Poetry‎ > ‎THE POET LI PO‎ > ‎



Li Po, styled T'ai-po, was descended in the ninth generation from the Emperor Hsing-shēng. One of his ancestors was charged with a crime at the end of the Sui dynasty, and took refuge in Turkestan. At the beginning of the period Shēn-lung the family returned and settled in Pa-hsi in Szechwan. At his birth Po's mother dreamt of the planet Ch'ang-kēng [Venus], and that was why he was called Po.

At ten he had mastered the Book of Odes and Book of History. When he grew up he retired to the Min Mountains, and even when summoned to the provincial examinations he made no response. When Su T'ing became Governor of I-chou, he was introduced to Po, and was astonished by him, remarking : " This man has conspicuous natural talents. If he had more learning he would be a second Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju." However, he was interested in politics and fond of fencing, becoming one of those knight-errants who care nothing for wealth and much for almsgiving. 

Once he stayed at Jen-ch'eng with K'ung Ch'ao-fu, Han Chun, P'ei Cheng, Chang Shu-ming, and T'ao Mien. They lived on Mount Ch'u Lai, and were dead drunk every day. People called them the Six Hermits of the Bamboo Stream. 

At the beginning of the T'ien-pao period he went south to Kuei-chi, and became intimate with Wu Yün. Wu Yün was summoned by the Emperor, and Po went with him to Ch'ang-an. Here he visited Ho Chih-chang. When Chih-chang read some of his work, he sighed and said : " You are an exiled fairy." He told the Emperor, who sent for Po and gave him audience in the Golden Bells Hall. The poet submitted an essay dealing with current events. The Emperor bestowed food upon him and stirred the soup with his own hand. He ordered that he should be unofficially attached to the Han Lin Academy, but Po went on drinking in the market-place with his boon-companions. 

Once when the Emperor was sitting in the Pavilion of Aloes Wood, he had a sudden stirring of heart, and wanted entered in obedience to the summons, he was so drunk that the courtiers were obliged to dab his face with water. When he had recovered a little, he seized a brush and without any effort wrote a composition of flawless grace. 

The Emperor was so pleased with Po's talent that whenever he was feasting or drinking he always had this poet to wait upon him. Once when Po was drunk the Emperor ordered [the eunuch] Kao Li-shih to take off Po's shoes. Li-shih, who thought such a task beneath him, took revenge by affecting to discover in one of Po's poems a veiled attack on [the Emperor's mistress] Yang Kuei-fei. 

Whenever the Emperor thought of giving the poet some official rank, Kuei-fei intervened and dissuaded him. 

Po himself, soon realizing that he was unsuited to Court life, allowed his conduct to become more and more reckless and unrestrained. 

Together with his friends Ho Chih-chang, Li Shih-chih, Chin, Prince of Ju-yang, Ts'ui Tsung-chih, Su Chin, Chang Hsu, and Chiao Sui, he formed the association known as the Eight Immortals of the Winecup. 

He begged persistently to be allowed to retire from Court. At last the Emperor gave him gold and sent him away. Po roamed the country in every direction. Once he went by boat with Ts'ui Tsung-chih from Pien-shih to Nanking. He wore his embroidered Court cloak and sat as proudly in the boat as though he were king of the universe. 

When the An Lu-shan revolution broke out, he took to living sometimes at Su-sung, sometimes on Mount K'uang-lu. 

Lin, Prince of Yung, gave him the post of assistant on his staff. When Lin took up arms, he fled to P'eng-tse. When Lin was defeated, Po was condemned to death. When Po first visited T'ai-yüan Fu, he had seen and admired Kuo Tzu-i, who was a famous General and the saviour of the dynasty. On one occasion, when Tzu-i was accused of breaking the law, Li Po had come to his assistance and had him released. 

Now, hearing of Po's predicament, Tzu-i threatened to resign unless Po were saved. The Emperor remitted the sentence of death and changed it to one of perpetual exile at Yeh-lang. But when the amnesty was declared he came back to Kiukiang. Here he was put on trial and sent to gaol. But it happened that Sung Jo-ssu was marching to Honan with three thousand soldiers from Kiangsu. He passed through Kiukiang on his way, and released the prisoners there. He gave Li Po an appointment on his staff. Po soon resigned. 

When Li Yang-ping became Governor of T'ang-tu, Po went to live near him. 

The Emperor Tai Tsungf wished to raise him to the rank of Senior Reviser. But when the order came Po was already dead, having reached the age of somewhat over sixty. His last years were devoted to the study of Taoism. 

He once crossed the Bull Island Eddies and, reaching Ku-shu, was delighted by a place called the Green Hill, which lay in the estate of the Hsieh family. He expressed a desire to be buried there, but when he died they buried him at Tung-lin. 

At the end of the period Yuan-ho, Fan Ch'uan-cheng, Governor of the districts Hsuan and She [in Anhui], poured a libation on his grave and forbade the woodmen to cut down the trees which grew there. 

He sought for Li Po's descendants, but could only find two grand-daughters, who had both married common peasants, but still retained an air of good breeding. They appeared before the Governor weeping, and said : " Our grandfather's wish was to be buried on top of the Green Hill. But they made his grave at the eastern hill-base, which is not what he desired." 

Fan Ch'uan-cheng had the grave moved and set up two tombstones. He told the ladies they might change their husbands and marry into the official classes, but they refused, saying that they were pledged to isolation and poverty and could not marry again. Fan was so moved by their reply that he exempted their husbands from national service. A rescript of the Emperor Wen Tsung created the category of the Three Paragons : Li Po, of poetry ; P'ei Min, of swordsmanship ; and Chang Hsü, of cursive calligraphy. 

Most of the accounts of Li Po's life which have hitherto appeared are based on the biography given in vol. v. of the "Memoires Concernant Les Chinois." It is evident that several of the frequently quoted anecdotes in the " Memoires " are partly based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese text, partly due to the lively imagination of the Jesuits. The Sung writer Hsieh Chung-yung arranged in chronological order all the information about the poet's life that can be gleaned not only from the T'ang histories, but also from the poems themselves. 

In the communications of the Gesellschaft fur Natur und Volkerkunde, 1889, Dr. Florenz makes some rather haphazard and inaccurate selections from this chronology. 

The Life in the " New T'ang History " has, I believe, never before been translated in full. The Life in the so-called " Old T'ang History" is shorter and contains several mistakes. Thus Li is said to have been a native of the Province Shantung, which is certainly untrue. 

The following additional facts are based on statements in the poet's own works. 

With regard to his marriage in A.D. 730 he writes to a friend : "The land of Ch'u has seven swamps ; I went to look at them. But at His Excellency Hsu's house I was offered the hand of his grand-daughter, and lingered there during the frosts of three autumns." He then seems to have abandoned Miss Hsü, who was impatient at his lack of promotion. He afterwards married successively Miss Lin, Miss Lu, and Miss Sung. These were, of course, wives, not concubines. We are told that he was fond of "going about with the dancing-girls of Chao-yang and Chin-ling." He had one son, who died in A.D. 797. 

With regard to his part in the revolution, the " New History" seems somewhat confused. It is probable that his sojourn in the prison at Kiukiang took place before and not after his decree of banishment. It is also uncertain whether he knew, when he entered the service of Lin, that this prince was about to take up arms against the Emperor. The Chinese have reproached Po with ingratitude to his Imperial patron, but it would appear that he abandoned Prince Lin as soon as the latter joined the revolution. 

A mysterious figure mentioned in the poems is the "High Priest of Pei-hai " [in Shantung], from whom the poet received a diploma of Taoist proficiency in A.D. 746. 

Li Yang-ping gives the following account of Po's death : " When he was about to hang up his cap [an euphemism for "dying"] Li Po was worried at the thought that his numerous rough drafts had not been collected and arranged. Lying on his pillow, he gave over to me all his documents, that I might put them in order." 

The "Old T'ang History" says that his illness was due to excessive drinking. There is nothing improbable in the diagnosis. There is a legend that he was drowned while making a drunken effort to embrace the reflection of the moon in the water. This account of his end has been adopted by Giles and most other European writers, but already in the twelfth century Hung Mai pointed out that the story is inconsistent with Li Yang-ping's authentic evidence. 

The truth may be that he contracted his last illness as the result of falling into the water while drunk. 

* The legendary Li Po is the subject of the sixth tale in " Chin Ku Ch'i Kuan, translated by T. Pavie in " Contes et Nouvelles," 1839. He also figures in the Mongol dynasty play, " The Golden Token."