Magazine

Li Bai and Du Fu: China's drunken superstar poets

  • 11 October 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Tang Emperor Minghuang watches Li Bai compose his poems in this 17th Century woodcut (Copyright British Museum)

China's two favourite poets were born 1,300 years ago, at the beginning of the 8th Century. The language has changed so little that they remain easy for modern Chinese people to read, and their themes are still relevant today - from friendship, love and landscape to the stench of political corruption.

Kaiser Kuo, a founder of China's first heavy-metal band, is probably one of the very few rock musicians, in any country, who draws inspiration from a poet born in 701AD.

"He was quite a drunkard... and writing some of his best poetry apparently, while completely inebriated. You know, he's wild and associated with a kind of unbridled revelry, and yeah that's part of why I love him," says Kuo.

He is talking about Li Bai, a poet born in Central Asia, who became a wandering superstar poet in China, known as "the fallen immortal" or "the immortal of wine".

Kuo's band got together in 1988 when China had just emerged from isolation, and was falling head over heels in love with foreign culture. Moody and long-haired, the young men named their group Tang Dynasty in tribute to the artistic golden age to which Li Bai belonged.

"If you were to grab any kid off the street and ask him, 'What was the greatest dynasty in China's history?' nine out of 10 of them would answer the Tang.

"Part of the reason they would give was because there was a real ethic of cosmopolitanism. You know, almost a fetish for things foreign during the time," says Kuo.

"And it was precisely because of this openness, this receptiveness to foreign ideas, including religions like Buddhism, to foreign arts, [that] I think people would understand that a band working in an entirely foreign idiom, calling itself Tang Dynasty, was meant to evoke that same spirit."

Every Chinese person learns poems by Li Bai, and the country's other favourite poet, Du Fu, from childhood.

Li Bai looks to the moon - and the bottom of a wine glass - for inspiration

"They are as important in Chinese literary history as Shakespeare is to people in Britain," says historian Yuan Haiwang, author of This Is China: The First 5,000 Years.

"I remember when my son was only a baby held in my arms, I began to teach him some of the poems, like every other parent does, even though of course he couldn't remember all of them. But that's what the Chinese do."

As a Chinese person living in America, far from home, Yuan particularly likes one poem by Li Bai, about the moon:

Moonlight in front of my bed

I took it for frost on the ground

I lift my head, gaze at the mountain moon

Lower it, and think of home.

"The moon in China has a special meaning. And when it's full, that represents the fullness and reunification of the family," says Yuan. "So that poem struck the deep core of my heart whenever I miss my family."

The moon also symbolises poetry and dreams, so it's fitting that it plays a role in Li Bai's death - the story is that he drowned in a river when he tried to embrace the moon's reflection.

"He was drunk, presumably," says translator Burton Watson. "He was drunk a good deal of the time."

Portraits of Li Bai often show him in a long white gown, raising his wine glass to the moon.

This is thought to be the only surviving calligraphy of Li Bai

Drunkenness didn't have negative connotations for an 8th Century poet - it was the route to divine inspiration. Li Bai and Du Fu were both heavy drinkers, even though in other ways their lives were very different.

Li Bai was a huge celebrity, showered with honours because of his genius. Du Fu, on the other hand, aspired to a career as a civil servant, but he failed the exam and was too prickly to network his way into a good post.

Then came a rebellion led by a general, An Lushan, and eight years of civil war. Du Fu fled the Tang capital, Xian, only to be captured and then to wander as a refugee and exile until the rebel general was assassinated by his own son, and everyone could go home.

After this, he finally wangled a government post… but not for long, as Burton Watson explains.

"He got an official position but he immediately did something to annoy the emperor or spoke out too openly on social problems, again and again writing poems that were critical of the regime. And he was shunted aside from his official position."

As Du Fu put it in one of his poems:

Perverse by nature, I'm addicted to fine lines

If my words don't startle people, I won't give up till I die

In his later years, Du Fu was so poor that one of his children died of starvation.

He also wrote a famous poem about a gale that blew the thatched roof off his cottage, over the river and into the tree-tops, allowing rain to fall on his children in their beds. Du Fu writes that he could not sleep, and fell to pondering life's injustices.

Then, towards the end of the poem, he has a vision:

If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,

A great shelter for all the world's scholars, together in joy,

Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.

Oh! If I could see this house before me,

I'd happily freeze to death in my broken hut!

"We constantly talk about that verse," says Xun Zhou, a historian at Hong Kong University, who grew up in the part of south-west China where Du Fu lived at this stage of his life.

In fact, she and other Chinese people do not just talk about it, they produce ironic take-offs, mocking the corruption of officialdom.

"So they turn the verse - 'Suddenly, I saw a great mansion appeared in front of me - and my father would have five rooms in that mansion.'"

The point of the joke is that officials look after themselves - and their families - very well.

I asked some of the people relaxing one warm evening on the shore of a Beijing lake for their views on poetry.

When I asked whether they had any favourite contemporary poets, they could not really think of any. As one of them put it, people do not have much time for poetry nowadays.

But most could still remember the Li Bai and Du Fu they had learned in childhood - and were determined their own children should have a grasp of these classics of Chinese literature.

Translations by Mark Alexander. Others can be viewed at his website, www.chinese-poems.com