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Chinese Classical Poetry
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Among the earliest and most influential poetic anthologies was the Chuci (楚辞) (Songs of Chu), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semi-legendary Qu Yuan (屈原) (ca. 340-278 B.C.) and his follower Song Yu (宋玉) (fourth century B.C.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Shijing. During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), this form evolved into the fu (赋) , a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers. The era of disunity that followed the Han period saw the rise of romantic nature poetry heavily influenced by Taoism. The Han Chinese astronomer, mathematician, and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139 AD) was also largely responsible for the early development of Shi (诗) poetry.

Classical poetry reached its zenith during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The early Tang period was best known for its "lushi" 律诗 (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (绝句)(truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society. Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi (772-846), whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time.

Subsequent writers of classical poetry lived under the shadow of their great Tang predecessors, and although there were many fine poets in subsequent dynasties, none reached the level of this period. As the classical style of poetry became more stultified, a more flexible poetic medium, the ci (词), arrived on the scene. The ci, a poetic form based on the tunes of popular songs, some of Central Asian origin, was developed to its fullest by the poets of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). The Song era poet Su Shi (1037-1101 AD) mastered ci, shi, and fu forms of poetry, as well as prose, calligraphy, and painting.

As the ci gradually became more literary and artificial after Song times, Chinese Sanqu poetry, a more free form, based on dramatic arias, developed. The use of sanqu songs in drama marked an important step in the development of vernacular literature.

Li Bai 李白

Li Bai (701-762) was a Chinese poet who lived during the Tang Dynasty.
Called the Poet Immortal, Li Bai is often regarded, along with Du Fu, as one of the two greatest poets in China's literary history. Approximately 1,100 of his poems remain today. The Western world was introduced to Li Bai's works through the very liberal translations of Japanese versions of his poems made by Ezra Pound.

Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor. Like Du Fu, he spent much of his life travelling, although in his case it was because his wealth allowed him to, rather than because his poverty forced him. He is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

However his family had originally dwelled in what's now southeastern Gansu , and later moved to Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, when he was five years old. He was influenced by Confucian and Taoist thought, but ultimately his family heritage did not provide him with much opportunity in the aristocratic Tang Dynasty. Though he expressed the wish to become an official, he did not sit for the Chinese civil service examination. Instead, beginning at age twenty-five, he travelled around China, enjoying wine and leading a carefree life -very much contrary to the prevailing ideas of a proper Confucian gentleman. His personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike and he was introduced to the Emperor Xuanzong around 742.

He was given a post at the Hanlin Academy, which served to provide a source of scholarly expertise and poetry for the Emperor. Li Bai remained less than two years as a poet in the Emperor's service before he was dismissed for an unknown indiscretion. Thereafter he wandered throughout China for the rest of his life. He met Du Fu in the autumn of 744, and again the following year. These were the only occasions on which they met, but the friendship remained particularly important for the starstruck Du Fu (a dozen of his poems to or about Li Bai survive, compared to only one by Li Bai to Du Fu). At the time of the An Lushan Rebellion he became involved in a subsidiary revolt against the Emperor, although the extent to which this was voluntary is unclear. The failure of the rebellion resulted in his being exiled a second time, to Yelang. He was pardoned before the exile journey was complete.

Li Bai died in Dangtu in modern day Anhui. Traditionally he was said to have drowned attempting to embrace the moons's reflection in a river; some scholars believe his death was the result of mercury poisoning due to a long history of imbibing Taoist longevity elixirs.

Simon Elegant novelized Li Po's life in his 1997 work, A Floating Life.


Over a thousand poems are attributed to him, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain.
He is best known for his yue fu poems, which are intense and often fantastic. He is often associated with Taoism: there is a strong element of this in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone. Nevertheless, his gufeng ("ancient airs") often adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist, and many of his occasional verses are fairly conventional.

Much like the genius of Mozart there exist many legends on how effortlessly Li Bai composed his poetry; he was said to be able to compose at an astounding speed, without correction. His favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Li Bai's use of language is not as erudite as Du Fu's but impresses equally through an extravagance of imagination and a direct correlation of his free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as A River Merchant's Wife: A Letter), record the hardships or emotions of common people. He also wrote a number of very oblique poems on women.

One of Li Bai's most famous poems is Drinking Alone under the Moon (月下独酌, pinyin Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó), which is a good example of some of the most famous aspects of his poetry -- a very spontaneous poem, full of natural imagery and anthropomorphism:
There are 4 poems Li Bai wrote under this title, this is the most famous.

花间一壶酒, Amongst the flowers is a pot of wine;
独酌无相亲。 I pour alone but with no friend at hand;
举杯邀明月, So I lift the cup to invite the shining moon;
对影成三人。 Along with my shadow, a fellowship of three.

月既不解饮, The moon understands not the art of drinking;
影徒随我身。 The shadow gingerly follows my movements;
暂伴月将影,Still I make the moon and the shadow my company;
行乐须及春。To enjoy the springtime before too late.

我歌月徘徊, The moon lingers while I am singing;
我舞影零乱。 The shadow scatters while I am dancing;
醒时同交欢,We share the cheers of delight when sober;
醉后各分散。We separate our ways after getting drunk;
永结无情游,Forever will we keep this unfettered friendship;
相期邈云汉。Til we meet again far in the Milky Way.


Li Bai is known in the West partly due to Ezra Pound's versions of some of his poems in Cathay, and due to Gustav Mahler's integration of four of his works in Das Lied von der Erde.

These were in a German translation by Hans Bethge, published in an anthology called Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), that in turn followed a French translation. There is another striking musical setting of his verse by the American composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po for intoning voice and Adapted Viola (an instrument of Partch's own invention) are based on the texts in The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet translated by Shigeyoshi Obata.

A crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.

It is possible that Li Bai was the creator of the martial art Zui Quan.


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