Tang poets

From Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 18

Jump to: navigation, search


Historical Background

The Tang Dynasty (June 18, 618 – June 4, 907) was an imperial dynasty of China preceded by the Sui Dynasty and followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. It was founded by the Li family, who seized power during the decline and collapse of the Sui Empire. The dynasty was interrupted briefly by the Second Zhou Dynasty (October 16, 690 – March 3, 705) when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne, becoming the first and only Chinese empress regnant, ruling in her own right. The Tang Dynasty, with its capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an), the most populous city in the world at the time, is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization—equal to or surpassing that of the earlier Han Dynasty—as well as a golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Its territory, acquired through the military campaigns of its early rulers, was greater than that of the Han period, and rivaled that of the later Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty. In Chinese history, the Tang Dynasty was largely a period of progress and stability, except during the An Shi Rebellion and the decline of central authority in the latter half of the dynasty.[1]

Map of Tang Empire (taken from depts.washington.edu)

Poetry and Official Life

Like the previous Sui Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty maintained a civil service system by drafting officials through standardized examinations and recommendations to office. Perfecting one's skills in the composition of poetry became a required study for those wishing to pass imperial examinations, while poetry was also heavily competitive; poetry contests amongst esteemed guests at banquets and courtiers of elite social gatherings was common in the Tang period. Indeed, for the educated class, poetry was the accepted currency of personal, social and political exchange. These facts contributed to the enormous amount of poetry that survives to this day. According to the standard compilation of Tang poetry, the Quantangshi, created under the Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, there were almost 50,000 Tang poems written by over 2,200 authors. [2]

The Art of the Tang Poem

Poetry styles that were popular in the Tang included gushi (literally meaning "ancient poem") and jintishi (literally meaning "modern form poem"), with the renowned Tang poet Li Bai (701-762) famous for the former style, and Tang poets like Wang Wei (701-761) and Du Fu (712-770) famous for their use of the latter. Jintishi poetry, or regulated verse, is more technically demanding than the gushi. In a poem of eight five- or seven-word lines, a poet would be expected to introduce a topic in the first couplet, provide illustrative descriptive imagery in the next two couplets, and then finish with a witty or enigmatic closure, while conforming to established tonal patterns and observing syntactic and semantic parallelism.[3]

The Tang Dynasty was long-lasting and covers a time period of many major social and probably linguistic upheavals. Thus, the genre may be divided into several major more-or-less chronological divisions, based on developmental stages or stylistic groupings (sometimes even on personal friendships between poets). It should be remembered that poets may be somewhat arbitrarily assigned to these based on their presumed biographical dates (not always known); furthermore that the lifetimes of poets towards the beginning or end of this period may overlap with the preceding Sui Dynasty or the succeeding Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. The chronology of Tang poetry may be divided into four parts: Beginning Tang, Flourishing Tang, Middle Tang, and Late Tang. Tang poetry reached its peak in the Flourishing Tang, or High Tang, in the first half of the eighth century. The three most esteemed poets of the period - Wang Wei, Li Bo and Du Fu - were conveniently associated with the three major belief systems of the epoch, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, respectively. Their works together epitomize the varied creativity of this central period of Chinese poetry.[4]

Individual Poets

Wang Wei

Wang Wei(taken from baidu.com)

Born into an aristocratic family, Wang Wei passed the civil service entrance examination in 721 with being awarded Zhuang Yuan (placing first in the examination) and had a successful civil service career, rising to become Chancellor in 758. During the An Lushan Rebellion he avoided actively serving the insurgents during the capital's occupation by pretending to be deaf. After the suppression of the rebellion he was demoted and served as a TaiZi ZhongChong (太子中充) and over time was moved to the position of JiShiZhong (给事中) and his last position was held as ShangShu YouCheng (尚书右丞).

He was famous for both his poetry and his paintings, about which Su Shi coined a phrase: "The quality of Wang Wei’s poems can be summed as, the poems hold a painting within them. In observing his paintings you can see that, within the painting there is poetry." He is especially known for his compositions in the "Mountains and Streams" genre, the landscape school of poetry, along with Meng Haoran; their family names were combined and they are commonly referred to as "Wang Meng" due to their excellence in poetic composition at that time. In his later years Wang Wei lost interest in being a statesman and became more involved in Buddhism and his poems reflected his focus on Zen/Ch'an practice, therefore he was posthumously referred to as the “Poet Buddha”.[5]

Literal Translation of Each Chinese Character in Farewell
Down horse drink gentleman alcohol
Ask gentleman what place go
Gentleman say not achieve wish
Return lie south mountain near
Still go nothing more ask
White cloud not exhaust time

Translation by Pauline Yu
Dismounting I give you wine to drink,
And inquire where you are going.
You say you did not achieve your wishes
And return to rest at the foot of Southern Mountain.
But go - do not ask again;
White clouds have no ending time.

This is a poem written to a friend who is returning to his hermitage at the foot of Southern Mountain. The poem seems to start with a mundane scene, that of parting friends. He then gives the reason for the friend's return - having failed to achieve his wishes. The last line of the poem is a consolation to his friend, as well as an expression of the poet's admiration towards the life of a hermit. Wang Wei, having converted to Buddhism in the later stage of his life, here gives a limpid and tranquil evocation of life in retreat with "But go- do not ask again; / White clouds have no ending time."

Farewell Read in Chinese (taken from librivox.org)

Child Reciting a Wang Wei Poem

Li Bai

Li Bai (taken from baidu.com)

Li Bai is best known for the extravagant imagination and striking Taoist imagery in his poetry, as well as for his great love for liquor. Like Du Fu, he spent much of his life travelling, although in his case it was because his wealth allowed him to, rather than because his poverty forced him. He is said, famously but untruly, to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

Over a thousand poems are attributed to him, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain. He is best known for his yue fu poems, which are intense and often fantastic. He is often associated with Taoism: there is a strong element of this in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone.

Much like the genius of Mozart, there exist many legends on how effortlessly Li Bai composed his poetry; he was said to be able to compose at an astounding speed, without correction. His favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Li Bai's use of language impresses through his extravagance of imagination and a direct communication of his free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Bai's interactions with nature, friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. He also wrote a number of very oblique, allusive poems on women. In his poems, Li Bai tried to avoid the use of obscure words and historical references. Unlike other ancient Chinese poets such as Du Fu, Li Bai had no need to prove himself to the public; instead, he could afford to concentrate on communicating his genuine feelings to the readers. His ability to create extraordinary out of ordinary was an unusual gift among his contemporaries, and was most likely the reason why he was considered the "Poem-God". The spontaneity of his language combined with the extravagance of his imagination distinguished Li Bai from any other poets in the Chinese history.

As one of the many followers of Lao Zi and a practitioner of Taoism in Tang Dynasty and, above all, a free-spirited person, Li Bai paid no respect to Confucius and his ideology. Consequently, he has often been attacked by the Neo-Confucian "moralists," ever since the Song Dynasty. Among the common people in China, however, Li Bai is unquestionably the most beloved figure in Chinese poetry.[6]

One of Li Bai's most famous poems is Drinking Alone by Moonlight (月下獨酌, pinyin: Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó), which is a good example of some of the most famous aspects of his poetry -- a very spontaneous poem, full of natural imagery and anthropomorphism. Li Bai actually wrote several poems with the same title; Vikram Seth's version of the most famous reads:


Yuè Xià Dú Zhuó
Huā jiā yī hú jiŭ
Dú zhuó wú xiāng qīn
Jŭ bēi yāo míng yuè
Duì yĭng chìng sān rén
Yuè jì bù jiĕ yĭn
Yĭng tú suí wŏ shēn
Zàn bàn yuì jiāng yĭng
Xíng lè xū jí chūn
Wŏ gē yuè pái huí
Wŏ wŭ yĭng líng luàn
Xĭng shí tóng jiāo huān
Zuì hòu gè fēn săn
Yŏng jiē wú qíng yóu
Xiāng qī miăo yún hàn

A pot of wine among the flowers.
I drink alone, no friend with me.
I Raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.
The moon does not know how to drink;
My shadow mimes my capering;
But I'll make merry with them both-
And soon enough it will be Spring.
I sing- the moon moves to and fro.
I dance- my shadow leaps and sways.
Still sober, we exchange our joys.
Drunk-and we'll go our separate ways.
Let's pledge- beyond human ties- to be friends,
And meet where the Silver Road ends.

(moon, under, alone, pour wine)
(blossom, among, one, pot, wine)
(alone, pour wine, without, one another, intimate)
(to lift, cup, invite, bright, moon)
(couple, shadow, complete, three, people)
(moon, since, not understand, drink)
(shadow, disciple, follow, my body)
(temporary, companion, moon, shadow)
(to go, cheer, must, to reach, spring/joy)
(I, song, moon, irresolute, wander)
(I, to dance, shadow, remnant, in confusion)
(to be awake, accompanying, to make friends, joyous)
(intoxicate/finally, each, divided, scattered)
(forever, to bind, not, merciless, to travel/roaming)
(heavenly river/Milky Way, profound/remote, cloud, man)

In the first line Li Bai says he is alone, without any friends. He toasts to the moon, then suddenly there are three presences: he, his shadow and the moon. This creates a sudden shift in the mood of the poem, from loneliness and melancholy to a party scene. The second stanza, Li seemed reminded that the shadow and the moon are inanimate objects, but no matter! Under the effect of the wine, combined with his gifted imagination, the moon and the shadow begin to move as the poet starts singing and dancing. He even vows to become eternal friends with the moon and the shadow, "And meet where the Silver River ends". Li Bai loves his wine, and uses it as a medium to escape the loneliness that he experiences, and let his Romantic imagination take over.

Drinking Alone with the Moon Read in Chinese (taken from librivox.org)

Drinking Alone with the Moon As a Peking Opera Song

Du Fu

Du Fu (taken from baidu.com)

Du Fu was a prominent Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Along with Li Bai (Li Po), he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His greatest ambition was to serve his country as a successful civil servant, but he proved unable to make the necessary accommodations. His life, like the whole country, was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, and his last 15 years were a time of almost constant unrest. The separation and hardship he and his family endured were great; one young son died of starvation, and Du Fu himself suffered from chronic and severe illness and died never having attained his goal. What has impressed later readers is his ability to situate his own personal fate within the grand course of events. No poet before him had written so extensively about himself and his own family and with such detail about his daily existence. Du Fu further interwines his history with that of the nation with great poignancy, the frequent image of a solitary figure in the landscape conveying both his aspirations and his agony at not being able to translate his compassion into boarder action.

Du Fu is a master of the regulated verse, which demanded greater manipulation of variables and concentration of expression. In addition to restrictions on length (four or eight lines) and number of words per line (generally five or seven), the regulated verse required adherence to one rhyme on even-numbered lines throughout the poem, parallelism of syntax and meaning within the middle couplets, and conformity to set patterns of alternation of the tones characteristic of all Chinese words. More than any other Tang poet, Du excelled in his ability to manipulate the many requirements of the regulated verse forms in the service of nuanced expression and evocative description.[7][8]

Country damaged mountains rivers here
City spring grass trees deep
Feel moment flower splash tears
Regret parting bird startle heart
Beacon fires join three months
Family letters worth ten thousand metal
White head scratch become thin
Virtually about to not bear hairpin

The country is broken, though hills and rivers remain,
In the city in spring, grass and trees are thick.
Moved by the moment, a flower's splashed with tears,
Mourning parting, a bird startles the heart.
The beacon fires have joined for three months now,
Family letters are worth ten thousand pieces.
I scratch my head, its white hairs growing thinner,
And barely able now to hold a hairpin.

Spring Prospect Read in Chinese (taken from librivox.org)

Drinking Alone with the Moon Caligraphy

Drinking Alone with the Moon Explanation

Japanese Women Singing Translated Drinking Alone with the Moon


  1. Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (1999), The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  2. Owen, Stephen (1981), The Great Age of Chinese Poetry, New Haven: Yale University Press
  3. David Damrosch and David Pike. The Longman Anthology World Literature Volume B. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009)
  4. David Damrosch and David Pike. The Longman Anthology World Literature Volume B. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009)
  5. Yu, Pauline (1976, The World of Wang Wei's poetry : an illumination of symbolist poetics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press
  6. Seth, V. (translator) (1992). Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. (London: Faber & Faber).
  7. Seth, V. (translator) (1992). Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. (London: Faber & Faber).
  8. David Damrosch and David Pike. The Longman Anthology World Literature Volume B. (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009)

Further Reading

1. Stephen Owen. (1985). Traditional Chinese poetry and poetics: omen of the world University of Wisconsin Press
2. Stephen Owen. (1981). The Great Age of Chinese Poetry Yale University Press
3. Vikram Seth. (1992). Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. London: Faber and Faber

Personal tools