Why Is the Chinese Poet Li He Called the Poet Ghost?

by Amy
Li He

Li He (790–816 AD), one of the most enigmatic figures in Chinese literature, is often referred to as the Poet Ghost” or “Poet Devil” (詩鬼, shī guǐ). This moniker not only reflects his unique poetic style but also the mysterious and otherworldly aura that surrounds his life and work. In this article, we will delve into the reasons why Li He earned this haunting epithet, examining his life, literary contributions, and the cultural context that shaped his reputation.

Li He’s Life and Times

Early Life and Background

Li He was born into an aristocratic family in Changgu County, Yanzhou, during the late Tang Dynasty, a period marked by both cultural flourishing and political turmoil. His family boasted a long tradition of scholarly achievement, which deeply influenced Li He’s upbringing. However, his life was also marked by personal and familial hardships, including the early death of his father, which forced him to take on responsibilities at a young age.

From a young age, Li He displayed an exceptional talent for poetry, composing intricate verses that captivated those around him. Despite his literary gifts, his career was hampered by poor health and political misfortune. Li He was often sick, suffering from what is believed to have been a combination of respiratory and gastrointestinal issues, which contributed to his untimely death at the age of 26.

Struggles and Political Misfortunes

Li He’s ambitions for an official career were thwarted by various obstacles. One significant setback was his inability to pass the imperial examinations, a common route to officialdom for scholars during the Tang Dynasty. Additionally, political intrigue and the factionalism that plagued the Tang court further hindered his prospects. These frustrations are reflected in the tone of disillusionment and melancholy that permeates much of his poetry.

Literary Contributions

Innovative Use of Imagery and Themes

Li He’s poetry is renowned for its striking and often macabre imagery. Unlike many of his contemporaries who focused on themes of nature, court life, and romantic love, Li He delved into more mystical and supernatural realms. His verses frequently feature ghosts, spirits, and otherworldly beings, evoking a sense of the eerie and the sublime.

For instance, in his poem “Song of the White Horse,” Li He vividly describes a ghostly horse with a mane like silver frost and hooves like frostbitten jade, galloping through the night. Such imagery not only showcases his creative imagination but also reflects his fascination with the ethereal and the supernatural.

Exploration of Mortality and Transience

One of the central themes in Li He’s poetry is the transience of life and the inevitability of death. His preoccupation with mortality is evident in many of his works, where he contemplates the fleeting nature of existence and the lingering presence of the past. This focus on the impermanence of life and the omnipresence of death contributes to the ghostly aura that surrounds his poetry.

In his poem “Song of a Knight-Errant,” Li He writes about a lone warrior who, after a life of battles and adventures, finds himself wandering in the twilight between life and death. The poem’s haunting tone and vivid depiction of the afterlife encapsulate Li He’s preoccupation with the spectral and the transient.

Complexity and Experimentation in Form

Li He was also known for his experimentation with poetic forms and structures. His works often defy conventional meter and rhyme schemes, reflecting his desire to push the boundaries of poetic expression. This innovative approach, combined with his unique thematic focus, set him apart from his contemporaries and contributed to his lasting legacy in Chinese literature.

Cultural and Historical Context

Influence of Daoism and Buddhism

The cultural milieu of the Tang Dynasty, with its rich tapestry of Daoist and Buddhist thought, significantly influenced Li He’s poetry. Daoism, with its emphasis on the mystical and the transcendent, is evident in his exploration of otherworldly realms and supernatural beings. Buddhism’s focus on impermanence and the cycle of life and death also resonates in his contemplation of mortality and the afterlife.

Li He’s immersion in these philosophical traditions allowed him to infuse his poetry with a profound sense of spiritual and metaphysical inquiry. His works often reflect a synthesis of Daoist mysticism and Buddhist existentialism, creating a unique blend that adds to the haunting quality of his poetry.

Literary Tradition and Influence

Li He’s work did not emerge in isolation; it was part of a broader literary tradition that valued innovation and individual expression. The Tang Dynasty was a golden age for Chinese poetry, with poets like Li Bai and Du Fu pushing the boundaries of the art form. While Li He drew inspiration from these masters, his distinct voice and thematic focus set him apart, earning him a unique place in the literary canon.

His influence extended beyond his contemporaries to later generations of poets and scholars who admired his daring originality and emotional depth. Li He’s work was rediscovered and celebrated during the Song Dynasty, where it was recognized for its innovative spirit and profound impact on Chinese literature.

The Moniker “Poet Ghost”

Mystical and Otherworldly Imagery

The epithet “Poet Ghost” aptly captures the essence of Li He’s work, with its pervasive sense of the spectral and the supernatural. His frequent use of ghostly and mystical imagery created an eerie and haunting atmosphere that distinguished his poetry from that of his peers. This distinctive quality led to his association with the supernatural and the ghostly.

Themes of Death and Transience

Li He’s preoccupation with themes of death and the transient nature of life further cemented his reputation as the “Poet Ghost.” His works often dwell on the inevitability of death and the ephemeral nature of human existence, imbuing them with a melancholic and otherworldly tone. This focus on mortality and the afterlife resonated with readers, contributing to his ghostly persona.

Personal Mystique and Health

Li He’s personal life, marked by ill health and a premature death, also contributed to the ghostly mystique that surrounds him. His physical frailty and the suffering he endured are mirrored in the somber and introspective quality of his poetry. The sense of a life cut short and unfulfilled dreams permeates his work, adding to the haunting allure of his poetic legacy.

Li He’s Legacy

Impact on Chinese Literature

Li He’s innovative approach to poetry and his exploration of themes of mortality and the supernatural have left an indelible mark on Chinese literature. His work has inspired countless poets and writers, who have drawn on his unique style and thematic concerns to create their own literary expressions.

Continued Relevance and Admiration

Today, Li He’s poetry continues to captivate readers with its haunting beauty and profound emotional depth. Scholars and literary enthusiasts alike are drawn to his works for their innovative use of language and imagery, as well as their exploration of timeless themes. The enduring relevance of Li He’s poetry is a testament to his genius and his ability to touch the hearts and minds of readers across the ages.


Li He, the “Poet Ghost,” remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in Chinese literature. His hauntingly beautiful poetry, characterized by its mystical imagery, exploration of mortality, and innovative use of language, has earned him a unique place in the literary canon. The cultural and historical context in which he wrote, combined with his personal experiences and philosophical influences, have all contributed to the ghostly aura that surrounds his work.

As we continue to explore and appreciate Li He’s poetic legacy, we are reminded of the power of literature to transcend time and space, touching the deepest corners of the human soul. His ability to evoke the ethereal and the sublime through his verses ensures that Li He will forever be remembered as the “Poet Ghost,” a master of capturing the transient beauty and profound mystery of life and death.

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