Chinese Poetry -- History

Chinese Poetry

The History of Chinese Poetry

Chinese poetry has a very long history. The Book of Songs, the first collection of folk songs and poems, was compiled before Confucius' time, for he mentioned the book and asked his students to study it several times. Most of the poems in the book were composed during the Western Zhou period, or the 1,000 years before Confucius.

It was said that the Zhou rulers sent officials to many different parts of the country to collect folk songs. The folk songs were then presented to the rulers, who tried to judge the views and sentiments of the writers through their work.

The Book of Songs marked the beginning of Chinese literature as well as the beginning of realism in literature. Many of the 305 poems in the book deal with the lives of the common people, their daily occupations, their joys and sorrows, and their hard work and duties in wars.

Then, during the Warring States Period, the state of Chu in the south produced a great poet by the name of Qu Yuan (340-278 AD). He was the first Chinese poet whose name is known to modern-day scholars. However, when Qu Yuan saw that his state was approaching ruin, and yet could do nothing to save it, he ended his life by drowning himself in the Miluo River near Lake Dongting. His representative work is the Li Sao (Sorrows at Departure), which is a long poem describing his love for his state and his disappointment at its situation. The poem marks the beginning of romanticism in Chinese poetry, as it contains descriptions of imaginary scenes in heaven.

During the period of the two Han Dynasties and the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties, many poets wrote poems with five-character lines. Outstanding among them were those by Cao Cao, his two sons, and Tao Qian. There were also beautiful poems by writers whose names were unknown, such as the "Nineteen Ancient Poems" and "Southeastward Flies the Peacock".

The Tang Dynasty was the golden age of Chinese poetry. In the number of poems and the variety of forms, as well as in the beauty of its imagery and the broadness of its themes, Tang poetry surpassed that of all the ages before it. In The Complete Anthology of Tang Poetry, edited during the Qing Dynasty, there are nearly 50,000 collected poems by 2,200 poets. This means that over the course of three centuries, the Tang Dynasty poets wrote more poems than all the poets had in the 2,000 years before.

Several factors made this possible. During the Sui Dynasty, China’s rulers began their civil service examinations to select officials from amongst their scholars. These examinations were continued in the Tang Dynasty. As a result, many people, mainly landlords' children, studied hard to sit for the examinations, which required writing poetry. In addition, there was, to a certain extent, freedom of thought; Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were all studied and discussed by scholars. The unification of the country also made it possible for scholars to travel extensively, increasing the range of their contacts and experiences as well as broadening their artistic vision. Foreign arts, especially those of West and Central Asia, were also introduced into Central China at that time, and they greatly enriched the cultural life of the Han people. Finally, from the Western Zhou to the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Chinese poetry had been developing and becoming rich in both content and form. This long and favorable history provided the ideal conditions for the blossoming of Tang Dynasty poetry.

This poetic tradition had two clear features: one feature was that folk songs, or yuefu, were the main origin of the different poetic forms; the other was that realism was the main artistic tendency Most poets were concerned about the conditions of the country and life of its people.

Among the most famous Tang poets are Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi.

Tang poetry is indeed an inexhaustible treasury. In every sense it is the peak of Chinese poetry. The Chinese people are rightly proud of this incomparable heritage.

Revised June 13, 2011