Tang Poetry - Introduction

The Poems of the T'ang Dynasty


"The classical poems were usually composed of lines of four characters, or words, with every other line rhymed. Lines were allowed, however, of more or fewer words. Under the reign of the Emperor Wu (140-87B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty new types of poetry were introduced; and the five-character and seven-character poems became popular and have dominated ever since. The Emperor himself invented the latter: While Li Ling and Su Wu, two of his statesmen-generals, wrote their verses in the former type. The number of characters of each lines was uniform; no irregular line might occur. These two types were afterwards named the "ancient" or "unruled" poems. Nearly all poems before the T'ang Dynasty were in this form. The Emperor Wu introduced also the Po Liang style, which is a seven-character poem with every line rhyming in the last word. Po Liang was the name of a pavilion in the Emperor's garden where, while he banqueted his literary attendants, each wrote one line to complete a long poem. This has been a favorite game among Chinese poets.

The Poems of the T'ang Dynasty

As many a dynasty in Chinese history is marked by some phase of success representing the thought and life of that period, the T'ang Dynasty is commonly recognized as the golden age of poetry. Beginning with the founder of the dynasty, down to the last ruler, almost every one of the emperors was a great lover and patron of poetry, and many were poets themselves. A special tribute should be paid to the Empress Wu Chao or the "Woman Emperor" (684-704), through whose influence poetry became a requisite in examinations for degrees and an important course leading to official promotion. This made every official as well as every scholar a poet. The poems required in the examination, after long years of gradual development, followed a formula, and many regulations were established. Not only must the length of a line be limited to a certain number of the characters, usually five or seven, but also the length of a poem was limited to a certain number of lines, usually four or eight or twelve. The maintenance of rhymes, the parallelism of characters, and the balance of tones were other rules considered essential. This is called the "modern" or "ruled" poetry. In the Ch'ing or Manchu Dynasty the examination poem was standardized as a five-character-line poem of sixteen lines with every other line rhymed. This "eight-rhyme" poem was accompanied by the famous "eight-legged" literature ( a form of literature divided into eight sections ) as a guiding light for entrance into mandarin life.

The above-mentioned rules of poetry applied first only to examination poems. But afterwards they became a common exercise with "modern" or "ruled" poems in general. Chinese poetry since the T'ang Dynasty has followed practically only two forms, the "modern" or "ruled" form and the "ancient" or "unruled" form. A poet usually writes both. The "eight-rhyme" poem, however, was practised for official examinations only.

The progress of T'ang poetry may be viewed through a division into four periods, as distinguished by different style and a differing spirit. There were, of course, exceptional works, especially at the transient points, and it is difficult to draw an exact boundary-line between any two periods. The first period is approximately from A.D. 620 to 700, the second from 700 to 780, the third from 780 to 850, and the fourth from 850 to 900. The second period, corresponding to the summer season of the year, is regarded as the most celebrated epoch. Its representative figures are Li Po (705-762), the genie of poetry; Tu Fu (712-720), the sage of poetry; Wang Wei (699-759) and Meng Hano-jan (680-740), the two hermit-poets, and Ts'en Ts'an (given degree, 744) and Wei Ying-wu (about 740-830), the two magistrate-poets. The first period is represented by Chang Yueh (677-730) and Chang Chiu-ling (673-740), two premiers, and by Sung Chih-wen (died 710) and Tu Shen-yen (between the seventh and eighth centuries); the third, by Yuan Chen (779-832) and Po Chu-yi (772-846), two cabinet ministers, and by Han Yu (768-824) and Liu Tsung yuang (773-819), two master literati more famous for their prose writing than for their verse; and the fourth, by Wen T'ing-yun (ninth century) and Li Shang-yin (813-858), the founders of the Hsi K'un school, and by Hsu Hun (given degree, 832) and Yao He (A.D. 9th century). All these poets had their works published in a considerable number of volumes. Secondary poets in the T'ang Dynasty were legion."

Extracted from "Three hundred poems of the T'ang Dynasty 618-906"

introduced by Dr. Kiang Kang-hu

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Chinese Literature

T'ang and Five Dynasties: 618-960.

During the T'ang dynasty (618-907), Chinese literature reached its golden age.


In poetry, the greatest glory of the period, all the verse forms of the past were freely adopted and refined, and new forms were crystallized. One new form was perfected early in the dynasty and given the definitive name lü-shih ("regulated verse"). A poem of this kind consists of eight lines of five or seven syllables--each line set down in accordance with strict tonal patterns--calling for parallel structure in the middle, or second and third, couplets.

Another verse form much in vogue was the chüeh-chü ("truncated verse"). An outgrowth and a shortened version of the lü-shih, it omitted either the first four lines, the last four lines, the first two and the last two lines, or the middle four lines. Thus, the tonal quality of the lü-shih was retained, whereas antithetic structure was made optional. These poems of four lines, each consisting of five or seven words (syllables or characters), had to depend for their artistry on suggestiveness and economy comparable to the roba'iyat ("quatrains") of Omar Khayyam and the Japanese haiku.

The fine distinctions of tonal variations in the spoken language had reached their height during this period, with eight tones; and rules and regulations concerning the sequence of lighter and heavier tones had been formulated. But since the observance of strict rules of prosody was not mandatory in the ku-shih ("ancient style") form still in use, it was possible for an individual poet to enjoy conformity or freedom as he saw fit.

Of the more than 2,200 T'ang poets whose works--totaling more than 48,900 pieces--have been preserved, only a few can be mentioned. Wang Wei, a musician and the traditional father of monochrome landscape painting, was also a great poet. Influenced by Buddhism, he wrote exquisite meditative verse of man's relation to nature that exemplified his own dictum that poetry should have the beauty of painting and vice versa. Li Po, one of the two major poets of the T'ang dynasty, a lover of detachment and freedom, deliberately avoided the lü-shih and chose the less formal verse forms to sing of friendship or wine. An example is the poem "To Tan-Ch'iu," translated by Arthur Waley.

My friend is lodging high in the Eastern Range,

Dearly loving the beauty of valleys and hills.

At green Spring he lies in the empty woods,

And is still asleep when the sun shines on high.

A pine-tree wind dusts his sleeves and coat;

A pebbly stream cleans his heart and ears.

I envy you, who far from strife and talk

Are high-propped on a pillow of blue cloud.

Generally considered the greatest poet of China was Tu Fu, a keen observer of the political and social scene who criticized injustice wherever he found it and who clearly understood the nature of the great upheaval following the rebellion of dissatisfied generals in 755, which was a turning point in the fortunes of the T'ang. As an artist, Tu Fu excelled in all verse forms, transcending all rules and regulations in prosody while conforming to and exploiting them. His power and passion can perhaps be suggested by a single line (translated by Robert Payne): "Blue is the smoke of war, white the bones of men."

One of the admirers of Tu Fu as a poet-historian was Po Chü-i who, like his great predecessor, was deeply concerned with the social problems of his age. Po Chü-i sought to learn from ordinary folk not only naturalness of language but also their feelings and reactions, especially at the height of his career when he wrote what he called the Hsin yüeh-fu shih ("New Yüeh-fu Poems").

At the end of the T'ang and during the Five Dynasties, another new verse form developed. Composed normally of lines of irregular length and written as lyrics to musical tunes, this form came to be known as tz'u, in contrast with shih, which includes all the verse forms mentioned above. Since the lines in a tz'u might vary from one to nine or even 11 syllables, they were comparable to the natural rhythm of speech and therefore easily understood when sung.

First sung by ordinary folk, they were popularized by professional women singers and, during the T'ang, attracted the attention of poets. It was not, however, until the transitional period of the Five Dynasties (907-960), a time of division and strife, that tz'u became the major vehicle of lyrical expression. Of tz'u poets in this period, the greatest was Li Yü, last monarch of the Southern T'ang, who was seized in 976 as the new Sung dynasty consolidated its power. Li Yü's tz'u poetry is saturated with a tragic nostalgia for better days in the South; it is suffused with sadness--a new depth of feeling notably absent from earlier tz'u, which had been sung at parties and banquets. The following is typical, translated by Jerome Ch'en and Michael Bullock:

Lin hua hsieh liao ch'un hung

T'ai ch'ung ch'ung

Wu nai chao lai han yü wan lai feng

Yen chih lei

Hsiang liu tsui

Chi shih ch'ung

Tzu shih jen sheng ch'ang hen shui ch'ang tung

The red of the spring orchard has faded.

Far too soon!

The blame is often laid

on the chilling rain at dawn

and the wind at dusk.

The rouged tears

That intoxicate and hold in thrall--

When will they fall again?

As a river drifts toward the east

So painful life passes to its bitter end.

Copyright (c) 1996 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Encarta Encyclopedia

Medieval Period

From the beginning of the medieval period in the 3rd century AD until the 7th century, China was not only divided into warring states but suffered invasions by Tatar tribes as well. Nevertheless, these centuries in China were by no means as barren of literary production as was the corresponding period in the history of western Europe known as the Dark Ages. The spread of Buddhism from India, the invention of printing, and the flowering of poetry and prose illuminated the entire period and made it one of the most brilliant in Chinese literary history.


During periods of social and political upheaval, from the 3rd to the 7th century, poets found refuge and consolation in nature. Some were hermits who created a so-called field-and-garden school of poetry; others produced some of the best Chinese folk lyrics, such as the love poems attributed to Tzu-yeh, a woman poet who wrote the Ballad of Mulan, celebrating the adventures of a woman soldier disguised as a man; and The Peacock Flew to the Southeast, a long narrative of tragic family love, written in plain but vivid language. The greatest poet of these troubled centuries was T'ao Ch'ien, also known as T'ao Yan-ming, who excelled in writing of the joys of nature and the solitary life. His Peach Blossom Fountain became the classic expression of the poet's search for a utopia.

The greatest Chinese poetry was created during the Tang dynasty (618-907), a period of general peace and prosperity ending in a decline. Despite the passage of more than ten centuries, as many as 49,000 Tang poems by 2200 poets have survived. The three most famous poets were Wang Wei, Li Bo (Li Po), and Du Fu (Tu Fu). They started their lives in the early splendor of the Tang era but lived through the subsequent troubled years of war and rebellion. Wang Wei, a meditative philosopher and painter with Buddhist inclinations, depicted the serenity of nature's beauty; it has been said that poetry is in his pictures and pictures are in his poems. Li Bo, a leader of the romantic school, rebelled against poetic conventions, as he did against society in general. Passionate and unruly, he embraced the realm of the immortals, whence, he claimed, he had been exiled to this world. Li Bo was at his best when he sang of love and friendship; of the delights of wine; and of the strange, majestic, and awe-inspiring aspects of nature. His friend and rival Du Fu, on the other hand, was conscientious and painstaking in his efforts to achieve startling realism. A humanitarian and historian, Du Fu recorded faithfully and intimately his worldly attachments, his family affections, and an infinite love for humanity, as well as the injustices of the age. The realism of Du Fu's work influenced another Tang poet, Po Ch-i, who viewed poetry as a vehicle for criticism and satire. This moralistic tendency, developed in succeeding centuries by other poets, was broadened to include didactic and philosophical disquisitions. In general, however, Chinese poetry was essentially lyrical.

Rhyme had always been an essential part of Chinese poetry, but verse forms did not become well established until the Tang poets. The typical poem of the Tang period was in the so-called shih form, characterized by the five-word or seven-word line, with the rhyme usually falling on the even lines. The shih verse form evolved from the four-word verse of the Shih Ching.

The Tang period also produced a new poetic form called the tz'u. Although each tz'u may have lines of varying length, the number of lines, as well as their length, is fixed according to a definite rhyming and tonal pattern. The writing of tz'u, which is somewhat analogous to putting new words to popular melodies, requires a great deal of skill. The melodies employed were usually of foreign origin.

During the Song (Sung) dynasty (960-1279) the tz'u reached its greatest popularity. Initially the trend was toward longer tz'u, written to be sung to popular tunes and commonly dealing with themes of love, courtesans, or music. Su Tung-po, the best-known tz'u poet of China, liberated the tz'u from the rigid forms that music had imposed on it and introduced more virile subjects. In the 11th century more and more nonmusical tz'u were written, that is, tz'u written with no intention that they would be sung. In the late 11th to the 13th century, however, the tradition of writing musical tz'u was revived. The great Chinese poet Li Ch'ing-chao is renowned for tz'u concerning her widowhood.

John B. Tsu


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Li Bo Eighth-century Chinese writer Li Bo is one of the most important poets in Chinese literature. During his prolific career, Li Bo traveled throughout China, earning money by selling his poems to dignitaries and rich citizens. He composed sensuous, musical poetry that celebrates the joys of nature, beauty, love, and wine. This selection, titled The Summit Temple, is recited by an actor.

Mary Evans Picture Library/Shigeyoshi Obata. (c) 1922, renewed 1950 by E.P. Dutton. Permission of Dutton, an imprint of New Amer. Library, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. (p)1994 Microsoft Corp. All rights reserved.

World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia


Poetry. Perhaps the four greatest Chinese poets lived during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). They were, in the order of birth, Wang Wei, Li Bo, Du Fu, and Bo Juyi.

Wang Wei wrote four-line poems that describe scenes from nature. His works, which emphasize quiet and contemplation, show the influence of Buddhism.

Li Bo wrote imaginative poems about his dreams and fantasies and his love of wine. Unlike most poets of his time, he wrote in the style of old Chinese ballads.

Du Fu is considered China's greatest poet by many critics. He surpassed all other Tang poets in range of style and subject matter. In some of his early poems, Du Fu expressed disappointment at failing an examination for government service. A bloody rebellion from 755 to 757 inspired him to write poems condemning the absurdity he saw in war. In his late poems, Du Fu emphasized clever use of language, developing a style that influenced Chinese poets for centuries.

Bo Juyi wrote satiric poems in ballad style. He protested against various government policies of his day.

Contributor: David R. Knechtges, Ph.D., Prof. of Chinese, Univ. of Washington.

Additional resources

Birch, Cyril, and Keene, Donald, eds. Anthology of Chinese Literature. 2 vols. 1965-1972. Reprint. Grove Pr., 1987.

Liu, Wu-chi. An Introduction to Chinese Literature. 1966. Reprint. Greenwood, 1990.

Yeh, Michelle, ed. Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry. Yale, 1993.

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