When Tang Dynasty poetry ruled the world
By Lee Moore | April 15, 2020
Three poets to help you understand ancient Chinese poetry.
This month, in which we are all locked indoors, happens to be National Poetry Month. Several people, getting tired of the same plot lines in pulpy fiction, have asked me, What should I be reading? My answer is always the same: Tang Dynasty poetry.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) is the golden age of both China and its poetry. And not just that — there is probably no time and place in world history when poetry was more important. The imperial exam, a ticket into the social elite, required test-takers to be thoroughly familiar with poetry. Social life for elites was dominated by parties where people sat around drinking and writing poetry. To move up the social ladder, you had to be able to write poetry. And so, not surprisingly, the Tang produced an abundance of poets.
Because of the sheer number and diversity of works, Tang poetry can be intimidating if you do not know where to start. The Complete Tang Poems (全唐诗 quán tángshī), an 1705 anthology that attempted to gather all Tang poetry into a single collection, has 49,000 poems and 2,200 poets. Even that is really just a “Best Of” collection. How does one begin to break into them?
Luckily, during the Tang era and subsequent ones — the Chinese have never stopped reading Tang poetry — cream rose to the top. Three poets from that time distinguished themselves and remain celebrated to this day. They make for a fine entry point into Tang poetry — let’s take a look at who they are and a representative poem from each (all three poems translated by yours truly).
Dù Fǔ 杜甫
Sometimes spelled Tu Fu (712-770)
The first poet in the Tang Trinity is Du Fu. Textbooks and other official channels largely agree that he was the greatest of the Tang’s poets. Although it is a simplification, Du Fu represents the Confucian tradition, to the point where, during the Song Dynasty, he was sometimes called the “poet-historian.”
Like the two other poets you’ll be introduced to shortly, Du Fu lived during the Tang Dynasty’s most tragic period, and his poetry is redolent of the sadness at the breakdown in government institutions and the violence that that breakdown inflicted on the lives of the people. The Tang state was at the height of its power when a non-Han Chinese, Central Asian general named Ān Lùshān 安禄山 tried to overthrow the Tang emperor. Du Fu, along with the emperor, fled the capital and did not return until after An Lushan had sacked it.
Much of Du Fu’s best poetry focuses on the way the breakdown in the state so quickly created a Hobbsian world. His poetry is a mediation on how, within a year, people went from throwing drunken poetry parties to merely trying to survive. In one poem, he meets a prince being hunted by rebel forces. In other poems, he rhapsodizes on what it is like to flee the capital, at the time the world’s largest city, and return to find it largely abandoned. If Du Fu is the “poet-historian,” his is a history of sadness, of violence, and of painful change, a history that is not narrated but reckoned with.
It is difficult to choose any representative poem by Du Fu, but here’s one that I like, which I’ve translated:
Saddened, I turn my white head,
Leaning on my cane, my back towards the abandoned city.
The river water is restrained and many sandbars emerge,
The sky is empty, the scene is clear.
In the darkness, I resent how I wither as I age,
The times have betrayed the promises of the life of an official.
Raising my head, I admire the birds in the evening light,
Sleeping in the woods, their feathers are so light.
By the time the narrator has arrived in his twilight years, the world has lost something that it used to have. The urbane capital has become a pale shadow of itself, and the world of promise that existed in his youth has passed. If Du Fu is the poet-historian, it is because his poetry is defined by this sad sense of history, the sense that the world that he knew as a young man would never return.
Lǐ Bái 李白
Sometimes spelled Li Bo (701-762)
It happens every time I talk to Chinese friends about Tang poetry: they will concede that, among Chinese poets, Du Fu is the greatest, but then say in a whisper, “But I love Li Bai more.”
Li Bai is the Tang’s main representative of the mystical, Daoist tradition of Chinese poetry. He loved writing about natural scenes and getting drunk while doing so. He seems unattached to this world, and his poetry reflects the influence of the earlier Daoists, Zhuāngzi 庄子 and Táo Yuānmíng 陶渊明. Surprisingly, for China’s greatest poet, some legends suggest he may have been born in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, but he is most closely associated with Sichuan. Another legend has it that he died drunk, trying to toast the reflection of the moon which he saw reflected in the river. Whether or not the legends are true, he has become China’s patron saint of drunken poetry. No one in Chinese poetry has written more about the joy of getting drunk, and, in this way, his poems embody the liquor-scented flavor of Tang poetry parties.
Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon
Among the flowers, a bottle of booze.
I drink alone, no friend is near.
Raising a cup, I invite the moon,
and, combined with my shadow, I become three.
Unfortunately, the moon does not drink,
But my shadow follows me.
For now, I have the moon and my shadow as companions,
and we need to party before spring comes to an end.
I sing and the moon paces back and forth,
I dance and see my shadow move like a hot mess.
While sober, we had fun together.
After getting drunk, each of us splits up.
Forever united, we roam without feeling,
only to see each other when we make it to the Milky Way.
The way the narrator represents the moon and his own shadow as if they were revelers, partying beside him, suggests not only what it feels like when one is drunk, but also a Daoist-inspired sense that the boundaries between the poet and the rest of the world are flexible.
Of course, maybe this is all drunk talk. Rumors persisted centuries after his death that Li Bai died boozing on a boat in the Yangtze. Whether or not these rumors are true, Li Bai managed to always be the life of the party and to transform his bacchanalic poems into philosophical meditations.
Wáng Wéi 王维
Wang Wei gets the bronze medal in Tang poetry. He is always in third place, and, frankly, he often does not get the respect that he deserves. Wang Wei is well known for being the member of the Tang Trinity most influenced by Buddhism. He studied under a Chan Buddhism master for 10 years, and even converted part of his country estate into a monastery. His poems often involve clear Buddhist metaphors, and the sharp visuals of his imagistic poetry often becomes so realistic that the language calls into question the reality of the tableau, hinting at the evanescence of this world.
Sending off Yuan to Anxi
By the walls of Wei, the dawn rain dampens the light dust,
The traveler’s lodge is so green, the color of the willows has revived.
I urge you to again finish a glass of booze,
When you go west out past the Yang Pass, there will be no old friends.
Wang Wei was not only a great poet, but also an excellent painter, and many of his poems, like the one above, have a particularly strong landscape feel. A few hundred years later, the greatest writer from the Song Dynasty, Sū Dōngpō 苏东坡 (1037-1101), said about Wang Wei, “In every one of his poems is a painting, and in each of his paintings is a poem” (诗中有画，画中有诗 shī zhōng yǒu huà, huà zhōng yǒu shī). If Du Fu was focused on the historicity of a moment and Li Bai on its spirit, then Wang Wei was focused on the visuals. Most of his paintings are tableaus, laid out like framed scenes. That is certainly true of the above poem, in which he sets a scene where the landscape contrasts so clearly with the parting that is about to occur.
As many of us sit through National Poetry Month in our homes, these three Tang greats can provide the perfect antidote to cabin fever. So, in the spirit of Li Bai, crack open some baijiu, start a Zoom meeting and share some Tang poetry with your closest friends.