William Dolby

Classical Chinese Translations and Research

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Biography of Li Bai by Song Qi

Translated and Introduced by William Dolby

  • Originally published in 'Renditions' the Chinese-English Translation Magazine of the Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Date of original publication unknown: perhaps around early 1960's when Bill worked in Hong Kong.



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  • Originally published in 'Renditions' the Chinese-English Translation Magazine of the Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Date of original publication unknown: perhaps around early 1960's when Bill worked in Hong Kong.


The most famous Chinese poet of all time, both in China and abroad, particularly in Japan, Li Bai [701-762] has become to be widely admired in the West through the translations and writings of Arthur Waley. Li Bai has exercised an immense and enduring influence on Chinese imaginations, literature, and entertainments through the centuries, having generated a considerable amount of story, drama and legend about himself, as well as providing an abundant source of literary allusions.

Although there are earlier biographies and part biographies of Li Bai, and much may be gleaned about him from his own writings, the principal source of information has always been this biography by Song Qi, included in Xin Tang shu 新唐書 (New History of the Tang), the second official history of the Tang dynasty, by Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 [1007-1072], Song Qi and others. Author of an enormous amount of fine prose, Song Qi stood high in the brilliant galaxy of early Song dynasty writers. He served as a mandarin both in the provinces and at the imperial court and held such senior posts as Academician of the Dragon Diagram Chamber, President of the Ministry of Works, and Hanlin Academician Recipient of Edicts. His biography of Li Bai has the brisk liveliness and deft succinctness that typify his style of prose.


Li Bai, whose courtesy name was Taibai, meaning “Planet Venus”, was a ninth-generation descendant of Emperor Li Gao of the Western Liang Dynasty [400-420]. Towards the end of the Sui dynasty [589-618], an ancestor of his was deported to Turkestan for some offence, but at the beginning of the Shenlong period [in the Tang dynasty, 705-706] the family escaped back to China and made a provisional home in Baxi.

At Li Bai’s birth, his mother had a dream in which the planet Venus appeared, which is why she named him after it.

By the time he was nine, he was thoroughly versed in the classics of history and poetry, but when he grew up he went to lead a life away from mainstream society in the Min Mountains, and, although selected by the sub-prefectural authorities to take the Men of Virtue and Ability category of the imperial Civil Service examinations, he declined to do so. Su Ting, when Chief Secretary of the Yizhou sub-prefectural administration, had a meeting with him, and concluded that he was a man of remarkable qualities.

“This young man,” he declared, “has outstanding genius. Should he go on to supplement it with a little more learning, he could well be a match for Sima Xiangru (see note 1 below) of old.”

Li, however, enamoured of the theories of the School of Alliances, practiced swordsmanship and became a knight-errant, offering his services to various good causes, and scorning wealth for himself, while ever ready to give his money to others.

Later, he moved to live in Ren City, and from there went the Kong Chaofu, HanZhun, Pei Zheng, Zhang Shuming and Tao Mian to dwell on Mount Culai, where they passed their days in heavy drinking sessions, earning themselves the collective title of the Six Eccentric Gentlemen of Bamboo Brook.

At the beginning of the Tianbao period (see note 2 below), Li Bai went south to Guiji. There he made friends with Wu Yun, and when Wu was summoned to the imperial court in Chang’an, he followed him, paying a visit to He Zhizhang there. Zhizang, on perusing the literary efforts that Li Bai showed him, gave a sigh of admiration:

“You must be a celestial being in exile!” he exclaimed, and recommended him to Emperor Xuanzong.

The Emperor summoned Li Bai to an audience in the Hall of the Golden Chariot-bells, and Li Bai gave him his opinions on current affairs and presented him with a eulogy. Entertaining him to dinner, the Emperor personally seasoned his broth for him. Presently, a rescript was issued appointing Li an Honorary Literary Counsellor in the imperial Hanlin Academy.

Still, however, he continued to get drunk with the tipplers in the market-quarters of the city … One day, while the Emperor was sitting in the Aquilaria Pavilion, he felt inspired by the atmosphere and surroundings and thought it would be nice to have Li write a pertinent lyric, to be set to music and sung. Summoned to the palace, the poet arrived on the scene drunk. Courtiers splashed water on his face, and sobered somewhat, he snatched up his writing-brush and proceeded to dash off a composition that was strikingly exquisite, thoroughly appropriate and left nothing of the mood uncaptured.

The emperor treasured Li’s brilliance, and several times entertained him to banquets. Once, when thus in attendance upon the Emperor, Li in his drunkenness obliged Chamberlain Eunuch Gao to pull off his boots to ease his feet for him. Hitherto always accustomed to the greatest deference from others, the eunuch took this as an insult, and by quoting from Li’s poems contrived to irritate the Imperial Consort, Lady Yang and set her against Li. As a result, although the Emperor would have liked to give the poet a proper government mandarin post, she always obstructed any such move.

Once Li grew aware that he was persona non grata to those near the throne, he instead of mending his ways only became all the more cavalier and rakish. Li himself, He Zhizhang, Li Shizhi, Jin the Prince of Ruyang, Cui Zongzhi, Zhang Xu, Sun Jin and Jiao Sui came jointly to be known as The Eight Boozy Immortals. And when he made a supplication for permission to leave the capital and return to a rural existence “amid the mountains”, the Emperor granted the request, giving him a gratuity of gold.

Roaming all over the country, Li Bai on one occasion travelled with Cui Zongzhi from Caishi to Nanjing by river, seating himself in the middle of the boat, clad in his long palace-robe of damask silk, for all the world as if none of the people around him even existed.

On An Lushan’s rebellion in AD 755, Li Bai took to a life of vagabondage in the region from Susong to the Lu Mountains. Lin, Prince of Yong, took him onto his staff, as one of his aides in the command headquarters. When that Prince embarked upon military operations, with rebellious imperial ambitions of his own, Li escaped back to Pengze, but on the Prince’s defeat and downfall was all the same condemned to execution.

Previously, when staying in Bingzhou in the course of his travels, Li had met Guo Ziyi, and marvelled at his talent. When Ziyi had committed some offence against the law, Li had come to his rescue and secured a pardon for him. Now, in the presence of crisis, Guo Ziyi begged permission to relinquish his own post by way of redeeming Li’s crime, with the result that a decree was issued commuting Li’s sentence into one of permanent banishment to Yelang.

Then a general amnesty was declared, and the poet made his way back north, to Xunyang. There he was involved in some offence, put on trail, and jailed. Song Ruosi was at this time in command of three thousand soldiers from Wu, whom he was leading to Henan, and his route passed through Xunyang. On arrival there, he released Li from prison and appointed him as Military Adviser on his staff.

Shortly afterwards, Li Bai resigned the post, and during the period of Li Yangbing’s governorship of Dangtu placed himself under Li’s patronage. On the accession of Emperor Daizong [reigned 763-779], he was summoned to the imperial court to take up the post of Remonstrance Official of the Left. But by the time of this summons Li had already died, having lived to the age of over sixty.

In his old age, Li Bai was drawn to the Daoist teachings of the Yellow Emperor and Laozi. Once, passing by way of the Ox Island Jetty, he took a trip to Gushu, where he was so delighted by the Green Mountain of Xie that he made up his mind he would like to end up there. On his death, however, he was buried at Eastern Foot.

Towards the end of the Yuanhe period [806-820], Fan Chuanzheng, Inspectorate Commissioner of Xuan and She Sub-prefectures, made sacrifices at Li’s tomb, and, for its protection, prohibited the gathering of firewood and the felling of trees in the vicinity. Seeking out the poet’s descendants, he discovered that there were only two left: Li’s granddaughters, both wives of peasant-commoners but women whose comportment still showed something of the mannerliness to be expected of their ancestry.

“Our grandfather,” they told Fan in tears, “had his heart set on Green Mountain, and when they buried him At Eastern Foot, it was really contrary to his wishes.”

Accordingly, the Commissioner arranged for Bai’s reburial, and erected two memorial stones at the grave. He told the two women that he would remarry them into the ranks of the gentry, but they declined the offer, declaring it to have been fate’s decree that, fatherless and poverty-stricken, they should have married beneath their station. They protested that they did not wish to remarry. Filled with admiration for their attitude, the Commissioner had their husbands relieved of all State labour obligations.

In the reign of Emperor Wenzong [827-841], an imperial edict was issued naming Li Bai’s poems and songs, Pei Min’s swordsmanship and Zhang Zu’s cursive-style calligraphy as “The Three Bests-Ever”.


1. Sima Xiangru 司馬相如 [179 BC-117 BC] was one of the most famous fu writers of the Han dynasty.

2. 742-755; under the reign of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗