Li Bai (b.701 – d.762) is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. He was a contemporary of Du Fu (b.712–d.770) during the Tang Dynasty and the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He wandered from place to place for most of his life, drinking and writing. Leading the life of a wanderer, a recluse and as a free spirit, Li Bai, in many ways, embodies Taoist philosophies. His poetry, seemingly simple and effortless, is vivid, spontaneous, full of imagination and exhibits a childlike playfulness. (Du Fu, more of a realist, is regarded as China’s greatest historical poet. In my mind the two can be compared in some ways to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in their different styles.)
Below is of one of Li Bai’s most famous poems (please excuse my translation). This poem illustrates Li Bai’s ability to seize the moment and transcend the world with nature.
With a pot of wine amidst the flowers,
I drink without human company.
I raise my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, I and my shadow make three.
The moon does not share in drink.
My shadow only trails and follows.
Fleeting companions, the moon and my shadow.
Still, let us rejoice before the end of Spring.
The moon sways with my singing.
My shadow lurches as I dance.
While sober, we cheerfully celebrate.
After getting drunk, we part ways.
Our union beyond this earthly realm,
May we meet again, I and these two,
beneath the Milky Way stars.
Although he was a technical master of many classical forms of Chinese verse, Li Bai took great liberties and broke tradition often with these forms, a further illustration of his free spirit. As he wandered from place to place, he would meet and drink with other poets. It was common during that time for poets to gather and celebrate their company and poetry with drink. The poems, as they were composed, were often sung (sometimes while tapping the side of a table or boat or tapping chopsticks along with the rhymes, which older generations of Chinese still practice.) Many young children in China can recite his poems.
Li Bai’s legend grew during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. Du Fu, who met Li Bai, wrote Li Bai on several occasions, and it was clear that Du Fu regarded him with great admiration and respect. (Li Bai appears to have written Du Fu once.) And in a fitting end, legend has it that Li Bai died from drowning because, happily drunk, he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water while sitting in a boat. To this day, during the Mid-Autumn Festival when families have dinner, eat moon cakes, drink wine, and watch the moon, people think of and celebrate this poem by Li Bai and his life.