Li Po: Poet Transcendent

Li Po Chanting a Poem, by Liang K’ai (1140 – 1210)

Yesterday I discussed the ideal of the Taoist sage, who to me is a romantic figure. One of those guys I am very fond of is Li Po (Li Bai) (although he was more a poet than a sage perhaps). He lived in the 8th century, which was the Tang Dynasty, the “golden age” of Chinese poetry, and he was one of its greatest poets.

I will not go into details about Li Po’s life, you can read about it here at Wikipedia. As for his poetry, suffice to say that its essential quality is that old wu-wei: the natural and spontaneous way of “not-doing.”

“Poet Transcendent” (Shih-hsien) was one of Li Po’s nicknames. Another was Ching-lien Chu-shih or “Householder of the Azure Lotus.”

Around 744, Li Po formally became a Taoist, and although he maintained a home in Shandong, he spent much of the next ten years wandering around writing poetry. I ask you, is there anything more romantic, more fanciful than that? It’s what I’d love to do, just roam around, with few possessions, composing poems, checking out mountains, watching the sky . . . but then I’d have no cable and I’d miss out on my favorite TV shows like Dexter and Boardwalk Empire, no Turner Classic Movies, so  . . . maybe not.

Anyway, here are four poems from that period in Li Po’s life I translated* myself:

Viewing Heaven’s-Gate Mountain

The River Chu cuts through Heaven’s-Gate Mountain in the middle.
The green water flows east, swirling when it reaches here.
The blue mountain faces both banks.
A lonely sail is silhouetted by the sun.


Sent to Tu Fu below Shaqiu City
(Tu Fu was a fellow poet)

I’ve finally come here, but why?
High above lies Shaqiu City.
Ancient trees stand at the edge of the city
And the setting sun joins the autumn softness.
Drinking Lu wine does not get me drunk.
Even with Qi’s songs my feelings are empty.
Thinking of you, my thoughts are like the River Wen’s waters,
Strong and deep as they journey south.

Listening to Jun, the Buddhist Monk, Play the Ch’in
(The ch’in is a plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings.)

The monk from Shu, lugging his ch’in in a green silk bag
As he walks westward down lofty Omei Peak:
When he plays, I become one with his waving hand.
Listening, it’s as if ten thousand pines were singing,
And flowing water were washing clean my wandering heart.
I enter into the echo of white bells
And when dusk comes, I forget about the blue mountains
And do not take seriously the dark autumn clouds gathering.

Jade Stairs Complaint

White dew on the jade stairs
Invades her gauze stockings.
Yet lowering the crystal curtain
She lifts her gaze to the autumn moon.




[The key to appreciating this last poem is to understand that because the woman in question is a lady of the court, she makes no complaint when her feet get wet going up the staircase. Chinese poetry is very subtle.]


* Back in the day, before I had a computer, I had to find the radical in the Chinese character, then identify the character, and finally look it up in the Chinese dictionary. Took me forever. Now with computers it’s much easier and faster.


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