Li Po (701-762), one of the most popular Chinese poets, was noted for his romantic songs on wine, women, and nature. His writings reflect the grandeur of the T'ang dynasty at the height of its prosperity.
Li Po was probably born in central Asia, where his ancestors had lived in exile since the early 7th century. His father took the family back to China about 705 and settled down at Mien-chou in Szechwan, where the poet grew up. A precocious boy, he started his poetic compositions early but disdained to take the literary examination. Except for a period of seclusion in the mountains near home, he spent his youth in search of adventures abroad. Skilled in swordsmanship, he led the life of the knight-errant, traveling extensively in Szechwan and, later, in his twenty-fifth year, northward to central China. He was married in 727 to the daughter of a retired prime minister at An-lu in Hupei, where he stayed the next 8 years. Meanwhile, he continued to explore the scenic rivers and lakes of neighboring regions.
In 735 Li started a long journey that took him northward to the central plains of the Yellow River and eastward to the coastal areas of the Yangtze. These were the best years of his life as well as the most flourishing period of the dynasty, both of which he celebrated in poems. The climax came in 742, when he went to the capital, Ch'ang-an, and was presented to the emperor, Hsüan-tsung, who showered him with favors. Li was appointed a member of the Hanlin Academy and was lionized by fellow scholar-officials. At the zenith of his poetic power, he wrote some of his best-known songs for court festivities. He often frequented city taverns and got excessively drunk, thus earning the reputation, together with seven other notables of the court, as the "Eight Immortals of the Wine-cup." Two years later he grew tired of court life and left it for another long period of travel.
In the autumn of the same year (744) occurred the memorable meeting of China's two great poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, in the eastern capital, Loyang. They had another meeting the next year in Ch'i-chou, Shantung, where Li Po was initiated into the Taoist religion by one of its patriarchs. After having settled his family (he had remarried by this time) in Shantung, Li Po journeyed once again for 10 years in northern and eastern China. In the poems of this period, he showed a growing interest in Taoism which replaced his youthful ardor for chivalry. He was beset, however, by mundane troubles; though well received by local dignitaries impressed by his poetic talents and fame, he began to complain of the lack of money and property.
At the time of the An Lu-shan rebellion in December 755, which was to shake the T'ang empire to its foundations, Li Po had gone to the Yangtze region, to which he had also moved his family. He was spared the dangers and hardships which his fellow poets in the North suffered when the rebels succeeded in capturing Loyang and Ch'ang-an.
But a worse fate awaited Li Po. He was involved for a short while in the unsuccessful uprising of Li Lin, Prince of Yung, who was then commander in chief of the T'ang forces in central China. As Li Lin's fleet sailed down the Yangtze, Li Po joined him in Kiukiang in early 757. After the prince's defeat by royalist troops, Li Po was imprisoned and threatened with a death sentence. Later, it was commuted to banishment to Yeh-lang (Tsun-i in Kwei-chow) in the remote southwest interior. Li Po took a leisurely trip to his destination. Amnesty came when he was still on his way. He happily retraced his steps eastward and wandered in the Yangtze area for another 2 years. He died in Tang-t'u in southern Anhwei in December 762.
An aura of romanticism pervades Li Po's life and poetry. With his fondness for adventure and traveling, his search for alchemy and the elixir of life, his love of and intimate communion with nature, he exemplifies the typical Taoist trends in his poetry. It reflects the kind of melancholy and despondence that a man feels when he finds his talents unused and his life wasted.
To drown his sorrows, Li Po indulged himself in heavy drinking, which became with him a lifelong habit. Wine, however, was a blessing to him, rather than a bane, as it provided him with inspiration for poetry. In those moments of exhilaration, when alone or in company, he would dash off verses which flow freely without restraint. He is at his best in poems of the ancient style, which allow freedom of expression with little prosodic requirements. His finest lyrics are characterized by spontaneity of feeling, lofty imagination, and facility of language. They are filled with a "divine madness" that earns for him the sobriquet "An Immortal in Exile."
Though published some 50 years ago, The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet, translated by Shigeyoshi Obata (1922), remains the only complete English translation of Li Po's poems; it has an adequate introduction and some biographical materials. It should be read together with Arthur Waley, The Poetry and Career of Li Po (1950), which gives a detailed life of the poet as well as new translations of his poems. For background information see James J. Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry (1962) and The Chinese Knight-errant (1967).