The most extensive collection of Tang poems, the Quantangshi, contains around 48,900 lyrics by over 2,200 authors (a demonstration of the popularity of verse writing). A considerable amount of Tang Dynasty poetry survived due to the overwhelming importance of the art form during the period. It was required for civil service exams and available mostly, to everyone.
Tang poems and Tang poets were influenced by authors’ works from the previous 1,000 years in Chinese history. For example, the Chu Ci (which translates to Verses of Chu)and Shijing (also known as the Classic of Poetry, Book of Songs, or Book of Odes). During this period, much writing is associated with the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, who ruled for forty-four years (the longest reign of the dynasty). Li Yu’s death in 978 is considered the end of the Tang Poetry era. But, the Tang Dynasty itself fell in 907.
Explore Tang Dynasty Poetry
Tang Poetry Periods
The Tang Dynasty is generally divided into four parts:
- Early Tang – includes early, middle, and late phases. Poems were courtly, ornate, and flowery until the late phase when more socially important poetry was created.
- High Tang – included the work of the “Fields and Gardens Poets Group,” Li Bai, and Du Fu. The latter is known for his formal style and Li Bai for using traditional forms in new ways.
- Middle Tang – a period of high taxes and rebuilding. Poets were idealistic and willing to speak truthfully about the lives of everyday people. Others praised the peace of nature, landscapes, and isolation.
- Late Tang – known for poets that used a clear style, reflecting on the nature of their contemporary moment. Sometimes abstract, dense, and hard to understand. During the last years of the Tang, poets were notably darker and more angst-filled.
The “shi” was the most popular form during the period and is generally considered representative of the overall style authors used. Shi poems have four-character lines and are written in ancient Chinese. A few other constraints are associated with the older version of the form.
As the poems developed, five and seven-syllable lines also became popular. These poems are known to use rhyming couplets as well. English translations of these Tang poems are also widely popular. For example, Ezra Pound’s Cathay, a 1915 collection of Classical Chinese poems that Pound translated into English (based on notes by Ernest Fenollosa).
Characteristics of Tang Dynasty Poetry
Some of the most important characteristics of Tang Dynasty poetry are:
- A limited number of lines.
- A strong connection to religion.
- Captures people’s everyday lives, Chinese culture, and emotions.
- Speak about loss, friendship, nostalgia, and joys.
- Contain descriptions of nature. For example, the moonlight, twilight, empty woods, the heavens, wild peaks, and more.
Tang Dynasty Poets
The two most important Tang Dynasty poets are described below:
- Li Bai — (also known as Li Po, Li Bo, and Li Pai) is one of the best-known authors of Tang Dynasty poetry. Today, he is regarded as a romantic figure who elevated Chinese poetry to a level it had never reached before. Alongside Du Fu, he is commonly considered the most important poet of the period. Today, around 1,000 poems are attributed to him. The most important are collected in Heyaue yingling ji. His poems spoke about the joys of friendships, nature, drinking, solitude, and more.
- Du Fu —(also known as Tu Fu) is the second best-known poet of Tang Dynasty poetry. He was a civil servant, and there are around 1,500 surviving examples of his verse. His technical precision within his verse is often praised, as is his willingness to speak on the suffering of everyday people.
Tang Dynasty Poems
The Solitude of Night by Li Bai
This is a peaceful poem that acts as a tribute to the silent moments of peace in life. The speaker describes leading a party and walking home beside a river. Li Bai demonstrates his interest in writing about peace and solitude in life. The poem is seven lines long, a common length for Tang Dynasty poetry.
It was at a wine party—
I lay in a drowse, knowing it not.
The blown flowers fell and filled my lap.
When I arose, still drunken,
The Song of the Wagons by Du Fu
Written around 750, ‘The Song of the Wagons’ describes the life and struggles of a conscript in the imperial army. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
The wagons rumble and roll,
The horses whinny and neigh,
The conscripts each have bows and arrows at their waists.
Their parents, wives and children run to see them off,
So much dust’s stirred up, it hides the Xianyang bridge.
They pull clothes, stamp their feet and, weeping, bar the way
Throughout this piece, Du Fu demonstrates his ability to depict the suffering of others. He also speaks on the sources of the soldier’s suffering and how the government’s shortsightedness is at the root of the problem.
Before the Cask of Wine by Li Bai
Li Bai’s poem is a beautiful lyric that emphasizes enjoying one’s youthful hours to the fullest as one can’t savor those moments in old age. This is one of several surviving poems from this author that speaks on drinking.
The first lines read:
The spring wind comes from the east and quickly passes,
Leaving faint ripples in the wine of the golden bowl.
The flowers fall, flake after flake, myriads together.
The poem concludes with the speaker asking readers to remember that when time is lost, it’s gone forever. There is no reason to lament its passing. It’s important to seize the beauty of one’s youth when it’s possible to.
Read more poems by Li Bai.
During the Tang Dynasty, there were Shi, Ci, Ge, Qu, and Fu. Poets who utilized these styles included Du Fu and Li Bai. These types of poems are still widely popular within world literature.
There are several popular forms, one of which is known as the Seven Character Regulated Verse. This form required poets to use eight lines, each containing seven characters and using a rhyming structure of 2,2,3 in each line.
Tang poems are best-known for touching on subjects like the changing seasons, nature and its beauty, as well as joyous friendships. On the darker side, the poems also explore the temporary nature of life and the loss of close friends parting. New encounters with different cultures via the Silk Road (which was also experiencing a golden age) were also influential.
The two greatest poets from this period in Chinese history are Du Fu and Li Bai. They are commonly associated with the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Another important writer was Han Yu, who is best remembered for his classical prose.
During the Tang Dynasty, culture changed dramatically. There was, in the literary world, an explosion of interest in poetry (both reading and writing), a new love for tea drinking, and in the religious world—the rise of Buddhism.
Related Literary Terms
- Misty Poets: a group of Chinese poets who were working in the 20th century. Their work was created against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, during which traditional themes of art were sidelined, and artists were prosecuted.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Open Couplet: a pair of lines in poetry, the first of which is enjambed. The first line does not conclude, running into the second line.
- Couplet: a literary device made up of two rhyming lines of verse—these fall in succession or one after another.
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