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Li Po: Poems & Biography

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
Li Po is still renowned as being one of the greatest Chinese poets in history. This lesson introduces his work, as well as his interesting life and ironic death.

Poet of Poets

Medieval Italy has Dante, Ancient Greece has Homer, and England has Shakespeare. However, those are all relatively short-lived literary cultures compared to China, whose history goes back thousands of years. Despite that, one name reigns supreme in the field of Chinese poetry, Li Po (sometimes called Li Bao).

Despite having lived more than 1200 years ago, Li Po is still widely read in China and is one of that country's most well-known writers. So crucial to Chinese culture is he that his work is still memorized by school children and is as engrained in the culture as biblical references are to American literary life.

Li Po's Life

Li Po lived during the Tang Dynasty, a time of great cultural expression in Chinese history. We know little about his early life, although it is pretty clear that he was born west of the modern borders of China and moved as a child. This leads some scholars to think that his family may have been exiled. Despite that punishment, Li began reading at an early age, devouring the best books of the period, namely the great works of Confucian philosophy. He also practiced a number of pastimes of a more martial nature - it is clear that his sword-fighting skills were respected and he had killed many opponents.

Despite having prepared for the civil service, Li never entered the administration. Instead, he traveled throughout China, beginning to write along the way. This gained the attention of many aristocrats, including the Emperor, who hired Li as an official poet. As a member of the court, Li gained access to a great deal of luxury, especially in the way of alcohol. In fact, legend has that a drunken Li drowned trying to hold his own reflection in the moonlight.

Poems

Li Po wrote a great deal about the joys of everyday life, especially being drunk, in a way that was clear and accessible. For example, his poem Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day is essentially about a hangover. Even in remembering the deeds of a friend, Li found a way to incorporate alcohol. In The Exile's Letter, he writes of talking to intelligent men with an old friend in a tavern.

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