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Discovering China - Li Bai: China's Immortal Poet

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Published on Aug 31, 2012

Li Bai was arguably the most accomplished poet of the golden age of poetry in China's Tang Dynasty. Li, known for his romantic style of writing, has come to be known as the immortal poet.

Li lived from 701 to 762 AD—spending much of his time travelling around China. He served briefly as a poet at the Hanlin Academy in the capital city of Chang-an, at the request of Emperor Xuanzong.

Li did have one habit that some viewed as a defect—he drank, and drank a lot. Yet when it came to writing poetry, drinking may have been the activity that made Li's poetry so evocative and moving.

One story records Emperor Xuanzong summoning Li Bai, while he was having a feast with his favorite consort, Yang Guifei. Li turned up drunk. Court attendants splashed him with water to sober him up, but to no avail. However, once he was handed a writing brush, Li spontaneously composed three songs praising the beauty of Yang Guifei. The emperor was so moved he personally accompanied Li on the flute.

Palace life didn't last long for Li Bai. After three years serving the emperor, a jealous eunuch convinced Yang Guifei that Li had been disrespectful towards her in one of his poems. Li was ousted and took to travelling the empire again.

Much of Li's poetry alludes to the time he spent on his solitary travels—often drinking alone with only the moon for company.

"Amidst the flowers with a pot of wine,
Drinking alone without a companion.
Raising the wine cup and toasting the moon,
Facing my shadow we have become three people."

The moon appears frequently in Tang Dynasty poetry. And the moon Li Bai describes is bright and high in the sky—in keeping with his romantic style.

The moon becomes a symbol of permanence in the ever-changing world—reminding the poet, of people and places dear to him.

"I raise my head and gaze at the bright moon,
I hang my head and think of my hometown."

In another poem, Li wrote:

"The people of today cannot see the moon of ancient times,
But today's moon once shone up on the ancients."

Although Li Bai has now been gone for well over a millennium, his poetic descriptions of dreamlike landscapes illuminated by the moon have left a legacy in the hearts of the Chinese people.

And Li may not be as far away as you think, after all, the same moon that shines upon you today, once shone down upon the immortal poet.

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