Childhood & Early Life
Li Bai was born in 701, in Suyab in Central China, currently in Kyrgyzstan. He claimed to be from the Li royal family of the Tang dynasty. According to some sources, Li’s ancestors were exiled from their home. During their years in exile, the family lived in Suyab where Li Bai was born.
When Li Bai was five years old, the family relocated to Jiangyou in Sichuan province. Moving out of the border regions required legal authorization. That there was no such authorization meant that the move happened in secrecy.
Li Bai grew up reading Confucius’ works on history, poetry, astrology and metaphysics. He belonged to a family inclined towards literature where reading the ‘Hundred Authors’ was a tradition.
By the time he was ten years old, Li Bai was composing poetry. At the same time, he was learning to ride and hunt. He became an accomplished swordsman, and in his own words, challenged many great men with his swordplay.
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At the age of 24, Li Bai left home and became a wanderer. He sailed on the Yangtze River, writing poetry. During his travels, he met many celebrities and gave away his wealth to friends.
During his period of wandering, Li Bai was also trying to secure a position. He showed his poetry to various officials in the hope of finding a post but things did not materialize. He then returned home and got married.
In 740, Li Bai resumed his life of a nomad. He traveled to Shandong where he became a part of a literary group named ‘Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook’. The group would meet and have conversations on literature and wine.
While roaming in the regions of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, Li Bai met the famous poet Wu Yun and became great friends with him. In 742, Wu Yun was summoned to the court of Emperor Xuanzong, where he spoke highly of Li Bai to the emperor.
At the emperor’s behest, Li Bai traveled to Chang’an and was presented to the court. He was able to impress everyone from the emperor to the aristocrats.
The emperor took a great personal liking to Li Bai. He was appointed as a translator at Emperor Xuanzong’s court. He was later given a post at the ‘Hanlin Academy’.
In 744, Li Bai left Chang’an. Accounts vary on the reason for his leaving. According to one version, he got tired of the luxuries of the city and court. Another story goes that the emperor was persuaded by his royal consort, Yang Guifei, to expel Li Bai, as he had offended an influential royal eunuch Gao Lishi.
After leaving the court, Li Bai became a Taoist and roamed all over China. It was during this time that he met the poet Du Fu. The two poets lived in the same accommodation for a while. Apart from their shared love of poetry and wine, and they also liked to hunt and travel together.
Du Fu and Li Bai became lifelong friends. Though the did not meet later in their lives each of them wrote about the other in his poetry. Du Fu also gave the title of “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” to Li Bai.
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In 755, the ‘An Lushan’ rebellion against the Tang dynasty forced Emperor Xuanzong to flea and later abdicate. The crown prince declared himself emperor. Li Bai became an adviser to one of the emperor’s sons Prince Yong who wanted to wrestle power out of the hands of his brother.
Prince Yong was defeated by his brother in 757. Li Bai found himself in a dangerous situation because of his loyalties to Prince Yong. He tried to escape but was caught and imprisoned at Jiujiang. A death sentence was given for reasons of treason.
Li Bai’s wife Lady Zong pleaded for clemency. Li Bai had once saved an influential army general Guo Ziyi from facing a court-martial. Returning the favour, Guo Ziyi intervened and offering his position in exchange for Li Bai’s life and saved him.
Li Bai still had to face punishment and was exiled to the remote region of Yelang in 758. The journey took him almost two years. He stopped at various places on the way visiting friends and relatives and staying on for months. He also wrote poetry and descriptions of his travel.
Li Bai never managed to reach Yelang. In 759, he was granted a royal pardon. The news reached him while he was still in Wushan, and he started his return journey to Jiangxi.
Never the one to stop wandering, on his return journey Li Bai spent time in Baidicheng. He continued spending time in pleasurable activities like writing, drinking wine and seeking good company. As he got older, his wanderings did not stop. However, they did become shorter.
In 762, he finally settled down in Dangtu. His relative Li Yangbin had been appointed the magistrate of the region and he went to live with him there.
When Emperor Daizong became the new ruler of China after the death of Emperor Suzong, he made Li Bai the registrar of the left commandant’s office in 762. Before the news could reach him, Li Bai passed away.
Li Bai composed over 1,000 poems. Nostalgia was a recurring theme in his work. He mostly wrote about the past and rarely about the future.
Though he had complete mastery of the literary devices of his time, he chose to bend tradition. His language was less formal and spontaneous. His poems are easy to understand even today.
Wine as a subject featured prominently in his poems. He probably wrote more poems on wine than any other poet. There are also many poems about the moon which holds a special place in Chinese culture.
Many poems were written from the point of view of women. Li Bai did this at a time when it was not considered appropriate for a man to write from a woman’s perspective.
Family & Personal Life
Li Bai married the grand-daughter of a former government minister in 727. He lived with his wife’s family in Anlu for a while after marriage. In 744, he married the poetess Zong, the daughter of an important official. They had two children. Li Bai married two more times.
Li Bai excelled in calligraphy. A single surviving piece of poetry titled ‘Shangyangtai’ written in Li Bai’s own hand demonstrates his skill as a calligrapher.
Li Bai died at the age of 61. His nomadic life and overindulgence in wine took a toll on his health. A more romantic account of his death says that he fell from a boat when he tried to catch the reflection of the moon on water.