unexplored regions of ancient China with a sword.

Now, let us share the detailed information of Li Bai at his period when Tang Dynasty was its peak time. Maybe, you find the experiences of Li Bai was actually a legendary story, because many stories happened in his life were quite well known in Chinese culture. Amid Li Bai’s childhood, Li Bai was sent to a private school for education, but he was not so diligent and always absent from class. One day, he left school without the agreement of teacher as usual, on his way, he unexpectedly found an old woman rubbing a thick iron stick nearby the river, and the old woman worked hard to rub the iron stick, though she was quite tired and full of sweat on the face. Li Bai was extraordinarily curious and asked the old woman why she rubbed the iron stick. The old woman answered:” My needles can not work, and I plan to rub this iron stick to be a thin needle. ” Li Bai laughed aloud when he heard this, and said:” It must be hardest and waste of a lot of time, and I don’t think it is advisable”. On hearing this, the old woman replied:” Nothing will be impossible as long as we are willing to make efforts, so the iron stick will also be a thin needle if only we try our best.” Li Bai was quite astonished by what the old woman said, and deeply regretted what he did at school. Since then, Li Bai never broke the rule to leave the class and he learned quite diligently. And this is the famous story in China, and widely known as an idiom;”只要功夫深,铁杵磨成针”, The iron stick could be a needle as long as we work hard. In primary school, teachers always narrate this story to his or her students to encourage them work hard.

In fact, at the early time, Li Bai was ambitious and wanted to have a career in social contribution. Li Bai was quite talented but he was reluctant to attend the imperial examination. On the contrary, he hoped someone could recommend him to be an official, so he created a classically famous prose named Yu Han Jin Zhou Shu, or a letter to Mr, Han, whose name was Han Chaozong(韩朝宗), the governor of Jingzhou Region, roughly administrated today’s Hubei and part of Hunan provinces. He wanted to recommend himself via this letter; however, he was not responded at all. In 742, he was recommended to Emperor Xuanzong by a famous Taoist, who was also Li Bai’s friend and a welcomed figure of Emperor Xuanzong. From then on, Li Bai stepped into the official circle. This was commonly considered to be a good thing, but due to his unique characters and habit, this was also the beginning of his official life. 

  Taibai Tower of Caishiji in Maanshan, Anhui province

Li Bai was quite welcomed by Emperor Xuanzong and always summoned to impromptu create some poems for Concubine Yang, and thanks to his perfect poems, he was also welcomed by Concubine Yang, at once, Emperor Xuanzong held a party with his officials in imperial gardens, and Li Bai was also invited, and Li Bai was an alcoholic lover and he was drunken eventually, because these wines were all the rarely seen and tasted. He was summoned to create poems in the public, but the drunken Li Bai was not aware of the situation and ordered Gao Lishi, the spoiled eunuch of Emperor Xuanzong, to put off his shoes and he also broke the basic rites of government. Since then, Li Bai was demoted, but Emperor Xuanzong liked his talent and particularly agreed him to visit the whole country sponsored by government. He only stayed in Changan for three years. After Anshi Incident(安史之乱), he became an official of Prince Li Ling. But in the combat for the enthronement of emperor, Li Ling failed and Li Bai was also demoted to Yelang, today’s region in Guizhou. On the way, he was forgiven and led an unstable life in his late period. 

Li Bai died in Dangtu, Anhui province. And his death is also a legend. At that night, Li Bai drunk a lot at Caishiji, and then he boated on the Yangtze River. He found the full moon and the bright shine splashed on the surface of river. Li Bai mistook the moon fell into the river, and he dragged for the moon and fell into water…Today, the place of his death is Caishiji(采石矶), and there is also Tower named Taibai Tower built here for commemorating this earthly angel with unprecedented talents and spirituality.


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