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The Banished Immortal

A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
By: Ha Jin
Narrated by: David Shih
Length: 10 hrs and 12 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (7 ratings)
Regular price: $28.00
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Publisher's Summary

From the National Book Award-winning author of Waiting: a narratively driven, deeply human biography of the Tang dynasty poet Li Bai - also known as Li Po.

In his own time (701-762), Li Bai's poems - shaped by Daoist thought and characterized by their passion, romance, and lust for life - were never given their proper due by the official literary gatekeepers. Nonetheless, his lines rang out on the lips of court entertainers, tavern singers, soldiers, and writers throughout the Tang dynasty, and his deep desire for a higher, more perfect world gave rise to his nickname, the Banished Immortal. Today, Bai's verses are still taught to China's schoolchildren and recited at parties and toasts; they remain an inextricable part of the Chinese language.

With the instincts of a master novelist, Ha Jin draws on a wide range of historical and literary sources to weave the great poet's life story. He follows Bai from his origins on the Western frontier to his ramblings travels as a young man, which were filled with filled with striving but also with merry abandon, as he raised cups of wine with friends and fellow poets. Ha Jin also takes us through the poet's later years - in which he became swept up in a military rebellion that altered the course of China's history - and the mysterious circumstances of his death, which are surrounded by legend.

The Banished Immortal is an extraordinary portrait of a poet who both transcended his time and was shaped by it and whose ability to live, love, and mourn without reservation produced some of the most enduring verses.

©2019 Ha Jin (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“The Tang-dynasty poet Li Bai, one of the most revered figures in Chinese literature, was torn between his ambition to become a great statesman and his Daoist aspiration to live a hermetic life. In this biography, the novelist Ha Jin tells Li’s story with insight and empathy. Born in 701, the son of a merchant, Li spent his life travelling in search of patrons to sponsor his political career and divine beings to help him transcend earthly knowledge. Instead, he met laborers ferrying goods along steep trails, young women waiting years for their betrotheds to return from mercantile expeditions, heroic soldiers stationed in the far north and forgotten by the court. Capturing such intimate longing and pain in his poems secured for Li the immortality denied him by politics and religion.” (The New Yorker)

“Ha Jin’s masterful style and deep affection for his subject make the book a pleasure to read - especially for those unfamiliar with Li Bai or Chinese poetry in general... The Banished Immortal liberally quotes Bai’s work, sometimes reproducing complete poems in translation to show the depth of his imagery and style. A number of readers will pick up this book knowing its author but not Li Bai, and Ha Jin makes sure they see Bai’s prodigious talent. Newcomers will be swept up in Bai’s personal history while fans of his work will enjoy Ha Jin’s own take on the man and his influence.” (Shelf Awareness, starred review)   

“In China Li Po remains the bard of the land, if not the world - a most recognizable global brand, second only, perhaps, to Confucius. As with any cultural icon, beneath the shining veneer must lie untold stories, apocryphal or otherwise. In The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po), the National Book Award-winning author Ha Jin has excavated historical records and examined existing biographies, both in Chinese and English, to produce a rich, moving and titillating account of the poet’s life.... The Banished Immortal is a deeply empathetic portrait of a literary genius whose vicissitudes in life - filled with ambitions, frailties, losses and pains - would pale a Shakespearean drama.... Today, when power-grabbing politicians look out for themselves rather than the public, as they did in Li Po’s time, poetry has a herculean cleaning job to do. By giving us this mesmerizing biography, Ha Jin, who began his writing career as a poet and whose lucid narrative always contains a touch of poetry, sounds a warning gong for our troubled age.” (Yunte Huang, The Wall Street Journal)

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Bold and unstoppable, like an overflowing river

The 8th Century poet Li Bai is regarded in China as one of the all-time greats. He is presented here as a force of nature, a charismatic, “free-spirited and unbound” Taoist, who was also an excellent calligrapher and swordsman. Tragically, he spent much of his life struggling to earn a position as an official in a government plagued by intrigue. He was spontaneous, impulsive, irreverent -- everything that was frowned upon in the rigid, bureaucratic structure of that milieu. A flawed hero, he would sometimes come across as arrogant and was often drunk. Yet, he was appreciated as a genius for the inventiveness, immediacy and passion of his poetry:

“Lotus flowers come out of limpid water, / Natural, without any decoration.”

“Bright moonlight comes in straightaway, not allowing the mind to guess.”

This biograhy feels elegant and light, and reads almost like a children’s tale. It would transport me to the Tang dynasty and provide me with a welcome retreat from all the noise of modern day life. Narrator David Shih’s voice is serene and has just the right touch of innocence. (I’m glad that he can speak Chinese. He pronounces proper nouns — such as names of people or places — neutrally, but he uses the tones when he reads certain phrases that refer to Chinese concepts.)

I’m grateful for this audiobook. I got it based on a short article about it in the New York Times and it turned out to be a great find.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Exquisite balance

A remarkable balance of history, information and storytelling. Enhanced greatly by the sensitive, intelligent narration. What a joy to listen to! Like a erudite fairy tale as another reviewer has written.