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Anna Shields: "Avatars of Li Bai: Northern Song Poetics and the Problem of Literary History"

2018 Hsiang Lecture in Chinese Poetry

This year’s Hsiang Lecture in Chinese Poetry was presented by Anna Shields, Professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. Her talk, “Avatars of Li Bai: Northern Song Poetics and the Problem of Literary History” delivered her findings on the multifaceted images of Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701–762) to an engaged audience at the Faculty Club on April 13th.  Professor Shields is known for her innovative research on the formation of the first collection of song lyrics in Crafting a Collection: The Cultural Contexts and Poetic Practice of the Collection from Among the Flowers (Huajian ji) and her recent ground-breaking book on literary friendship, One Who Knows Me: Friendship and Literary Culture in Mid-Tang China.

Professor Anna Shields, Princeton University, delivering “Avatars of Li Bai: Northern Song Poetics and the Problem of Literary History,” at the Faculty Club on April 13th. (Photo courtesy of Wanming Wang)

Prof. Shields' Hsiang lecture derived from her latest research on the reception and transmission of Tang poetry during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Drawing on a broad range of sources and analytical approaches, she illuminated the many ways Li Bai was retrospectively imagined during the Song dynasty in China, broadening our perspective of one of China’s most revered poets.

Song dynasty literati inherited inconsistent versions of Li Bai’s personality from Tang sources, which they sought to reconfigure according to the current dynasty’s vision of literary greatness. Well-known for anecdotes about his drunkenness, unconventional behavior, and controversial political implications, Li Bai’s persona proved problematic during the Song era, as literary excellence was increasingly equated with moral integrity, especially after the rise of the guwen (ancient prose) movement of the mid-11th century. Song literati thus sought to control the reading of Li Bai through various strategies, including careful selection of his poems for inclusion in collections and anthologies, re-interpretations of his poetic merit, and the formation of redemptive biographical accounts.

Song dynasty literati posthumously reconstructed Li Bai’s character according to the literary and moral values of the period.
Song literati reimagined the poet in creative and diverse ways. Whereas the scholarly monk Qisong (1007-1072) surprisingly envisioned Li Bai as a Confucian-minded social critic, his contemporary, the esteemed and influential scholar-official Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), emphasized Li Bai’s status as poet par excellence whose literary ability was endowed by Heaven. The Song dynasty’s most famous poet Su Shi (1037–1101) attempted to excuse Li Bai’s political association with the rebel leader Prince Yong, arguing that since Li Bai’s poetic excellence is necessarily indicative of an integral moral spirit, he could not have truly contested imperial authority. His brother Su Zhe (1039–1112) notably disagreed, contending that Li Bai’s poetry provides irrefutable evidence of his political miscalculations. The 11th century anthologist Song Minqiu (1019-1079) took a different approach, illustrating Li Bai’s broad literary genius through structural representation, by neatly categorizing the extensive range of genres the poet had mastered.

Professor Shields concluded her talk by noting that although Li Bai’s image has been increasingly homogenized since the Song dynasty, the biographical hermeneutic remains strong in Chinese scholarship and reception today, where the poet’s literary production is still considered a reliable window into his mind and moral character.

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