The previous post introduced the ‘Buddha of Poetry’, so here’s another part of that great literary trinity, and probably the most famous part – the ‘Immortal of Poetry’, Li Bai 李白 (701 – 762). If you are into the Western literary tradition of romanticism, Li Bai is probably the poet for you – as it was, of course, for many modernist and romantic European poets who actually translated his poetry. (Ezra Pound did some of his poems, IIRC.)
Part of Li’s appeal is his rather more distant relationship with the Tang court and bureaucracy than many other contemporaries. Wang Wei, as introduced previously, was a court official whose business trips often provided inspiration; Du Fu (I’ll get on him later) was even more of an official in his fretting about world affairs. Li Bai hardly gave a rat’s arse about world affairs – a sort of literary superstar, he travelled around the world, meeting fellow poets, exchanging pointers, and even occasionally killing people he didn’t like. In fact, he was so famous that when he reached the Tang capital of Chang’an, he was given a post as court poet without having passed any Imperial Examinations.
The following two poems both capture some elements of a life deliberately lived freely – the journeys, the felicitous encounters, and a certain, very Chinese attitude towards the corruption and follies of government.
To Meng Haoran (Meng 孟浩然 (691 – 740) was himself another great Tang poet, and probably a sort of elder figure to Li Bai)
How I love and respect Master Meng, whose spirit and talents are known throughout the world.
Red-cheeked, he spurned carriages and headdresses fine; white-haired, he withdrew to the clouds and pines.
Under the moon, he would be sage-struck and drunk; Loving nature, he would reject imperial service.
How could I admire this spirit, mountain-high? I hereby salute his virtue with a sigh.
 Carriages and headdresses – the accoutrements of an official, and the signs of bureaucracy.
 We don’t quite expect sages to be drunk (or to strike), but this is a literary reference. A scholar named Xu Miao of the Three Kingdoms Period (184 – 280 CE), who was quite into tippling, called clear liquor ‘sage’; to get smashed on clear liquor is therefore to be ‘sage-struck’.
 The sighing bit is actually not in the poem, but part of the poem’s context. Meng Haoran was already a well known poet before Li Bai, and one of Li’s stops on his wanderings was Jiangxia, Meng’s hometown. As it happened, though, Meng was on a trip himself, which is probably why Li wrote this slightly disappointed tribute instead of just getting smashed with his idol.
En Route to Jiangling (Jiangling is another city along the Yangtze, that superhighway of southern China)
This morning, amidst coloured clouds, we bade farewell to Baidi ;
In a day we are to Jiangling sped, carried down a thousand li .
The cries of apes along both banks hardly have time to subside,
But our light boat has passed those hills, and ten thousand more besides.
 Baidi City is a city in the east of what is modern-day Chongqing; it literally means White Emperor City after its founder, a man who claimed imperial title some six centuries before Li Bai’s day.
 Baidi is in modern-day Chongqing; Jiangling is way downriver, in modern-day Hubei. This downriver journey passes plenty of hilly terrain, and most importantly the Three Gorges.
I personally have no idea if one could make that journey in a day, but this line is a paraphrase from the Classic of Waters, an ancient Chinese river directory – which makes a statement about how fast the Yangtze flows at that early part of its course. (And these days it’s dammed. Sigh…)