Li Bai towers over Chinese literature. But few have attempted, in English, to explain the man behind such household poems as “Quiet Night Thoughts,” “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day,” and “Drinking Alone by Moonlight” — how an itinerant drunk with political aspirations would end up becoming the greatest poet in Chinese history.
Li Bai (701-762), also known as Li Bo or Li Po, was a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907), amassing a legacy over his lifetime that would be surpassed by none. Yet few outside of the Chinese-speaking world know his name. Luckily, that may be about to change. Xuefei Jin (pen name Ha Jin), a National Book Award recipient (for Waiting) and creative writing professor at Boston University, has written a new biography of Li Bai called The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, which is available through Pantheon Press as of yesterday. His work gives the English-reading world access to a wealth of information about one of China’s greatest cultural icons, someone as revered as Shakespeare is in the West.
Ha Jin’s is not the first English-language biography of Li Bai. Sinologist Arthur Waley wrote The Poetry and Career of Li Po in 1950, and Jin cites from this book as well as from multiple other biographical accounts of Li Bai written in Chinese. Although I was not able to obtain Waley’s book, if the paper on Li Bai he presented to the China Society of London’s School of Oriental Studies in 1918, available freely online, is any indication, Jin’s biography is a much-needed English-language update on Li Bai’s life and legacy for the 21st century. Waley gives only a brief account of Li Bai’s life before devoting much of the rest of the book to translating his poetry. Jin’s book, on the other hand, is a 292-page, detailed account of Li Bai’s life from his birth to his death, interspersed with translations of his poetry throughout. Secondly, Waley is critical of Li Bai’s talent as a poet and patronizing toward his status in Chinese society. He even goes so far as to comment that Western scholars would never have selected Li Bai as one of China’s greatest poets, dismissing outright the popular opinions of Chinese scholars as though they do not matter.
Jin’s biography of Li Bai avoids this prejudiced approach, accepting Li Bai as a truly great poet of Chinese history. Throughout the text, the story of his life is interspersed with reprintings of his various poems, usually in both the original classical Chinese and in Jin’s painstaking English translations. At these moments where Li Bai’s poems are reproduced in full, Jin usually points out what, if anything, is significant or important about the form of the poem and how it rates compared to Li Bai’s other poems. This organizational strategy accomplishes at least two purposes: first, it makes the book a combination of biography, literary critique, and analysis; second, it suggests that literary works are best understood within the context of the author’s lived experiences and relationships. At one point in the text, Jin writes of Li Bai’s daughter:
His biographers have tended to touch on her very briefly, partly because of the paucity of information we have on her and partly because traditionally, scholars tended not to focus on an ancient literary figure’s domestic life. But it is important to know as much as we can about Bai’s family life and his relationships with his children if we want to understand him intimately.
Li Bai’s poems, while they undoubtedly can stand alone, made more sense to me when I read them in light of what was going on in his personal and professional life at the time that he wrote them. It was eye-opening to learn about the man behind the legend. Ha Jin’s book never loses sight of Li Bai’s legendary status — after all, it is titled The Banished Immortal, the poet’s nickname — but it constantly plays on this status by contrasting Li Bai’s reputation with his much less illustrious day-to-day life.
The poet’s path to literary success was meandering and, in fact, nearly accidental. He aspired to be a great statesman, a dream he never quite realized. He traveled around China trying to network with the right people, but drifted from one failed connection to the next. We learn of officials who worry about Li Bai’s bombastic, arrogant character and do not recommend him because they want to avoid future trouble, and of jealous officials who don’t recommend him because they don’t want to see him achieve success. But being a good poet could enhance one’s official prospects. Li Bai wrote poetry to help his reputation among officials he wanted to impress. He was already considered a great poet when he died, but nevertheless died in relative poverty, without ever having achieved the political career he had dreamed of all his life.
I, for one, feel that this understanding of Li Bai the man, rather than Li Bai the legend, causes the beauty of his poetry to resonate all the more. For example, Ha Jin explains that Li Bai wrote his poem “Please Drink” while in the midst of a lovely moonlit night he spent with two friends drinking, joking, and shouting out improvised lines of original poetry to one another. The scene represents a rare moment of levity and delight for Li Bai in a life largely full of failure and disappointment. My favorite part consists of the last few lines of the poem, which reads, “Let us buy wine and enjoy it at any cost. My dappled horse and gorgeous fur robe, let your boy take both to the shop and exchange them for good wine so we can drown our sorrow of ten thousand years.” Before I read Jin’s book, I read these lines as a pleasantly-worded ode to the delights of drinking. Reading it again in the context of Li Bai’s personal life, it takes on a more nuanced and bittersweet air to me. Now it speaks to me as an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of moments of joy in life, which is otherwise mostly fraught with difficulties.
But for all of Jin’s valiant attempts at excavating the man from the myth under which he’s buried, it is admittedly difficult to separate fact from legend when discussing someone who lived over a millennium ago, and Jin occasionally does fall under the trap of mythologizing his subject. Take the poet’s ethnicity, for instance. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests Li Bai may have been born in Suyab, Kyrgyzstan, and that his family relocated to Sichuan when he was a young child. After explaining this, Jin writes, “The truth is that the poet has long been uprooted from any specific place and belongs to the world,” a lovely turn of phrase implying that this important part of Li Bai’s family history is irrelevant to appreciating him as a poet.
Yet in the next paragraph, Jin insists that it’s fair to consider Li Bai Chinese at least in his heart, since he wrote about China as his home throughout his life. The author says, “For our purposes, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he was an overseas Chinese — a Chinese from a foreign land — if not a half Chinese.” For our purposes? What purposes? The attempt here to urge readers to consider Li Bai Chinese — in essence, if not in reality — perhaps reveals a bias of the author.
Another issue with the book is the scene-by-scene rendering of Li Bai’s life as a progression from one event to the next, which may come across as dull or redundant to some readers. After a few chapters, it is difficult to avoid the urge to skip ahead a few pages at each additional failed interaction with an official or other important figure. After a while, Li Bai’s life becomes predictable.
Nevertheless, Ha Jin’s book should be lauded for making a significant contribution to the world of English-language works on Chinese poetry. Its approach of using Li Bai’s personal life to cultivate a greater understanding of his poems marks it as distinctive from preexisting biographies of the poet.
The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai is available now.