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Li Bai — Great Poet and Mysterious Swordsman

Li Bai (701 — 762), courtesy name Taibai, art name Qing Lian Ju Shi, respected as the God of Poetry in Chinese culture, has been the representative of romantic, brilliant, carefree, and legendary. 

As a glorious superstar of classical Chinese Poetry, he traveled to many beautiful places, met with the emperor, and experienced one of the most flourishing eras of the Tang Dynasty

His poems ranked first, while his fencing skill ranked second in Tang, according to many folklores. 

Great Poet Li Bai of Tang Dynasty

Great Poet Li Bai of the Tang Dynasty, Painted by Artist Gu Bingxin.

After the eight-year-long, destructive An-Shi Rebellion outburst, he also fought on the battlefield, witnessed countless cruel fights and separations, got imprisoned, and was betrayed by his good friends. 

Li Bai used his extraordinary poems, recorded and presented us with many sides of the epoch that he lived in: a great reign, fantastic sceneries, brilliant people, chaotic wars, and so on and so forth. 

After having seen and experienced everything, he still had never lost his heroic and romantic spirit. 

Nowadays, every Chinese could recite a few of his extraordinary poems, about love, friendship, family, ambition, scenery, emotion, vision, and the glorious epoch of the Tang Dynasty.

Calligraphy of Li Bai "Shang Yang Tai Tie" in Palace Museum

Calligraphy of Li Bai "Shang Yang Tai Tie" — Palace Museum

Mysterious Origin of Li Bai

Among countless poems and articles that Li Bai left in the world, he rarely mentioned his family.

Some documents say that he was a descendant of a royal family from a perished kingdom, while others say that he was a descendant of Prince Li Jiancheng or Prince Li Yuanji, who had competed for the throne with Emperor Tang Taizong but failed. 

Anyway, his family was very rich.

 

He was educated well and spent most of his early years reading and studying in a beautiful fancy garden with amazing natural views in Sichuan province. 

Meanwhile, he studied fencing and Taoism Religion from some brilliant masters. 

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that Were Used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in Tang — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Carefree Travels Around the Nation 

After he grew up, the handsome, wealthy Li Bai with extraordinary fencing skills, started his journey traveling around many places in China, where he left many amazing poems.

After having seen his extraordinary appearance, elegant behavior, and brilliant poems, many ministers and poets considered him the reincarnation of an immortal.

During his traveling period, he also spent some time practicing Taoism, got married and had kids, and befriended many people, including other intelligent poets, officials, royal Taoists, princesses, etc. 

Meanwhile, when he was paying a visit to a friend, he saved a young soldier from being executed. He believed that this young man was brave and smart, and would achieve something wonderful in the future. 

It turned out that this was quite a brilliant decision.

 

This young soldier Guo Ziyi, a few decades later, became the most exceptional marshal that saved the Tang Dynasty several times.

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty

Brocade Embroidery of Tang — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Serving in Royal Palace

When he and his poems were getting more and more great reputations, the current emperor Li Longji the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang was also impressed by his talent. 

Soon, under the recommendation of a princess and a famous official, the emperor finally met him and awarded him a political position.  

The emperor highly appreciated him and respected Li Bai as one of the greatest poets of the Tang empire.

During his serving period in the royal palace, he was awarded a large amount of treasure and treated as the most honorable guest. 

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace, the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, Based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

Leaving the Royals and Setting Out the Journey 

Three years later, Li Bai found that serving the royal family was not what he liked.

 

He didn't want to only write poems about fabulous imperial banquets, the beautiful imperial consort Yang Gui Fei, and to please incapable officials. 

Hence, he decided to leave the capital city.

 

The emperor felt pity but still rewarded him with a great deal of money.

Li Bai then continued his travels and adventures, when he became a professional Taoist priest and tried to visit immortals in many places. 

In some famous mountains that are believed to have mysterious immortals living in, there are many of his poems, inscriptions, or legends spread.

The first part of his life was quite ideal: talented, famous, rich, and carefree. 

Li Bai's Inscription "Magnificent" (Zhuang Guan) in Mount Heng in Shanxi Province

Li Bai's Inscription "Magnificent" (Zhuang Guan) in Mount Heng in Shanxi Province

Wandering in War, Prison, and Exile

In the year 755, the An-Shi Rebellion outburst.

 

This large-scale, destructive rebel war that was initiated by two generals garrisoning in the northern borders lasted for eight years and took away millions of lives, which was the turning point of the Tang Dynasty. 

In the beginning, Li Bai was forced to move frequently because of the war.

Soon, he realized that this war was much more serious than he had expected, so he joined an army that was led by a prince of Tang to fight and defend the empire. 

The Draft to Memorize Heroically Sacrificed Yan Jiming (Ji Zhi Wen Gao) that Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion, Written By Great General and Extraordinary Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing

Calligraphy Draft Written by Yan Zhenqing (709 — 784) to Memorize His Heroically Sacrificed Nephew, in Which Recorded Brave Soldiers of Tang and the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion — Taipei Museum

Two years later, however, the prince rebelled and lost.

 

Li Bai, one of the prince’s important officials, was also imprisoned and sentenced to death. 

He wrote and asked for help from some good friends, who were powerful officials or generals at that time, but no one answered.

Only the brave young soldier Guo Ziyi whom he had saved before, now the chief commander of the Tang’s army, tried everything to save his life.

In the end, Li Bai got banished instead of being executed.

 

Two years later, he was finally set free, and started his wandering journey along the Yangtze River area. 

Wu Gorge or Wuxia of Yangtze River

Wu Gorge or Wuxia of Yangtze River, Photo from CNG.

Mysterious Departure

When Li Bai was released, he was already 58 years old, and his financial situation was not good. 

Three years later, he left the world.

Some said that Li Bai passed away because of sickness when he was trying to rejoin the army of Tang and continue to fight against the rebellions.

Others said that he died because of over-drink, or he fell off his boat and drowned when he was drinking wine and tried to embrace the reflection of the moon in the lake.

The most welcomed saying was that he was originally a banished immortal, one night when he was boating, he and his boat vanished into the horizon where water meets sky and left the world forever.

Perhaps, a brilliant genius with large numbers of masterpieces and beautiful legends deserves a dreamy and mysterious ending. 

Boat floating in the sea

Li Bai had two sons and one daughter. His daughter passed away young, and one of his sons went traveling and left the public view after he had grown up. 

His other son lived as a common person, whose two daughters married ordinary peasants.

Some politicians who admired him suggested his two granddaughters remarry some nobles that were big fans of Li Bai, but they refused to do so. 

Afterward, his family disappeared from the public forever.

What he left in the world are large numbers of splendid poems describing the era that he had lived in, and the beautiful views that he had seen.

Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang) of Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Wine Cup (Yu Shang) of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Some Famous Verses from Li Bai's Poems

  • 长风破浪会有时,直挂云帆济沧海。

 

A time will come to ride the wind and cleave the waves, I'll set my cloud-white sail and cross the sea which raves. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

 

  • 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。

 

Heaven has made our talents, we're not made in vain; a thousand gold coins spent, more will turn up again. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

 

  • 今人不见古时月,今月曾经照古人。

 

We see the ancient moon no more, but it has shone on men of yore. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Great Wall of China Under the Moon

Moon Shining on the Great Wall, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling Great Wall.

  • 浮云游子意,落日故人情。

 

Floating clouds are like parting travelers, lingering sunset is like longing for friends.

  • 世间行乐亦如此,古来万事东流水。

 

Joy in the world is also the same, everything in the past flew away as water run east.

 

  • 宫女如花满春殿,只今惟有鹧鸪飞。

 

The palace was once filled with ladies of flowery, now lingered by partridges on ruins of dreary.

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Photo from Yue Xi'an

  • 俱怀逸兴壮思飞,欲上青天揽明月。

 

With an ambitious desire to fly up high, and pluck the moon from the sky.

 

  • 银鞍照白马,飒沓如流星。

 

Riding a white horse wearing a shining silver saddle, galloping dashingly like a meteor.

  • 大鹏一日同风起,扶摇直上九万里。

Mythical bird Peng will take off with the wind someday, soaring tens of thousands of miles away.

Mythical Bird Peng in Chinese Mythology.

Mythical Bird Peng in Chinese Mythology

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