In This Article Li Bai and Du Fu

  • Introduction
  • Li Bai and the Three Traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism)
  • Du Fu and the Three Traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism)
  • Du Fu as Inspiration
  • Li and Du as Inspiration

Chinese Studies Li Bai and Du Fu
by
Paula Varsano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0106

Introduction

The tradition of pairing poets—long a staple in the Chinese literary historical imagination—is something that has come and, for the most part, gone. Until recently, most people educated in the tradition would have no trouble reeling off a number of such pairs, some of them involving social connections, but all of them constructed to highlight either complementary or reinforcing sets of poetic aesthetics. Of all the poetic pairs that populate Chinese literary history, it is perhaps Li Bai 李白 (b. 701–d. 762, whose name is also transliterated as Li Po, Li Bo, and occasionally Li Taibai 李太白) and Du Fu 杜甫 (b. 712–d. 770) who form the most compelling one, not least because, from the beginning, theirs was uniquely conceived in evaluative terms; in the literary imagination they were, and remain, the Two Greatest Poets of the Tang—or even of China. Yet, as is inevitable when discussions turn to qualitative rankings, the pair as such became an object of contention. Inevitably, one or the other of the two poets would be construed as being “greater” than the other. From the earliest moment of their pairing, which we can date to the Middle Tang writings of Han Yu and Bai Juyi, there developed what we can rightly call the “Li-Du debate,” the terms of which became so deeply ingrained in the critical discourse surrounding these two poets that almost any characterization of the one implicitly critiqued the other. Remarkably, no argument attempting to reverse the terms or discredit this practice has quite succeeded in dissolving the cultural ties that bind Li Bai and Du Fu. The bibliography presented here is organized in three parts: the section devoted to Li Bai, the elder of the two, is first; Du Fu is next; and the Li Bai and Du Fu section is last. This organization encourages researchers to think of the poets separately before attempting to understand them as a pair. Still, notwithstanding this precaution, scholars will most certainly notice the chicken-and-egg genesis of much of the relevant critical terminology. Thus, it is advisable to consult the reception histories and surveys-of-the-field pertaining to both poets to have a fuller understanding of the scholarship pertaining to each.

Li Bai

Scholars have long lamented the relative paucity and superficiality of research into Li Bai’s work as compared to that devoted to Du Fu. This discrepancy is especially obvious when consulting scholarship in Chinese and Japanese but is less of an issue in English. Traditionally, in part because of the abundance of textual problems plaguing Li Bai’s corpus and the pervasive uncertainty surrounding fundamental biographical facts, the bulk of secondary scholarship in Chinese has focused on these two topics: textual authenticity and biography. In addition, the common aspiration to establish a firm connection between the historical Li Bai and the content and tenor of his work gave rise to a range of subfields, the most prominent of which include the poet’s biographical—including his ethnic—connection to the Turkic peoples of Inner Asia, his status as a Daoist practitioner, his drinking habits, his loyalty to the court (and lack thereof) and the justifiability of characterizing him as a “Romantic” poet. More recently, scholars in both China and the West have looked at more elusive questions of style and aesthetics, or have taken a step back and looked at the field of Li Bai studies itself, examining the influence of philosophical issues underpinning the history of the Li Bai critical tradition.

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