Li Bai, or who is Li Po?

The Poet 李白 Li Bai.

(Known in the west as Li Po, mostly, and also as Li T’ai Po, Li Bo, and Rihaku).

Please note that I am a firm believer in the use of the real name of Poets, and if that means learning how to use the poet’s own language to write that name, then I try to do so. In this case, the Chinese characters are the name of the person we are discussing, and all the rest are western approximations. Most citations in America and Europe refer to this Poet as Li Po, but that is not a name ever used by him or the Chinese People, so I am engaged in a campaign to change that, to have westerners call him Li Bai, which is much closer to his name than any other western spelling or pronunciation.

The particular spelling, Li Bai, is from the use of Pinyin, which is the latest, and some people think, one of the best ways of transliterating Chinese words into western languages. Pinyin uses the pronunciations of the dominant Mandarin dialect of the Beijing area, which is the Chinese that is taught and used in all schools and universities in China.

As discussed below, there is a Japanese transliteration of these characters, sometimes spelled Rihaku, which I spell as Rihyaku. This may seem a minor change, but it is more accurate, and conforms to the Japanese transliteration standard called Romaji.

It should be noted that this is not a criticism of the European scholars, especially the Jesuit scholars and the British Wade and Giles, who first set about standardizing Chinese and Japanese transliteration for westerners. But times change, and we can learn to change with them.

The names of the Poet 李白 Li Bai.

The poet known in the west as Li Po, or Li T’ai Po, and sometimes called Rihaku, is called 李白 Li Bai throughout China, which is the correct pronunciation of his name in both Mandarin and Cantonese. The Chinese poets and scholars refer to him as Li Bo, however, using a classical, honorific pronunciation of the characters of his name 李白 (reading it Li Bo instead of Li Bai), assigned to him as a famous Poet.

The honorific pronunciation comes from Classical Chinese, which is the court language used from 500 BCE to 220 CE, and was used to provide special pronunciations for famous names or manuscripts throughout Chinese history, even into the twentieth century. The Classical Chinese pronunciation of the Li Bai characters is Li Bo. Nineteenth Century British translators, using the Wade-Giles system of romanizing Chinese, referred to him as Li Po.

In addition, Li Bai received a coming of age name, called a Zi name, when he was twenty; 太白 Tai Bai. Usage in Chinese is to call the person by either one or the other of these names, where Li Bai is for friends and family, and Tai Bai is for persons who are less intimate with the poet. The British then added what they thought was the non-redundant part Tai of Tai Bai, to create the Western name of Li Tai Po. The British scholars also added the apostrophe, to indicate what they thought would be a closer approximation of the tone. So western writers refered to the poet occasionally as Li T’ai Po.

The other name of Li Bai came from the Japanese. Classical Japanese scholars read the same famous texts as the Chinese, including Confucious, Buddha, and Li Bai. The Japanese pronunciation of the two characters for Li Bai 李白 is Ri Hyaku, which the British romanized as Ri Haku. Ezra Pound took his translations from the Japanese translations, naming the poet Rihaku.

Thus, there is a similar situation at the end of Ezra Pound’s translation of the Song of Chang An (called by Pound “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”), where the young wife says she will go as far as Cho Fu Sa. There is no place name in China called Cho Fu Sa. This is the Japanese pronunciation of the place name identified by three Chinese Characters at the end of the poem, 長風沙, and pronounced Chang Feng Sha in Chinese.

Li Bai was also given the Honorable Name 詩仙 Shi Xian, meaning Immortal Poet, or The God of Poets, by the T’ang Emperor. He is the only poet with that distinction.

Li Bai is known in the West partly due to Ezra Pound’s versions of some of his poems in Cathay. Gustav Mahler used seven Chinese poems (four from Li Bai, 3 from other poets), in the “song-symphony” Das Lied von der Erde. These were part of a German translation by Hans Begthe, published in an anthology called Die Chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute), that originally came from a French translation of a number of the poems. And, many of his poems were tranlated by Witter Byner for the anthology 300 Tang Poems. Since then, many, many poets have translated or interpreted Li Bai into English: of particular note is the American Poet, Sam Hamill.

The Chinese worked very hard to have a crater on the planet Mercury named after Li Bai. He is the most important Poet in their culture, and it is hard to explain this to westerners. The best I have seen is a web entry written by a person called “Sukey from Flushing.” Here is part of it. The entire entry may be read at:

“Li Bai’s poems are varied. He wrote poems about the beautiful landscapes he saw in China. He wrote poems about people in the scenes which touched his heart. He expressed his feelings through the fantastic words in his poems. His poems are easy to understand with rhyming, alliteration and assonance, and beautiful imagery. All people love his poems.”

“Even today people still read his poems, not only adults, but children too. In Chinese schools kids start to learn his poems when they are in the elementary grades. Li Bai is an important figure to the language of Chinese and to his people. He is just as important as William Shakespeare to the language of English.”

“Li Bai and his poetry are one part of Chinese people’s education because people really like his poems. They respect him as the “God of Poets.” His poems will be taught in the future for hundreds of thousands of years.”

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4 Responses to Li Bai, or who is Li Po?

  1. aellebi says:

    Dear Dragon Poet, at first sight the two 汉字 in Li Bai 李白 (there aren’t any tones marked on the PinYin script, even if I think I know the second one’s, bái, and, to it write correctly, I had to start
    my Japanese word processor, in addition to having the Win XP IME installed, both for Japanese – which I know better – and Chinese – which I’m still learning the basics of ), should mean
    ‘White Plum’. Am I completely wrong?
    As for what you write about leaving as much as possible the original nicks and names, thus maybe fostering the learning of different languages, I completely agree with you.
    As a matter of fact, as a “proudly submerged” ;o) Italian CReActor, and also a poet, I think that one of the main missions of true poetry, or better, of true poets, is that of powerfully stimulating
    and coming from, the autenthiticy.
    Of language.
    Of behaviours.
    Of people.
    Of cultures.
    Only in this way it can be a strong, nice, useful vehicle to get to really strong, nice, useful – sustainable – interculture relationships.

    Alberto,
    from little big Italy.
    aellebi@alice.it.
    (By the way, I’ve started this morning to build one of the three biggest project of mine: ‘Boat People’, which ‘The Dragoon’s Kiss will be the Italo-Chinese division.)
    http://boatpeople.wordpress.com.
    Sorry, I’ve still to translate my profile in English and other languages.

  2. dragonpoet says:

    Yes, Dear Alberto, and other readers,

    The Hanzi (汉字) characters for Li Bai (李白) also express the meaning of White Plum Blossom. However, when writing this, the character for flower is added, 李白花 to actually mean a white plum blossom instead of a person’s name.

    The characters for a white lotus flower are 白荷花.

    Thank you for the interesting question and website.

    Arrivederci!

  3. Clartedubois says:

    I suppose it is very difficult for me to know what is the value of the French translation.
    The tittle of the book is Ivre de Tao.
    Li Po (sorry, but don’t forget that we pronounce it so differently,Dragon, and this is something I had in mind all this time)
    voyageur, poète, et philososphe en Chine, au VIII siècle (one more discrepancy…)
    Daniel Giraud.
    He choose for Wade despite boring (his word) Pinyin.
    But he too says he is considered as the greater Chinese poet.
    He compares him to Rimbaud and believe me for the Frenchies nobody equals
    Rimbaud…
    As I am only a nurse, not at all a scholar, I ask my self if French as a language is able to give back in the least what it is about…

  4. joey_g says:

    this one post very good. i enjoy very much!

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