Li He
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Li He

Li He Ming dynasty person CBDB = 327694

Ming dynasty person CBDB = 327694
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Ming dynasty person CBDB = 327694
Countries China
Gender male
The details

Li He (c. 790–791c. 816–817) was a Chinese poet of the mid-Tang dynasty. His courtesy name was Changji, and he is also known as Guicai and Shigui.

He was prevented from taking the imperial examination due to a naming taboo. He died very young, and was noted for his sickly appearance.

He was a diligent poet, going out on journeys during the day and, when a line of poetry came to him, scribbling it down, and completing the poems when he arrived home in the evening. His poems famously explored ghostly, supernatural and fantastic themes.

His popularity and place in the Chinese literary canon has fluctuated throughout the centuries. His idiosyncratic style of poetry was frequently imitated in China until the Qing era. During this era, the popularity of his poetry suffered from a change in literary tastes, with his works notably being excluded from the influential Three Hundred Tang Poems, but there was a revival of interest in him in the twentieth century. He was among the Tang poets most admired by Mao Zedong.



Chapter 137 of the Old Book of Tang and chapter 203 of the New Book of Tang each give a brief outline of the biography of Li He.

Li Shangyin, a poet of the following generation, also wrote a Short Biography of Li He. Du Mu, in 831, wrote a preface to Li's collected poems (Chinese: 李賀集敘; pinyin: Li He ji xu), which is more removed than the affectionate account written by Li Shangyin, but provides very little biographical information and is more focused on Li's appeal as a poet. Both the official histories are heavily dependent on these earlier records, particularly on Li Shangyin's account.


His family were of distant royal descent (from the Li family who were the ruling dynastic family of the Tang Dynasty), but his branch's fortunes had declined early on, and by Li He's time they were of low rank. Both the Tang state histories refer to him as a "descendant of Zheng Wang", but there is dispute as to the identity of Zheng Wang. The theory with more support among scholars is that it refers to Zheng Xiao Wang Liang (), an uncle of Li Yuan, the first Tang emperor; another theory is that it refers to the thirteenth son of Li Yuan, Zheng Wang Yuan Yi ().

Birth and early life

He was born in 790 or 791. It seems likely that he was born in the year of the Horse, as some twenty-three of his surviving poems use the horse as a symbol for the poet.

He was a native of Fuchang County (west of modern-day Yiyang County, Henan Province).

He started composing poetry at the age of 7, and by around 15 he was being compared to the yuefu master Li Yi.

Political career

When Li was 20, he attempted to take the Imperial Examination, but was forbidden from doing so because of a naming taboo: the first character (晉 jin) of his father's given name (晉肅 Jinsu) was a homonym of the first character (進) of Jinshi (進士), the name of the degree that would have been conferred on him had he passed. Ueki et al. (1999) speculate that this was a pretext devised by rivals, who were jealous of his poetic skill, to prevent him from sitting the examination.

Han Yu, who admired his poetry, wrote Hui Bian (諱弁) to encourage him to take the exam, but Li was ultimately unsuccessful. He served only three years, in the low-ranking office of Fenglilang (奉禮郎) before returning to his hometown.

Sickness and death

He is described as having a very sickly appearance: he was supposedly very thin, had a unibrow, and let his fingernails grow long. Li He died a low-ranking and poor official in 816 or 817, at the age of 26 or 27. The Short Biography of Li He reports that at the hour of his death he was visited by a figure in scarlet who told him that Shangdi had summoned him to heaven to write poetry.


His courtesy name was Changji, and he is also known by a combination of his surname and courtesy name, Li Changji.

He was also known as Guicai (鬼才 "devilish talent") by contrast of his morbid poetic style to Li Bai's Tiancai (天才 "heavenly talent") and Bai Juyi's Rencai (人才 "humanly talent"). This title was given him by the Song scholar Qian Yi () in his work Nanbu Xinshu ().

He was also dubbed the "Ghost of Poetry" (詩鬼), while Li Bai was called the "Immortal of Poetry" (詩仙) and Du Fu the "Sage of Poetry" (詩聖).


Collected Songs and Verses of Li He

In literary history, Li is generally considered a poet of the so-called Middle Tang period, which spanned the late-eighth and early-ninth centuries. Among his poetic influences were his older contemporary Meng Jiao and the aforementioned Han Yu. Other sources that have been identified as influencing Li's poetry were the shamanistic elements of the Chu Ci and the idiosyncratic poetry of Li Bai.

About 240 of his poems survive. The New Book of Tang reports that few of his poems survived because of their strangeness and because of Li's early death. An anecdote in the Taiping Guangji records that a cousin of Li's was asked to compile a collection of his poems, but because he did not like Li personally he eventually threw what had been collected in the privy.

There are two extant anthologies of his poems: the Collected Songs and Verses of Li He (simplified Chinese: 李贺歌诗篇; traditional Chinese: 李賀歌詩篇; pinyin: lǐ hè gē shī piān) and the Wai Ji (Chinese: 外集; pinyin: wài jí).

The Short Biography of Li He describes him as a diligent poet, who carried an old brocade bag around with him, and when a line of poetry came to him he would jot it down and put it in this bag. After getting home, he would arrange these lines into a poem.

His poetry is unique, filled with fantastic and unusual imagery, which is where he gets his nickname "Guicai" (see above). Virtually none of his surviving poems are in regulated verse form, and his poems make frequent use of inauspicious words such as "aging" (Chinese: ; pinyin: lǎo) and "death" (Chinese: ; pinyin: ). In poems like "Tianshang yao" and "Meng tian", he wrote evocatively of the worlds of gods and Buddhas.

Mèng Tiān
"Sky Dream"
English translation
lǎo tù hán chán qì tiān sè,
yún lóu bàn kāi bì xié bái.
yù lún yà lù shī tuán guāng,
luán pèi xiāng féng guì xiāng mò.
huáng chén qīng shuǐ sān shān xià,
gēng biàn qiān nián rú zǒu mǎ.
yáo wàng qí zhōu jiǔ diǎn yān,
yī hóng hǎi shuǐ bēi zhōng xiè.
A moon's old rabbit and cold toad weeping colors of sky,
lucent walls slant across through half-open cloud towers.
A jade-pure wheel squeezes dew into bulbs of wet light.
Phoenix waist jewels meet on cinnamon-scented paths.
Transformations of a thousand years gallop by like horses,
yellow dust soon seawater below changeless island peaks,
and all China seen so far off: it's just nine wisps of mist,
and the ocean's vast clarity a mere cup of spilled water.

He also gave eerie descriptions of the world of ghosts in his poems "Qiu lai" and "Shen xian qu". The spiritual symbolism Li employed in the latter poem has been called "nearly impenetrable".

"Shen xian qu" was the name of a popular folk song going back at least as far as the Six Dynasties period, and Li's poem borrows the name of this song. The song originated in the Nanjing area, as a ritual song meant to be played at religious ceremonies to invite the favour of the gods. Li's poem describes the supernatural world but this is not the case with the original folk song.

He frequently combined colour and feeling imagery in his poetry, as can be seen in his poems "Tianshang yao" (see above) and "Qin wang yin jiu".

Qín Wáng Yǐn Jiǔ
"The King of Qin Drinks Wine"
English translation
qín wáng qí hǔ yóu bā jí,
jiàn guāng zhào kōng tiān zì bì.
xī hé qiāo rì bō lí shēng,
jié huī fēi jìn gǔ jīn píng.
lóng tóu xiè jiǔ yāo jiǔ xīng,
jīn cáo pí pá yè chéng chéng.
dòng tíng yǔ jiǎo lái chuī shēng,
jiǔ hān hē yuè shǐ dǎo xíng.
yín yún zhì zhì yáo diàn míng,
gōng mén zhǎng shì bào yī gēng.
huā lóu yù fèng shēng jiāo níng,
hǎi xiāo hóng wén xiāng qiǎn qīng,
huáng é diē wǔ qiān nián gōng.
xiān rén zhú shù là yān qīng,
qīng qín zuì yǎn lèi hóng hóng.
The king of Qin tours the cosmos on tigerback,
his sword's glimmer illuminating the clear, blue heavens.
As Xihe whips the sun, glass is chiming;
ashes of the old world, burnt asunder, flit about; peace reigns eternal.
Drinking wine from a dragon-flask, he invites the god of wine to join him,
his gold-set pipa twanging dyang-dyang in the night.
The pitter-patter of the rain on Dongting Lake sounds like the blowing of a flute,
deep in his wine, the King shouts at the moon, causing it to change direction.
Silver clouds piled high, dawn comes to the bejeweled palace;
the doorman announces the coming of night.
In the flower palace, with its jade phoenixes, a woman's charming voice;
a robe made of merfolk's thread and decorated with a crimson pattern, tinged with a faint scent,
is worn by a yellow-robed serving girl who dances a dance of wishing for the king's reign to last a thousand years.
The candles burn light smoke;
the handmaiden's eyes well up with tears of purest water.

His poetic style was dubbed Changji-ti (simplified Chinese: 长吉体; traditional Chinese: 長吉體; pinyin: cháng jí tǐ) by later critics, after his courtesy name. The Song commentator Yan Yu listed this as one of the individual author-based styles of poetry that was frequently imitated.


Several modern western and Japanese critics, including A. C. Graham, Naotarō Kudō and J. D. Frodsham, have claimed that Li's poetry was not widely read until the modern era, but this is not entirely accurate. In a 1994 survey, Wu Qiming pointed out that Li was in premodern China more subject to imitation than to neglect.

Tang and Song dynasties

Two poets of the generation following Li He, Du Mu and Li Shangyin, commemorated Li in their prose writings: a preface to Li's collected poems and a short biography of Li, respectively. Du Mu's preface in particular is taken as proof that Li's poetry was being compiled and edited within a few decades of his death, as internal textual evidence dates the preface to 831. The Tang author Pi Rixiu also wrote about Li He's poetry alongside that of Li Bai in his critical work "Liu Zao Qiang Bei" (traditional Chinese: 劉棗強碑; simplified Chinese: 刘枣强碑; pinyin: liú zǎo qiáng bēi).

He was also one of a group of Tang poets frequently quoted in the lyrics of Song-era musicians such as Zhou Bangyan (1056–1121). Yan Yu, in his work Canglang Shihua, contrasted Li to the earlier poet Li Bai. The earliest surviving edition of Li's poetry was collected and annotated in the Southern Song dynasty.

Yuan and Ming dynasties

Many shi poets of the Yuan dynasty emulated Li's poetic style. These included Cheng Tinggui (成廷珪), Yang Weizhen, and Gu Ying (顧瑛), as well as the early Ming poet Gao Qi.

The Ming scholar Hu Yinglin read Li's poetry politically as "the tones of a ruined state" and recognized that Li's poetic style was especially influential during the latter years of various dynasties.

Qing dynasty

There was an upswing in popularity of Li's poetry from the late Ming to the mid-Qing dynasties. A great many newly annotated collections of Li's poetry appeared during this period, and his poetry was widely imitated. The scholar Wang Qi [zh] wrote a five-volume commentary on his poetry.

Around the mid-Qing dynasty, though, Li's poetry began to fall out of favour with the literary establishment. The anthologist Shen Deqian included a scant ten of Li's poems in his influential work Tangshi Biecai Ji [zh]. Shen was highly critical of his contemporaries' tendency to imitate Li's poetry. Li's poetry was also conspicuously absent from the Three Hundred Tang Poems, the arbiter of poetic tastes in the late Qing and early twentieth century.

Modern era

Along with Li Bai and Li Shangyin, Li He was one of the "Three Lis" (三李) admired by Mao Zedong. In 1968, Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd borrowed lines from Li's poetry to create the lyrics for the song "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun".

In his article on Li for the Chūgoku Bunkashi Daijiten, Japanese sinologist Kazuyuki Fukazawa called him "the representative poet of the Middle Tang". According to French sinologist François Jullien, Li He's poetry was readmitted to the Chinese literary canon "at the end of the nineteenth century ... [when] ... Western notions of romanticism [allowed] the Chinese to reexamine this poet, allowing the symbolism of his poems to speak at last, freeing his imaginary world from the never-ending quest for insinuations." Paul W. Kroll, in his chapter on Tang poetry for The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, called Li "[t]he most eccentric poet of the T'ang, perhaps in all of Chinese poetry", and dubbed him "the Chinese Mallarmé" for his almost inscrutable poetic style and use of imagery.

Works cited

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