This old man was a genius, a great poet, a saga, a legend, a monumental figure, a cornerstone in Chinese literature.
He received Chinese liberal education; he could write brilliant poems and excelled in swordsmanship. He was Li Bai.
Chinese scholars had the ambition to get a government position and contribute to the king and serve the country. He went to the capital, met new friends and was recommended to the king for his poetic talents. The king was happy to find a talent and put him in the royal academy of art.
When at leisure time, the king would discuss poetry with Bai and other officials. Bai wrote some poems to describe the beauty and elegance of the King’s concubine. He had a carefree period of life in the palace.
That was the peak of his political life. He was the king’s new favorite and was envied by many poets and officials. He enjoyed many privileges; the king gave him delicate food, kept him company, invited him to the royal family parties.
It was spread as a perfect example of a literary figure’s pride that once he was drinking with the king, the king asked him to write poems, and he asked the concubine to prepare the ink for him and the eunuch to take off his shoes. His natural and unrestrained personality made him the target of envy and false accusations. That eunuch set him up by saying that one of his poems in praise of the concubine was in fact belittling her.
The concubine was furious and she kept complaining beside the king’s pillow. Finally he lost the king’s favor and he wanted to leave. The king sent him away and gave him some money and free meals coupon to be provided by local government wherever he went.
Personally I think it was lucky for us all that the concubine and the king made the decision, otherwise China would lose one of the greatest poets and there would be another ordinary government official.
Ease of life and fame are the worst enemies for artistic pursuit. Many examples show that it was when life put people down and hit them hard, when life backed them in the corners that they fully understood life and displayed their talents, vigor and potential. Good for him.
Bai saw that the king was only acting as a generous patron and he didn’t think Bai was going to make a smart politician or government official. Bai was sick of winning their favors and dealing with those who backbit him.
Outside the king’s royal palace, he hiked and traveled, he climbed famous mountains, he visited famous temples, he made friends along the way, he got inspirations and ideas and wrote lots of wonderful poems. He found his royal palace of poetry in the arms of nature.
Those false accusations and unfair treatments actually helped him in a way that he didn’t expected. His mission was to bring poetry to an unprecedented height, and the world was quite lucky that the mission was accomplished.
He loved drinking alcohol all the time. For him, wine, poetry and friends are the most important pleasures of life. And wine was his all time best friend.
He was once drunk in a restaurant and was summoned by the king to translate a central Asia language for the ambassador. The drank in the boat, during travel, when meeting and seeing friends off, when feeling lonely or frustrated.
He drank alone in the backyard and proposed a toast to the moon. He drank with friends under a pine tree, when done, he said, “I’ll get some sleep here, you may go. If you meet me tomorrow, please bring a zither”. He advocated the philosophy of “seize the moment, fill the cup of life and enjoy to the last drop”.
Bai didn’t live a well-off life and he seemed least bothered by it. He got some money from the king, from the local officials and friends. He didn’t have to worry about bringing food to the family table. Little was known about his family life and how his wife and children lived.
His friend Li Guinian once sold his golden tortoise which was a hanging ornament on the gown to buy food and wine in the restaurant for him.
Even when alone, he would drink and talked to the moon and he wrote many poems to record the loneliness and the moments. He had political ideals, he had conflicts with sly persons. Talented as he was, things should have worked out well for him. But all the ups and downs, all the mishaps, all the unspeakable regrets, all the hopes and disappointments, gains and loses, to whom could he speak? Moon up in the sky, cheers!
Li Bai was a genius well before his age. He loved simple life, wine and poetry, friends and traveling. He was simple and lacked sophistication. He found it was hard for him to fit in the political system. He was not willing to be an apple-shiner and lower his self esteem to win the favors of the peer officials. On the one hand he was craving for a government position so he could apply and realize his ambitions, on the other hand, when destiny led him astray, he would resort to Taoism to find the secret to longevity.
He was constantly tortured by these two driving forces and suffered tremendously. The moon became his company and faithful listener of his. It also resembled his character and image: top talent, alone, illuminating the world.
Bai refused no wine and dine. He urged others to finish the cups as often as he did. He drank when he met new friends, he drank when he sent off old ones, he drank when he felt down, when he felt hilarious, when he had nothing better to do…etc.
He proclaimed that saints and sages would be long forgotten, while intemperants would certainly leave a mark in history. He persuaded himself to drink, and he persuaded the moon and his shadow to drink toasts.
He argued that if the heaven didn’t favor wine, there would not be a goddess of wine up there; that if the earth didn’t favor wine, there would not be a place called “spring of wine”; since the heaven and the earth favored wine, he didn’t see why it was inappropriate for men to indulge in wine.
For Bai, wine was delicate poetry and poetry was delicate wine. And it was more than that, in wine he found the significance and meaning of life. There were true teachings in the cups and people had to savor it themselves.
He wrote a poem ridiculing one of his friends Wang Liyang for not drinking by quoting even Yuanming Tao would make fun of him if he knew Wang didn’t drink. He even began personal abuse by writing in the poem that Wang would not be a true man if he didn’t drink.
He expressed his regrets of not being able to spend quality time with his wife, “Day in and day out, I drank in an uninhibited manner, what’s the difference between being my wife ad being a widow?”
Out of misery he saw the dim light of hope which could start a fire. The upheavals of life served as a source of poetic inspiration.
Chinese philosophers advocated avoiding going extremes. For Bai, being affluent was not that much desired, being impoverished was not that much pathetic.
He followed Confucius doctrine of academic pursuit, personal enhancement and political ambitions. When things didn’t work out for him, he turned to Laotze’s thoughts of non-doings.
His antidote for living in a not so friendly and fitting world was wine, poems and romanticism. Out of despair he hauled positive energy. Out of the dirt of life’s strikes he grew the flowers of hope.
Artists and poets saw the world from complete new perspectives and we were lucky to share them. Bai was proliferate in writing poems and he applied different rhetorical techniques. Ten-thousand-meter-long white hair was used to express deep sorrow. People worried that their dark hair in the morning would turn white at dark—he depicted that time was fleeting.
He adopted “suck the marrow of life” attitude, since we didn’t know what would come tomorrow, why not enjoy life of the present moment? “Gather ya rose buds while you may”, his version would be “Raise your cup while you may”.
He probably found the true meaning of life in a cup of wine. In many poems he called upon his friends to drink and live to this breathing moment.
One of his friends He Zhizhang met him and had an in-depth talk with him. He told Bai in exclamation, “You must not be an earthly being, you are sent from heaven, a god in charge of intellect and literature”.
He didn’t stand and observe from ordinary perspectives. It seemed he observed this world from high in the air, like on a big bird’s back or in a helicopter( wasn’t an available condition back at that time). “The moon ascended from the Tianshan mountain, obscured by the sea of clouds”. He focused on the moon and clouds, describing a crystal clear moon-lit night, “The river ran afar along the prairie, the moon light flew in the water.” Anything irrelevant was not in the picture. Bai set the scene, he alone was watching above and faced the eternity.
In addition to his panoramic view, his vivid and wild imaginations also contributed to his poems. It was like water flooding down the waterfall. Ideas and images, fantasies and montages interwove the beautiful threads of his poems.
He observed life with keen insights. He visited temples, talked to monks and made friends with Taoists. He frequented government officials and drank with his fans, he wrote songs for geishas and flirted with them.
Moonlight was a recurring theme in his poems. He invited the moon to drink, he dropped by a friend in a moon-lit night, he attended dinner parties in the moon light, he even slipped into the water glittering with moon light. That seemed a perfect curtain call and exit from the stage of life for him.