A striking aspect of the renowned Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762), who may be more familiar to readers of English translations of his poems as Li Po, is the multifaceted persona constructed for him by visual artists, writers, and performers over many centuries.1 Among generations of literary critics, historians, and lovers of Chinese poetry, Li Bai often vies with Du Fu (712-770) for acknowledgment as the greatest of Tang (618-906) poets, or the two men share this honor.2 Moreover, the period during which they lived, often called the High Tang (712-55), has long been acclaimed as a golden age for key types of Chinese poetry. In the English-speaking part of the world only William Shakespeare achieved comparably widespread and enduring literary renown, and even he has not been honored, as some Chinese poets were, as an exemplar of moral and spiritual cultivation. The present attempt to reconstruct but one dimension of Li Bai's persona suggests both the popularity of certain poets among many segments of Chinese society and also the diverse social and political functions served by the "personality" and "life" of such a literary giant.3
The prestige of poets and poetry in China is well known, yet the diverse cultural practices that have produced and maintained this privileged position have not yet been explored adequately. Art historians interested in the power of poetry in Chinese culture have tended to focus on the theory and practice of sophisticated interactions of painting and poetry.4 A few have enriched our understanding of the role of poems about famous poets or those written in autobiographical voices as loci classici for representations of certain bards by generations of painters and other artists.5 A great deal of work remains to be done in accurately identifying when portrayals of specific poets were intended in art objects and why such representations were made in a wide range of artistic media, from objects made for and sometimes by the elite to those produced for a wider social spectrum.
The present study is part of a larger historiography in which the objects and objectives of scholarly inquiry are changing. Although scholars continue to acknowledge the privileged status members of the Chinese elite accorded calligraphy and certain types of painting, many are beginning to recognize that insufficient attention has been given to other media and that this presents problems in reconstructing even a limited picture of visual culture in China, let alone something approximating its full scope. Comments recently made by Craig Clunas regarding the composition of a "true `visual culture' of Ming Dynasty China" apply to other periods as well. Such a history ideally would also deal "with clothes and buildings and with colour as a category . . . with the presentation of food and of self, and would engage fully with the visuality operative in the theatre and in street festivals, in ephemera such as lanterns and processional floats . . . ."6 Even the inclusive category of visual cultural is too confining for the present study. To understand the various functions that Li Bai's heroic image served over many centuries it is necessary to consider diverse arts. In the title I specify visual, dramatic, and literary arts solely to signal that these will be considered here, not because they are descriptive of truly distinct categories. Chinese musical dramas and operas have visual and literary components as well as aural ones, and some art objects appeal to multiple senses. In a discussion of art objects potentially inspired by both the performed and written versions of musical dramas and operas, it is important to note the potential of powerful sensory memories to enrich experiences of a given artwork. For example, when reading a text silently one sometimes may almost "hear" again the inflections of lines from a play or a recited poem that were especially well voiced, or in looking at a pictorial representation of a dramatic scene one may see it through a filter tinted by memories of powerful portrayals onstage. …