Engulfing and Embracing the Vast Earth: Li Bai’s Cosmology in His “Ballad on the Sun Rising and Setting”*

Timothy W K Chan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Li Bai’s 李白 (701–762) character and poetic style are two main factors behind his contemporaries’ sobriquet of “the Banished Transcendent from Heaven” (Tianshang zhe xianren 天上謫仙人). The present essay discusses an aspect of the formation of his poetic style by probing into his cosmology. Making use of some findings of modern physics, we make an effort at reconstructing and examining the idea of “space-time” in pre-modern China. This theoretical framework offers new insights in the exegesis of our central text, Li’s “Ballad on the Sun Rising and Setting” (“Ri churu xing” 日出入行), with a focus on the poet’s unique treatment of the recurrent issue of how to deal with the passing of time and how one may transcend the unavoidable ageing process. Assimilating the tradition of “chasing after the sun” from before his time, Li poetically consolidates the proto-four-dimensional structure of time, a view that had long existed in traditional Chinese cosmology. Li’s references to the Zhuangzi in his poem construct a cosmos in which the earth itself can become elided, eliminating the distinction between time and space. Li’s pursuit of immortality can be achieved in this poetic discourse of space-time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-58
Number of pages29
JournalTang Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History

User-Defined Keywords

  • Li Bai
  • physics
  • space-time
  • transcendence
  • Zhuangzi


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