Li Po walks back to heaven

Once I found a book called The Living Past, written by Ivar Lissner in 1957: 60 essays on aspects of antiquity. One essay that had a vivid impact on me was about the Chinese poet Li Po, or Li Bai (transliteration methods for the Mandarin characters differ). Lissner retold a famous story of how Li Po met his death. Sailing on a lake near the town of T’ai P’ing, Li Po spent the day drinking wine and making up new poems. When evening fell he was very moved by its beauty, and very drunk. Leaning over the gunwale Li Po recited a love poem to the full moon’s reflection in the water, and she smiled at him. Full of longing for her beauty he reached out to embrace her, and slid into the water, sunk without a trace, and was never seen again.

Who could have recorded such a story, as the only person there was Li Po, and he died? The story remains popular, though, because it says something important about Li Po, and about poetry. Li Po wrote many poems about wine and intoxication, but more importantly than wine he was intoxicated by beauty, and saw it all about him, in places where ordinary people didn’t. Li Po had the gift of expressing this beauty in poetry, and in so doing he sometimes forgot himself, something ordinary people never do.


The moon shimmers in green water.
White herons fly through the moonlight.

The young man hears a girl gathering water-chestnuts:
into the night, singing, they paddle home together.

  (tr. Hamill)

The period in which Li Po lived was the T’ang dynasty, the great age of poetry in Chinese literature. An anthology of that time included 50,000 poems by 2,000 poets. Li Po lived between 701 AD and 762 AD. He was called Li T’ai Po, T’ai Po referring to the planet Venus. We might call him Venus Li, or Aphrodite Li, and the name was to be an influence on his life. Chinese friends have told me he is still considered China’s greatest poet, and that many Chinese people can recite some of his poems.

I wondered about Li Po. Could he speak to me, across 1250 years and such a different cultural divide? Surely even the Chinese would find someone from the T’ang period foreign?


The autumn air is clear,
The autumn moon is bright.
Fallen leaves gather and scatter,
The jackdaw perches and starts anew.
We think of each other- when will we meet?
This hour, this night, my feelings are hard.

Li Po’s family is said to have come from Gansu in the far north of China, to have been wealthy merchants and to have been sent westward into exile at some stage. They then moved southward to Szechuan where Li Po grew up. As a wealthy man Li Po had no economic need to sit the civil service examinations and become an official. He was said to have lived an unruly life, to have wandered over much of central eastern China, and to have been highly esteemed by many who met him, some calling him a genius. He was briefly married, then separated from his own family to continue his wanderings. At one stage his fame led the Emperor to summon him to court, where he was given an honorary post. It was said that not only his poetry, but his political views and his personality impressed the entire court. Li Po’s fame eventually incurred the envy of an important official who intrigued against him, until the Emperor finally dismissed him. Li Po continued to wander. When the dynasty fell he was implicated as a supporter of an unsuccessful pretender but quickly pardoned. He moved eastward to Nanjing, then settled in Dangtu, and one day in 762 went sailing, never to return.


We come at dusk down the greenbacked mountain.
The mountain moon follows all the way.
When we gaze back at the path in distance
Green slopes are a slit of mist-grim gray. 
You lead me off to your farmland cottage.
Your child holds a thorn gate open to you.
My passing clothes brush greening vines
On hideaway paths through green bamboo.

I say in delight: “what a place for resting!”
We savor the gorgeous wine you pour.
The pine wind blows: we sing its music.
The Starred River ebbs: we sing no more.
Then I lie drunk and you ecstatic
Losing Man’s mind in joy galore.

(tr. A.Z. Foreman)

Li Po was a Taoist. He was a worker in traditional verse forms, folk poetry, which he somehow made highly original. In his perpetual wandering, his devotion to wine, his Taoism, he conformed to many traditions of Chinese poetry. He seemed to have made many friendships, and many of his poems commemorate meeting or parting from these friends. I imagine someone with a formidable intelligence, idiosyncratic, somewhat imposing yet also guileless and impulsive, who could convince others that they too shared his insights yet still left them with the knowledge he could see something they couldn’t. He was a virtuoso with verse forms, and could keep or break a rule with equal skill. I don’t believe the stories, spread by Li Po himself in many of his poems, that he was a drunkard. It was a convention of the time: poets drank wine. I think drunkenness was a metaphor for inspiration. The effect of the two is similar.

For over a thousand years Li Po has influenced poets in China and Japan, and even in the West. Ezra Pound made versions of some of his poems, more Pound than Po. Mahler, and Vangelis, set his poems to music. Though perhaps his fame, or his technical virtuosity, may account for this influence, I hope it was the picture of a wanderer, at first young and strong yet growing older and greyer, who never stopped exploring the wonderful world in which he found himself, whose best works perhaps were recited to a field of flowers or a blue and silent lake.


I came here a wanderer
thinking of home,
remembering my far away Ch’ang-an.
And then, from deep in Yellow Crane Pavillion,
I heard a beautiful bamboo flute
play “Falling Plum Blossoms.”
It was late spring in a city by the river.

  (tr. Hamill)

Li Po was a Taoist, and perhaps that explains some of his idiosyncrasies. Taoism was recognised, and high court officials and members of the royal family were Taoists in Li Po’s lifetime, yet Taoism was still not of this illusory world, and Taoists sought awareness through spontaneity. The more sensible path was the Confucian one, of family, duty and search for harmony. The path most men of talent took was to sit for a provincial then a capital examination to enter the civil service. Li Po refused to sit for any examination, even refused an opportunity to take office without that formality taking place. And he only declared himself a Taoist in early middle age. It seems more likely to me the Taoism, the refusal to enter the civil service, which entailed a real loss of prestige despite his fame as a poet, and the ceaseless, obsessive travelling from place to place which occupied his entire life, all stemmed from a trait of personality. Li Po never felt a part of his society. Perhaps he had foreign blood. When he was a young man, and skilled with a sword, he travelled about too as a kind of knight-errant protecting the rights of women and minors. Perhaps he was a kind of Yojimbo samurai. He liked it when other poets called him an exiled immortal from heaven in their poems. This was a conventual praise of exceptional men, but he thought it suited him. He could well have seen himself as a stranger in a strange land, like Moses in Egypt.


Drunk on Dragon Hill tonight,
the banished immortal, T’ai Po,

turns among yellow flowers,
his smile wide,

as his hat sails away on the wind
and he dances away in the moonlight.

  (tr. Hamill)

Li Po often writes of his drunkenness. He drinks with friends and recalls the occasion to them in a poem. He is alone, and masks his sadness with wine. His friends refer to his drunkenness. How serious is this? Poems and literary references from Li Po’s time refer to many great men as drunkards. Some gifted men hid their genius under rough, violent exteriors, behaved as ruffians. The idea of all this is that greatness is a hidden, immortal quality which cannot be easily discerned by ordinary people. We can’t know definitely if this drunkenness of Li Po was a literary convention or a fact. Could a hopeless alcoholic also be disciplined enough to master the verse forms of his day and seemingly improvise verses which drew the admiration of Chinese from his day to ours?

Do we have the cry of the Rubaiyat (in Fitzgerald’s version):

And much as Wine has played the Infidel
And robbed me of my robe of Honour, well …
I often wonder what the vintners buy
One half so precious as the stuff they sell.
For some we loved, the loveliest and best
That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed,
Have drunk their glass a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.

Umar Khayyam was certainly no drunkard, but a multi talented scientist and philosopher. His wine is probably the ecstasy of faith that protects man from his fear of mortality. Could Li Po have been speaking the same way?


In the third month the city of Hsien-yang
Is thick-spread with a carpet of fallen flowers.
Who in spring can bear to grieve alone?
Who, sober, look on sights like these?
Riches or poverty, long or short life,
By the Maker of Things are portioned and disposed.
But a cup of wine levels life and death
And a thousand things obstinately hard to prove.
When I am drunk I lose Heaven and Earth;
Motionless, I cleave to my lonely bed.
At last I forget I exist at all,
And at that moment my joy is great indeed.

  (tr Waley)

Poetry was the medium of the civilised man in Li Po’s day, as it was slightly later in Heian Japan. It is probable that much poetry was unpublished, a courtesy recitation between friends or colleagues. So much of Li Po’s poetry has vanished. Much that survives is occasional and not inspired. Perhaps we could call it Li Po’s ‘sober’ poetry. Arthur Waley thought that Li Po did not produce any great verse till the 740s, when he was middle aged, but he didn’t like Li Po (probably took the ‘drunkard’ reputation too seriously). After all when a poet tells something of themselves they may be using a metaphor, not writing rhyming prose. But the best of Li Po’s poems are very well known in Chinese culture. Li Po can be compared to Byron in Western culture in the way his contemporaries thought of him. His work, in its ease of expression and prolificacy, apparent spontaneity, virtuosity, traditional format yet avant garde approach, seems similar to the compositions of another great traveller, Mozart.

So I continued to wonder about Li Po. I read him in English, a language without the tonal values that provide much of the music of his verse, ignorant of the conventions of his day, not really knowing how he felt, nor what his friends thought either. I tried to create him in my mind, using analogues from my culture. But he seems ever out of my reach. So many rivers to cross before I can meet him on equal ground. Perhaps I am merely creating the Li Po I can. But isn’t that what we all do with a writer’s work? A Chinese scholar of the T’ang period will probably do much the same as I, though feel more certain of his accuracy.


You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain;
I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care.
As the peach blossom flows down stream
and is gone into the unknown,
I have a world apart that is not among men.

  (tr Kotewall and Smith)

It is said that Chinese characters are concrete in origin, representing objects, not abstractions, and that this makes Chinese a language where metaphors are easy to find, and facilitates the writing of poetry. Nine out of ten Chinese may be down to earth, practical people, but the tenth sees analogues between things and feelings. In English we have to add a grammatical structure to the central concepts to make sense, for English creates meaning out of grammatical structure. In Chinese, I am told, it is the objects themselves that give meaning. In “Question and Answer” there is the green mountains, the light heart, the peach blossom, the stream and the unknown. If you put them together, and you are Li Po, you have a poem.

In my mind Li Po walks the mountain trails in central China, sails the misty lakes, always alone, though he takes with him memories of many warm meetings with friends. His music is the flute’s, echoing from the peaks he passes through, calling out to distant shores. I imagine him a man who could drink you under the table, like Sokrates, and still be awake and making verses when everyone else was sleeping. Perhaps he’s searching for his childhood home on the Silk Road without knowing it. Perhaps he really was exiled from Heaven and spent his life trying to return, until the moon came to show him the way.

Li Po dreamt he was an Immortal, but when he awoke wasn’t sure if he was an Immortal dreaming he was Li Po.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Li Po walks back to heaven

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