China’s beloved drunken poet died centuries ago—or did he?
Meet Li Hong Bin, a former accountant in Sichuan Province who believes he’s the reincarnation of the poet Li Bai.
Qinglian, Sichuan Province, ChinaLi Bai, the self-taught medieval genius, remains China’s abiding titan of classical poetry.
Born in 701, Li Bai famously began composing verse at age 10, trained as master swordsman in his teens (fatally dispatching several opponents in duels), and spent much of his Byronic life wandering the Chinese countryside seeking, with indifferent success, employment in various royal courts. He married multiple times. Inspired drunkenness became so vital to his literary method that he was inducted into a sodden group of Tang Dynasty scholars called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup." About a thousand of Li Bai’s poems survive still. They dazzle experts and Instagrammers alike with their striking imagery and doomed nostalgia. Hundreds of millions of Chinese schoolchildren memorize Li Bai’s stanzas unto this day. According to legend, the great bard perished, drowned at age 62, while tipsily trying to touch the moon’s reflection in the Yangtze River.
Li Hong Bin, a stocky and sad-faced 62-year-old former accountant, knows all these Li Bai factoids. Not because he is a merely another super-fan of China’s poetic idol. But because—to Li Hong Bin—it’s more or less autobiography. Li Hong Bin believes he is likely the living reincarnation of Li Bai.
“I’m confident of this,” said Li Hong Bin, hunched in a derelict souvenir kiosk that he’s restored as a hermit’s hut at the Li Bai Cultural Center, in Qinglian, the great poet’s childhood town in China’s western Sichuan province. “After 1,300 years, I’m the only poet living in Li Bai’s hometown who is still composing poetry. I even sign my work Li Bai.”
Li Hong Bin slapped a hank of rice paper onto his makeshift table. With barely suppressed emotion, he inked a line of calligraphy to fit the moment: “Be willing to give up everything—Buddha.”
As indeed, Li Hong Bin had.
He’d exchanged home, family, friends, and job to pursue his muse in a seven-foot-by-seven-foot booth next to a concrete parking lot in a town of strangers. He eked out his groceries by selling “maybe not so perfect” samples of calligraphy to tourist guesthouses. The guesthouse owners indulged him, with a grin, as “our own Li Bai.”
I’m walking across the world. Traversing continents afoot, it’s impossible not to cartwheel into poetry everywhere.
You can hear it in the songs of the Afar camel-men in desert Ethiopia. You see it in the quick finger clasps of lovers strolling blue-tiled Samarkand along Uzbekistan’s old Silk Road. Some countries, such as Georgia, are blessed in building more statues to their poets than to kings or warriors. In Kyrgyzstan, apprentice bards spend years committing a half-million-line national poem, the epic of Manas, to memory. Yet nowhere have I found poesy more embroidered into public life than in China.
In China births, marriages, and deaths are occasions for families to compose verse. Children learn ancient rhymes in their core curriculums. The doorways of city and village homes are flanked by good-luck couplets stenciled on red paper. An example: Red plum’s buds endure the snowy winter/Green willow’s catkin marks the new spring. Mao dabbled in versifying. And during last year’s draconian COVID-19 lockdowns in China, robotic dogs patrolled urban sidewalks barking protocols for social distancing—in rhyme. Still, an actual, full-time, working poet is a rare discovery anywhere.
“Maybe I’m a very small poet right now, but I’m still a poet,” admitted Li Hong Bin, who relied on a garden hose and bucket for his water supply. “As a poet in difficult times, it’s my responsibility to stand up. We sacrifice ourselves for the people. Just like Li Bai.”
Both Li Bais—original and reincarnated—knew sacrifice.
Born in Central Asia and raised in present-day Sichuan, the eighth-century grand poet had ricocheted through rebellion, civil war, and a declining Tang Empire. Emperor Xuanzong expelled Li Bai from the imperial court for yanking off his muddy boots in the royal presence. Later arrested for treason, the proto-beatnik was condemned to—though later recalled from—exile. Wandering the Yangtze Valley into rootless late middle age, one of Li Bai’s most famous poems drips weary melancholy:
Before my bed the moonlight glitters,
Like frost upon the ground.
I look up to the mountain moon,
Look down and think of home.
Li Hong Bin too had roamed China. After being laid off from a state-run sugar factory in the northeast following the tectonic reforms of the 1990s, he set out to find employment. His jobs devolved from accountant to insurance salesman to night guard. During a particularly hungry stint cleaning a Buddhist temple, he scratched out couplets for tourists for 20 yuan. (About $3.)
“I tried to sell my poems in the pedestrian tunnels under Tiananmen Square,” Li Hong Bin laughed. “Nobody bought them.”
Along the way, he began boring into Li Bai’s compositions. He felt those 13-century-old meters humming in his own bones and eventually washed up at his hero-poet’s youthful stomping grounds at Qinglian in 2006. Shortly after he’d occupied his peeling kiosk, which was built to peddle Li Bai gewgaws at the town’s sleepy Li Bai cultural park, his wife had served the divorce papers. There’d been a roadside fling and other regrets. He stays in contact with his two grown children via text messages on an antique dumb phone.
“I’m sure about following the footsteps of Li Bai, but other parts of my life were confused,” Li Hong Bin said. “I’m satisfied with where I am now, though. I cook. I sleep on the table. I write. It’s better than before, when I slept on the ground.”
Li Hong Bin took up a brush. He dabbed out another calligraphic axiom: “Strong morality can carry anything—Confucius.”
To reach Qinglian, I had trekked north from the megalopolis of Chengdu, through villages leveled and rebuilt since the apocalyptic quake of 2008. I had crossed warm, green rivers on footbridges where shūshu—old uncles—played aggressive checkers. This was late summer. The days were molten, and farmers had spread their corn to dry on the road verges. It was the sort of China that defies the global cartoon of robotic factory floors. It was a landscape that I imagined the primordial Li Bai being comfortable in. And I saw in Li Hong Bin an artist who cracked the musty stereotypes of eastern communalism and western individualist rebellion.
Before leaving to walk the old Shu roads to the north, I asked the reborn poet what he would do if his son took up his father’s arduous trade.
“He wouldn't do that,” Li Hong Bin snorted. “But if he did, I guess I’d say, ‘It’s okay, but finish your schooling first.’”