STARRED REVIEW
January 2019

Well Read: January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

STARRED REVIEW

Well Read: January 2019

January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

STARRED REVIEW
January 2019

Well Read: January 2019

January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

STARRED REVIEW
January 2019

Well Read: January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

STARRED REVIEW
January 2019

Well Read: January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

January 2019

Well Read: January 2019

American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

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American readers’ Western bias has left the Chinese poet Li Bai less well-known here than in his native land, where he is considered a foundational writer. The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai, a new biography of the poet by author Ha Jin (Waiting, The Boat Rocker), is a worthy corrective and an engaging introduction to the poet’s life and work. 

Considering that Bai (also known as Li Po) lived from 700-762 A.D., a surprising amount is known about his life, although much of that information is shrouded in inconsistencies, myths and questions with answers that are forever lost to time. Jin does an admirable job sorting the wheat from the chaff. He asserts that there are three versions of Bai: the actual man, the self-created image and the legend shaped by history and culture.

There is little information available about Bai’s childhood, but it is believed that his father was Han Chinese while his mother was from an ethnic minority tribe. This mixed parentage, Jin feels, allowed Bai room for self-invention. Bai’s father was a successful merchant in China’s western frontier, and he hoped his son would secure an influential government position. Bai had other ideas, however, and he spent much of his life traveling as a kind of minstrel, seeking Daoist enlightenment and composing poems, about a thousand of which survive today. Jin tells us that Bai had no strong feelings of attachment to any one place, and his rootlessness is central to much of his poetry. 

“As a constant traveler, his essence would exist in his endless wanderings and in his yearning for a higher order of existence,” Jin writes. “He was to roam through the central land as a miraculous figure of sorts, as people later fondly nicknamed him the Banished Immortal.”

Yet Bai had an earthy side—he drank freely, married numerous times and fathered children. He was a lover of women, but while he was the quintessential romantic poet, he did not seem to love any real woman with the level of passion that appears in his poems.

As Jin traces Bai’s lifelong journey, he provides a healthy sampling of poems, which are meditative and philosophical, often sensual, sometimes rapturous. Jin acknowledges that the perfection of the poems is frequently lost in translation (the original Chinese versions are also provided), but readers will still see why Bai’s poems have spoken for centuries to other poets (Ezra Pound’s loose translation of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is one of the modernist’s most famous poems) and readers alike.

The Banished Immortal is an affectionate and thoughtful portrait of a complicated man and a master poet. 

 

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage and has been modified from the print original which incorrectly attributed Li Bai's life to 700-762 B.C. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai
By Ha Jin
Pantheon

ISBN 9781524747411

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The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai

By Ha Jin
Pantheon
ISBN 9781524747411

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