The Life and Poetry of Li Bai (李白)

li bai toasts the moon 2

The bright moonlight
in front of the bed
appears like frost
on the ground. I look up
at the fair moon, and
lowering my head,
I think of home.
‘Night Thought’

Li Bai () is perhaps the most famous poet of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. He was probably born in 701 and from the start, he was a lively and exceptionally clever person. He wasn’t the type of poet who sits in a dark corner composing, either. He travelled the land. Li Bai (who is also frequently known as Li Po) was also a fan of chivalric deeds and definitely a fan of wine. Eventually, ended up at the emperor’s court, composing poems that praised the emperor’s favourite consort, Yang Guifei.

yang guifei charming women

Waiting, she finds her silk stockings
soaked with the dew drops
glistening on the marble palace steps.
Finally, she is moving
to let the crystal-woven curtain fall
when she casts one more glance
at the glamorous autumn moon.
‘An Imperial Concubine’

Li Bai was not one for over-thinking the decorum of the imperial court. He was regularly drunk, even when composing and performing his poems. But that was all part of the joy of life…

li bai entertains

So times present and ancient
meet and follow one another,
I sing long and think tenderly
back to outings in the past.
‘The Pavillion Of Master Xie’

Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, Li Bai managed to offend an important court eunuch after he made the eunuch perform a menial task for him. Poisoning the ear of Yang Guifei against the poet, the eunuch managed to have Li Bai dismissed from court – although, admittedly, he was packed off with plenty of silver and gold for his future travels. And so Li Bai began to wander again. He became a Taoist, which probably suited his outlook on life rather well.

li bai

One jug of wine
a thicket of flowers,
A solitary drunk
no friends around.
I raise my cup
urge Moon to drink,
But Moon has no stomach for wine!
‘Solitary Moonlight Drunk’

Then, when the chaos of the An Lushan revolts swept China, Li Bai got caught up in the disputes over the imperial succession. He managed to find himself sentenced to death, then luckily pardoned. He wandered some more, although Li Bai was a slow wanderer – in no hurry and with no particular drive for a destination. He was a man who enjoyed the journey above all, who enjoyed the pleasant stopping points at friends’ houses along the way, who enjoyed the nights on the road when he might hear a passing flute whisper to him on the wind. Before he could officially return to court when a new emperor invited him, Li Bai died of natural causes.

drinking alone li bai

The spring grasses seem to have an intention,
Growing into a weave in the shade of the jade pavillion.
The east wind blows sadness here,
And so, white hairs encroach.
‘Drinking Alone’

However, natural causes are never as interesting as legend. So for the sake of poetry, Li Bai died when one night he sat in a boat on the Yangtze River. He caught sight of the reflection of the moon in the water and leaned down towards it…falling through the reflected moon and drowning. Li Bai died, perhaps soaked in a few cups of solitary wine, for the admiration of and attraction to a reflection. If poetry is a reflection of life, at once more intense and less real, just as the moon is within grasp and yet is nothing at all, then Li Bai died for poetry.

LI BAI MOON

I pour alone, but urge my lonely shadow to join me,
And idly sing as I face the fragrant woods.
But, you, tall pines, what do you understand,
For whom do you whistle and hum?
My hand dances with the moon on the rock,
Across my knees rests a zither among flowers.
That which lies beyond this wine goblet,
Placid and deep, is not my heart.
‘Drinking Alone’

I am indebted to this wonderful website for texts and translations of Li Bai’s poetry

Japanese Bunjinga Painting: Kameda Bosai

南画 (nanga) or 文人画 (bunjinga) was a style of Japanese art that flourished during the Edo period. It is associated with literati elites who had a keen interest in Chinese styles of painting, even though Japan was in the sakoku (鎖国 ‘locked country’) period of seclusion from other countries.

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan ('Mountains of the Heart')

Kameda Bōsai, from Kyochuzan (Mountains of the Heart)

Kameda Bōsai ( 亀田鵬斎 ) lived from 1752–1826 and contributed a great deal to scholarly discourse on art and his book Mountains of the Heart is considered a classic work of woodblock art. I love the barely-there atmosphere of the pages above, the way that we know there is a river taking up most of the page, because there is a boat and there are reeds emerging from it, yet there is absolutely no painted presence to the river itself.

Kameda Bōsai book 2

The above pages from Mountains of the Heart give me such a sense of serenity. Again, there is very little there to suggest the vast expanse of the main scenic features, in this case the mountains. There is the faint, distant shading of mountain. And as is so typical of much East Asian art, the actual human figure is small, another element to a broader vision of nature. To me, the little fellow pottering over the bridge here makes me think of small crossings, little moments of liminality where one part of the landscape trickles into another and one morning saunters into another afternoon.

no time or need now,

to halt, to gaze, to see all.

the river knows me.