For a poet whose name is usually paired with Tu Fu's, and whose poetry ranks among the best ever written in China, surprisingly little can be definitively stated about Li Po. Early in life he was dubbed the "Banished Immortal" by admirers who argued that his genius was so far above the common herd that surely he was a being from another world exiled for a time on earth. Li Po did everything he could to foster this larger-than-life image, making it hard to separate fact from fiction. He was probably born in 701 in Central Asia, along the border of what is now Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union, though he spent his boyhood in southwest China. His family seem to have been traders, claiming descent from the Li's of Kansu province, which, if true, would make them distant relations of the T'ang royal family. The T'ang ruling house was of mixed Turkish and Chinese blood, and it is possible that Li Po was not Chinese. Two contemporaries claimed that he could compose in a foreign language, and there are hints in his verse that he was familiar with elements of Turkish culture, although that would not have been surprising for someone born in Central Asia regardless of ethnicity. His was a cosmopolitan age, with much activity along the trade routes between China and Persia. Whatever his origins, Li Po was schooled in Chinese language and culture. Although he became famous for his excessive drinking and un-Confucian behavior, his debauchery did not particularly distinguish him from many of his bona fide Chinese companions, who looked upon drunkenness as a state of sublime receptivity to poetic inspiration. It may be possible, as Elling Eide has suggested, that a double stigma ("barbarian" and "merchant class") may account for his failure to take the civil service examinations. Later, Chinese scholars claimed that he was too impulsive or lacking in self-discipline to endure the necessary examination preparation, but that contradicts the evidence in his works that he was well read and fond of study. More important, it fails to account for Li Po's own words; he reveals, for example, intense disappointment in an allegorical poem entitled "Song of the Heavenly Horse," which seems in many details suspiciously autobiographical. It may be that what Li Po lacked was not the appetite for power, but the personality necessary for politics. He was presented to Emperor Hsuan-tsung, who was sufficiently impressed to give him a position in the Hanlin Academy, but he lost it to court intrigues after only a year or two. Then in 755, when the An Lushan rebellion rocked the dynasty, he sided with Prince Yung, who was eventually found guilty of treason. Whatever his personal anguish, Li Po seems to have been completely convincing in the pose of the romantic poet and to have dazzled his contemporaries, who describe his flashing eyes, piercing voice, and poems, dashed off at electrifying speed. Tu Fu, for one, held him in considerable awe. Yet there is undoubtedly a complex character behind the flashy facade. Though first struck by the soaring spirit and unbridled imagination of his poems, one eventually discovers that they are actually very intricately patterned, with painstaking attention to rhythm and internal rhyme, and studded with allusions yielding multiple levels of meaning. A very high level of artistry masquerades as effortlessness. Traditionally, scholars have believed that Li died in late 762, since his kinsman wrote in a preface at that time that he was ailing, and there are no notices dated after that. Legend, however, has it that he actually died from drowning, falling drunk from a boat in a futile effort to embrace a reflection of the moon. Li Po would no doubt prefer the latter story, and it seems an apt metaphor for the life of a man whose reach always seemed to exceed his grasp.
As Irving Lo has written of him in Sunflower Splendor: "Certainly no Chinese writer has mirrored in his work more completely the world he lives in than Tu Fu. Nor has anyone revealed himself with greater passion and candor, or displayed a greater dedication to his craft, or achieved such consummate mastery of his art." Lo's words echo what the Chinese have felt about this writer for more than 10 centuries, for he is revered as the finest poet China has ever produced. Tu Fu truly is outstanding for his humility, his passion, his social concern, and his extraordinary experimentations with the shih form. Though he never passed the official examinations and held only minor posts, he wrote prolifically of his patriotic concern for the nation's welfare and his own search for the most suitable way to be true to himself and to serve society. He had the misfortune of living just as the T'ang dynasty was reeling under the great challenge of the An Lu-shan Rebellion. As a result, he spent some of his best years away from his beloved capital of Ch'ang-an seeking refuge from the incessant warfare and resulting social dislocations in the north. Two of his most moving ballads in the folk style are narrative accounts, one of meeting soldiers on the road, and the other of meeting an abandoned imperial prince on a crossroads near the capital after the emperor and his entourage have fled to the southwest. Tu Fu's poetry is complex, polished, and emotionally powerful. One of his poems contains the line "If my words don't startle people, I won't rest even in death."
Li Ho has gone down in Chinese literary history as the "ghostly genius," and, because the Chinese have always believed that literary style and character are intimately related, the man himself has disappeared behind the body of legend that has grown up around him. Only about a generation after the poet's death, Li Shang-yin began the myth-making process with his short biographical account, swearing that Li Ho's sister saw a supernatural being, dressed in purple and driving a red dragon, appear at his deathbed and summon him to Heaven where the Heavenly Emperor needed him to write verses for his newly constructed White Jade Tower. From stories such as this, we can get some feel for the effects that his poetry produced on imaginative readers. In truth, he died at 26, probably from tuberculosis. Though a scion of the T'ang royal family, he was from a minor branch far removed from power and influence, and grew up in humble circumstances not far from the secondary capital of Loyang. His father had a modest career in government but died when Li Ho was young, and Li Ho's poems often speak of poverty and his anxiety over his widowed mother and younger brother. Despite these constraints, Li Ho anticipated a brilliant career. Not only was he extraordinarily gifted, but he had succeeded in winning the patronage of Han Yu, an eminent literary man known for his ability to advance the careers of promising young men. But fate intervened. Li Ho was denied permission to take the examinations, on the pretext that the first syllable of the word for metropolitan examination (chin-shih) had the same sound as the first syllable of his father's name (Chin-su). Since it was taboo to speak or write one's father's name, he was declared ineligible. Though Han Yu wrote a forceful essay in his defense, the ruling stood, and Li Ho was barred from ever reaching high office. He eventually swallowed his pride and took a lowly position in the Court of Imperial Sacrifices as nothing more than a glorified usher. Li Ho's fame as a poet and songwriter gained him many invitations to outings with the aristocracy, and he quickly acquired a taste for high living and expensive women. His poems written in the capital are full of sensuous descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and the sumptuous chambers of high-class courtesans. His meager income couldn't support such a lifestyle, and after three years, poor and totally discouraged, he resigned his position and returned home. By then, he was already suffering from the illness that would eventually take his life. After a short recuperation, Li Ho, like many other young men disappointed in the pursuit of a civil career, tried a military route, offering his services to General Hsi Shih-mei, who was waging a protracted battle against a rebel army in Shansi. It is unclear how much warfare Li Ho actually saw while on the general's staff, but he wrote some powerful and evocative poems on the terrors, hardships, and loneliness of war. Li Ho's military adventure lasted only two years. In 816, weak, emaciated, and plagued by high fevers, he was forced to give up his post and return home, where he soon died. Li Ho has been called the Chinese Baudelaire. His poetry has a similar brooding voluptuousness, and decadent aestheticism, and like Baudelaire, he pioneered a new structuring of verse that relied more on psychological resonances between images than on logical argument. His extraordinary ability to express emotion, solely through objective correlative, helped to foster the late T'ang and Sung aesthetic ideal of "fusion of emotion and scene." In the twentieth century, his poetry enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the West and Japan because of his uncanny affinities with French Symbolist poetry; and in China because he was greatly admired by Mao Tse-tung.
Li Shang-yin was born in Huo-chia, Honan, where his father served as magistrate. His family claimed, somewhat questionably, to be descended from the same Li clan as the T'ang royal family; but, at any rate, they were of modest means and little influence by the time the poet was born. Though he passed the metropolitan examinations on his second try and married into a rather rich and influential family, Li's public career was undistinguished under military governors in several different parts of China. This was due partly to bad luck and partly to his impolitic outbursts at unfortunate moments. It is said that, when his name appeared on the list of candidates eligible for appointment, someone remarked, "This man is intolerable---remove him!" By this time, his satirical poems had already circulated around the capital. He had too strong a sense of justice for the amoral times in which he lived. Li's contemporaries admired, above all, his skillful prose; and he spent a great deal of his career ghost-writing for superiors who lacked his gifts. But it is his poetry that has secured his place in Chinese literary history, and we can now see that his rich imagery and sentimental themes had a considerable impact on later writers. Like Li Ho, he showed a propensity for dense allusion and symbolic expression, with the result that much of his best poetry is characterized by extreme ambiguity. Chinese commentators have always sought to discover allegory. Some have interpreted it as veiled political criticism, others, as hints to his patron to better employ his talents; and yet others, as love poetry written to forbidden women, such as Taoist nuns and palace ladies. Whatever the initial inspirations may have been, when we read them, we enter a world that James Liu describes as "rich in its sensuous allure, intense in its emotional impact, and profound in its intellectual implications."