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‘The Banished Immortal’

An animated blockbuster brings to life some of the most iconic figures in Chinese literary history and has revived interest in a Tang Dynasty poet whose name evokes legends

By Lü Weitao , Zhang Jin Updated Oct.1

Li Bai depicted in his youth, middle age and old age in movie Chang An

Amid this summer’s scorching heat waves and raging typhoons, a Chinese animated film heated up the box office. Unexpected blockbuster Chang An raked in more than 1.7 billion yuan (US$234m) since its release on July 8. The animated feature earned a rating of 8.1 out of 10 on Douban, China’s largest media review platforms.  

The movie draws inspiration from the most celebrated poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the most prosperous eras of Chinese history. At its largest, the empire stretched from the entirety of China’s prosperous east to a corridor along the Silk Road stretching into what is today’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  

Chang’an was the name of the ancient Tang capital, now Xi’an in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province. In its heyday, it was one of the largest and richest cities in the world.  

The 168-minute film zooms in on the decades-long friendship between Li Bai, arguably China’s most famous poet, and Gao Shi, a military general and renowned poet in his own right, amid the Tang’s slow transition from prosperity to decline during the mid-8th century.  

Chang An also spotlights some of Li’s most famous contemporaries, including poets Du Fu and Wang Wei, calligrapher Zhang Xu and palace musician Li Guinian, as well as members of the imperial family such as Princess Yuzhen, a celebrated patron of the arts.  

The film not only won praise for seamlessly weaving 48 well-known Tang poems into its plot, but also for reviving interest in classical Chinese literature. Media reports from theaters across the country described how school children recited the poems aloud as they watched the film, their parents explaining the plot as it unfolded.  

Renowned Australian translator and writer Linda Jaivin assisted with the English subtitles of the film to convey the beauty and cultural context of the Tang poetry. With decades of experience in Chinese translation, Jaivin’s work in cinema includes subtitling Farewell My Concubine, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. 

Wandering Soul 
Considered the golden age of Chinese poetry, more than 50,000 Tang poems have survive, composed by some 2,000 poets. Li Bai, credited with around 1,100 poems, as well as Du Fu, are considered the two greatest poets of Chinese literary history.  

Li’s poetry is celebrated for its unrestrained imagination and conversational tone. His influence even resonates in Western culture, including Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s integration of four of his poems into his monumental orchestral work The Song of the Earth(1908), and American poet Ezra Pound’s translation of his poems in the collection Cathay (1915), which is lauded for introducing Li to the greater Anglosphere.  

However, the work of celebrated Chinese translator Xu Yuanchong (1921- 2021) captures the meter and rhyme of Li in English like no other. This article features his translations.  

Wine and the moon are the two motifs featured prominently in Li’s poems. In one of Chang An’s most memorable scenes, Li recites his seminal work “Invitation to Wine” as he stands with friends by the roaring Yellow River, then soars into the sky on the back of a crane.  

Li was born in 701 to a wealthy merchant family in present-day Kyrgyzstan. According to legend, when his mother was pregnant with him, she dreamed of a white star falling from heaven. This partially gave rise to the myth that he was a “banished immortal,” which later became his nickname.  

When Li was four years old, the family moved to Qinglian, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. He grew up reading Chinese classics and practiced horseback riding and fencing. According to legend, Li wrote his first poems at 10 years old. However, the boy was not a hardworking student and tended to spend most of his time outdoors.  

Some folk legends surrounding Li’s early life are preserved as Chinese idioms. Among the most well-known today is the “rod and needle” story: One day while roaming around, Li saw an old woman in front of a straw-thatched hut, grinding an iron rod on a big stone. When asked why, she said she was fashioning it into a needle. Li laughed, thinking the old woman had lost her mind. But the old woman admonished him, saying, “Don’t laugh young man. As long as I keep grinding, I will make a fine needle out of this coarse rod someday.”  

Li pondered her words. After that, he became a very dedicated student and paid undivided attention to his studies. Over the years, the story gave rise to the Chinese idiom “with sufficient time and effort, you can grind an iron rod into a needle.”  

As an adult, Li Bai set his sights on a career in politics. But his merchant family background was an insurmountable obstacle. In Confucian society, merchants were a lowly caste and not allowed to sit the imperial examination, the gateway to officialdom and social mobility. Instead, Li took another tack. He would pass his writings to powerful officials seeking their patronage, a practice known as “passing the scroll.” But young Li had no takers.  

Instead, Li left home at 24 to travel, financed by a substantial amount of money his father left him after he died. Li sailed down the Yangtze River all the way to present-day Yangzhou and Nanjing in East China’s Jiangsu Province. During his travels, he associated with many famous people and spent extravagantly on entertaining friends. He was still trying to secure a patron, but eventually burned through all his money and had to return home. To express his nostalgia for this period, he wrote the masterpiece “A Tranquil Night”:  
Abed, I see a silver light,  
I wonder if it’s frost aground.  
Looking up, I find the moon bright;  
Bowing, in homesickness I’m drowned.  
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong) 

Rivals and Rebels
Twenty years later in 742, Li finally found a patron. Through a well-connected friend, Li presented his writings to Emperor Xuanzong in Chang’an. The emperor took a great personal liking to Li, and granted him a position at the Hanlin Academy, an elite institution that provided the court with scholarly and literary services.  

During his time in Xuanzong’s service, Li wrote many poems complimenting the beauty of the emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Guifei. But in a drunken gaffe, he asked the court’s most powerful eunuch, Gao Lishi, to help remove his boots in front of the emperor. Gao was furious. In revenge, Gao persuaded Yang Guifei to take offense at Li Bai’s poems about her. Emperor Xuanzong dismissed Li from the imperial court in 744, but not without a generous severance of gold and silver.  

After leaving Chang’an, Li found religion. A student of Taoism since his youth, Li officially became a Taoist after enduring a physically challenging ritual witnessed by friends. In the autumn of that year, he met the poet Du Fu. The two connected over a shared love of poetry and wine, and lived together for a time.  

It was through Du Fu that Li met Gao Shi, the co-star of Chang An. While the decades-long friendship between Li and Gao began in their 40s, Chang An takes a liberty by portraying the two meeting in their 20s, perhaps to maintain the interest of younger moviegoers. For the next 10 years, Li continued to travel the country, writing poems and meeting with friends along the way. It was during this period that he penned the timeless classic “Invitation to Wine”:  
Do you not see the Yellow River come from the sky,  
Rushing into the sea and never come back?  
Do you not see the mirrors bright in chambers high,  
Grieve over your snow-white hair though once it was silk-black?  
When hopes are won, oh! Drink your fill in high delight,  
And never leave your wine-cup empty in moonlight!  
Heaven has made us talents, we’re not made in vain.  
A thousand gold coins spent, more will turn up again.  
Kill a cow, cook a sheep and let us merry be,  
And drink three hundred cupfuls of wine in high glee.  
Dear friends of mine,  
Cheer up, cheer up!  
I invite you to wine.  
Do not put down your cup!  
I will sing you a song, please hear,  
O hear! lend me a willing ear!  
What difference will rare and costly dishes make?  
I only want to get drunk and never to wake.  
How many great men were forgotten through the ages?  
But great drinkers are more famous than sober sages.  
The Prince of Poets feasted in his palace at will,  
Drank wine at ten thousand a cask and laughed his fill.  
A host should not complain of money he is short,  
To drink with you I will sell things of any sort.  
My fur coat worth a thousand coins of gold  
And my flower-dappled horse may be sold  
To buy good wine that we may drown the woe age-old.  
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong)  

But the good times would not last. In 755, the An Lushan Rebellion erupted. An Lushan, a Tang general, declared himself emperor in northern China by establishing the short-lived Yan Dynasty (755-763) and even seized the capital Chang’an for a time.  

Though eventually quashed, the rebellion, which spanned eight years and the reigns of three Tang emperors, shook the most glorious empire in Chinese history to its core.  

During the chaos, Emperor Xuanzong’s 16th son, Prince Yong, made an attempt to occupy regions south of the Yangtze River. Seeing his chance to fulfill his political aspirations, Li joined the prince to become his poet laureate. But the prince was accused of treason in 756 and executed the following year. Accused of guilt by association, Li was arrested and imprisoned. 
In 758, Li was exiled to Yelang, a city on the western fringes of the Tang empire in present-day Guizhou Province. He stopped for prolonged visits with friends on the way, leaving poems with detailed descriptions of his long journey.  

Meanwhile, things were not going so well back in Chang’an. The empire was suffering from a severe drought that threatened the Tang’s grip on power. Emperor Suzong, who reigned from 756-762, offered general amnesty for all convicts. This was a protocol among emperors during natural disasters, as it was believed the act of mercy would curry blessings from heaven.  

Li was pardoned before he arrived in Yelang. Regardless of whether the emperor’s order pleased the heavens, Li was elated by the news, and composed the poem “Leaving the White Emperor City at Dawn” to express his joy in returning home:  
Leaving at dawn the White Emperor crowned with rainbow cloud,  
I have sailed a thousand miles through Three Georges in a day.  
With monkeys’ sad adieus the riverbanks are loud,  
My boat has left ten thousand mountains far away.  
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong)  

Li eventually made his way to Dangtu, now Dangtu County, East China’s Anhui Province, to live with a relative, where he passed away in 762. He was 61. Legend has it he drowned in the Yangtze River, falling from his boat while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection – while drunk, of course.  

In a final bit of irony, Li realized his political ambitions in death. The next emperor, Daizong, issued a decree in 764 appointing him as his counselor, unaware that Li had already been dead for two years.  

Li lived as he wrote – unbridled. He married four times. His first and third wife died, he left the second one, and was separated with his last wife during exile, never to see her again. He had altogether two sons and one daughter with the first wife and the third wife, but never settled down to raise them. He came from wealth, but preferred life as a vagabond. He gambled in politics, and always fell on the losing side.  

His poetry reflects this undulating spirit: he can be lyrical or descriptive, wildly celebratory or somber and self-reflective. It is these contrasts, and the universal emotions he so elegantly captured in a wine cup, that make his poetry immortal.

A depiction of Li Bai by Liang Kai, a painter in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

White Emperor City, an ancient scenic spot in Chongqing, mentioned in Li Bai’s poem “Leaving the White Emperor City at Dawn” (Photo by VCG)