Li Po: One of China's Most Renowned Poets

This Wanderer, Courtier and Exile Wrote Thousands of Poems

The classical Chinese poet Li Po was both a rebel wanderer and a courtier. He is revered along with his contemporary, Tu Fu, as one of the two greatest Chinese poets.

Li Po’s Early Life

The great Chinese poet Li Po was born in 701 and grew up in western China, in Sichuan province near Chengdu. He was a gifted student, studied the classic Confucian works as well as other more esoteric and Romantic literature, and by the time he was a young man was an accomplished swordsman, practitioner of the martial arts and bon vivant. He began his wanderings in his mid-20s, when he sailed down the Yangtze River to Nanjing, studied with a Taoist master and entered into a brief marriage with the daughter of a local official in Yunmeng. She evidently left him and took the children because he had not secured a government position as she hoped; instead, he dedicated himself to wine and song.

In the Imperial Court

In his wandering years, Li Po had befriended the Taoist scholar Wu Yun, who praised Li Po so highly to the emperor that he was invited to the court in Chang’an in 742. There he made such an impression that he was dubbed “the Immortal banished from heaven” and given a post translating and providing poetry for the emperor. He participated in the court revels, wrote a number of poems about events in court and was renowned for his literary performances. But he was often drunk and outspoken and not at all suited to the strictures and the delicate hierarchies of court life. In 744 he was banished from court and went back to his wandering life.

War and Exile

After leaving Chang’an, Li Po formally became a Taoist, and in 744, he met his great poetic counterpart and rival, Tu Fu, who claims the two were like brothers and slept under a single cover. In 756, Li Po was mixed up in the political upheaval of the An Lushan Rebellion and was captured and sentenced to death for his involvement. A military officer whom he had saved from court-martial many years before and who was by now a powerful general intervened, and Li Po was instead banished to the far southwestern interior of China. He wandered slowly toward his exile, writing poems along the way, and in the end was pardoned before he got there.

Li Po’s Death and Legacy

Legend has it that Li Po died embracing the moon -- late at night, drunk, in a canoe out on the river, he caught sight of the moon’s reflection, leaped in, and plop. ... Scholars, however, believe he died from cirrhosis of the liver or from mercury poisoning that resulted from Taoist longevity elixirs.

Author of 100,000 poems, he was a nobody in a class-bound Confucian society and lived the wild poet’s life long before the Romantics. About 1,100 of his poems are still in existence.