Leng Mei, Spring Evening Banquet

Chinese poetry reached its zenith in the Tang dynasty, when poets often sat beneath the moon and drank wine from cups floated on rivers and composed poems like: "The sun beyond the mountain glows/ The Yellow River seaward flows/ But if you desire a grander sight/ The you must scale a greater height." Poets sometimes played a game in which a cup was placed in a stream and a poet had to compose a poem before the cup floated by. If he failed he had to consume a glass of wine.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The high value placed on artistic accomplishment during the Tang transformed poetry into a cultural industry. Although poetry remained important to the ideal of the complete literatus in later dynasties, Tang poetry stands out in Chinese cultural history, and is often spoken of as China’s greatest contribution to world literature.” Unfortunately it is much adulterated by translation. Two of the most important themes are “the complex balance of “Confucian” and “Neo.Daoist” personas that lay behind the Tang social ideal of the literatus, and the dramatic shift that resulted from the traumatic An Lushan Rebellion of 755, which crippled the confident cosmopolitan culture of the Early Tang and led to the increasingly rigid Confucianism of the Late Tang. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

Carrie Gracie of the BBC wrote: “The language has changed so little that they remain easy for modern Chinese people to read, and their themes are still relevant today - from friendship, love and landscape to the stench of political corruption. Every Chinese person learns poems by Li Bai, and the country's other favourite poet, Du Fu, from childhood., Li Bai raises glass to the moon Li Bai looks to the moon - and the bottom of a wine glass - for inspiration "They are as important in Chinese literary history as Shakespeare is to people in Britain," says historian Yuan Haiwang, author of “This Is China: The First 5,000 Years.” "I remember when my son was only a baby held in my arms, I began to teach him some of the poems, like every other parent does, even though of course he couldn't remember all of them. But that's what the Chinese do." [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, October 9, 2012]

Famous Tang dynasty poets include Du Fu (Tu Fu, 712-70), Li Po (701-762), Wang Wei (701-761), Li Bai (701-762), Cui Hao (704–754), Bai Juyi (772-846), Li You and Huang Tingjian. There are over 48,900 poems penned by some 2,200 Tang authors that have survived until modern times. The two best-known poets of the period were Li Bai and Du Fu. Li Bai was known for the romanticism of his poetry; Du Fu was seen as a Confucian moralist with a strict sense of duty toward society Du Fu poems inspired many Chinese painters. Xue Tao was a famous female poet. Wang Wei was a poet-painter who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings." Later Tang poets developed greater realism and social criticism and refined the art of narration. One of the best known of the later Tang poets was Bai Juyi, whose poems were an inspired and critical comment on the society of his time.

Skill 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 guests at banquets and courtiers were common. Tang poems remained popular and great emulation of Tang era poetry began in the Song dynasty; in that period, Yan Yu (; active 1194–1245) was the first to confer the poetry of the High Tang (c. 713–766) era with "canonical status within the classical poetic tradition." Yan Yu reserved the position of highest esteem among all Tang poets for Du Fu (712–770), who was not viewed as such in his own era, and was branded by his peers as an anti-traditional rebel. [Source: Wikipedia]

Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Tang Dynasty Poetry Styles

The early Tang period was best known for its lushi (regulated verse), an eight-line poem with five or seven words in each line; zi (verse following strict rules of prosody); and jueju (truncated verse), a four-line poem with five or seven words in each line. Among the most popular poetry styles were gushi and jintishi, with the renowned poet Li Bai famous for the former style, and poets like Wang Wei and Cui Hao famous for their use of the latter. Jintishi poetry, or regulated verse, is in the form of eight-line stanzas or seven characters per line with a fixed pattern of tones that required the second and third couplets to be antithetical (although the antithesis is often lost in translation to other languages). [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Eno wrote: “One of the remarkable features of Tang poetry, which appears in many ways to express a Neo.Daoist celebration of freedom from human constraints and high valuation of Nature and spontaneity, is the overwhelming strictness of form to which poets were required to conform. Unlike traditional English language poetic constraints, which are generally confined to rhyme, meter, and genre type, Tang poets always composed within grids that dictated a set word.syllable count (generally either five or seven per line all words were of one syllable), the allowable number of lines, the required rhyme scheme, and for almost every character, “tonal” constraints. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Ancient Chinese, like modern Chinese, was a tone language: every word/character, when pronounced, was spoken with one of four possible intonations which never varied for that word. In ancient Chinese, these tones included: 1) a high flat pronunciation; 2) a high and rising pronunciation; 3) a low pronunciation; 4) a clipped pronunciation, which ended in an unvoiced consonant. In poetry, classes 1 and 2 were combined into a category called “level tone,” and 3 and 4 comprised the category of “slant tone” words.” /+/

"Seven Character Regulated Verse" was a popular genre. This form requires eight lines, seven characters each, with the meaning matched to a rhythmic structure of 2-2-3 in each line. The poem's main rhyme is set in the first line, and echoed in lines 2, 4, 6, and 8. Every line must conform to a prescribed "level/slant" tone scheme, and every pair of lines must, in the original Chinese, also be symmetrical in grammar and general meaning. Bear in mind that in many cases, poems with such schemes were composed on a set theme, on the spur of the moment, at banquets where the poets had already drunk several pots of wine (or in a tiny examination booth a thousand miles from home, with one’s entire future riding on the quality of one’s composition), and you can get an idea of the poetic mastery of the Tang literatus!

Translating Tang Poetry Into English

Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Some people, and I am one, feel that Tang (618–907 CE) poetry is the finest literary art they have ever read. But does one need to learn Chinese in order to have such a view, or can classical Chinese poetry be adequately translated? [Source: Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Because when Tang poems are rendered into English, so many features of their aesthetics is lost, it may be useful to illustrate the way one gets to an English translation – filled with multisyllabic words in syncopated meter – from a Chinese original. Below is an example that should help convey both how a poem “worked” in its original Chinese – illustrating the compression of language and constancy of meter that are characteristic of much of Tang and later poetry – and the changes that must be made to get the poem into English. As you will see, much of the work of translation involves supplying words and ideas that are only implicit in the original, since the audience for these poems shared so much in terms of education, social background, and poetic training, that much could be understood, although left unsaid. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The poem appearing” here “is by an early Tang poet named Meng Haoran, who is known for his skill in crafting scenes of lush imagery with relatively straightforward themes. In this poem, Meng is celebrating the social process of poetic creation itself. The description is of a poetry banquet at the home of a close friend of Meng’s. /+/


“In the presentation of the poem, the last characters of even numbered lines have been given their approximate pronunciation values during the Tang, so that the rhyming nature of the poem becomes clear – modern Mandarin pronunciation often has strayed very far from the norms of a thousand years ago. In comparing poem and translation, you should notice how the figure of the woman musician that appears in the translation seems completely absent in the poem itself, which only speaks of “beautiful strings [of a lute]” and a “jade finger.” Because the word for “beautiful” is tied to the image of a woman (the left-hand side of the character, taken independently, means “woman”), and because jade is a regular metaphor for the texture of a woman’s skin, Meng Haoran had no need to refer to the woman lutenist directly. His audience would see her there without fail. /+/

A lucky snow first falling a full foot,
Evening ease, just at midnight’s cry.
Mats aligned, we wine companions ask,
To trim the wick-length to a verse’s measure.

Warm by the fragrant ashes of the stove,
Her jade fingers ring the lute.strings clear,
And drunk at last I feel the lure of sleep,
Surprised awake by the cock’s cry.

Early Tang Poetry, Meng Haoran (689-740)

Dr. Eno wrote: “Meng Haoran lived till the age of forty in obscurity, but when he finally traveled to the capital to seek his fortune, his poetic talents so astonished his contemporaries that they recommended him directly to Emperor Xuanzong for appointment, on the basis of his poetry alone. Unfortunately, one of the poems forwarded to Xuanzong included a phrase so deeply expressive alienation from official life that the emperor decided Meng would be best left to his own devices!, The first of the poems below celebrates a famous tidal bore – a great wave that travels up the Qiantang River at the coastal city of Hangzhou twice a month. Zhang Qiantang’s name reflects the fact that he was magistrate of the city, his virtue was sometimes compared to a legendary Confucian who governed the people merely by expressing his virtue in the song of his lute. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Watching the Tidal Bore at Zhang Tower with Zhang Qiantang” goes:
Thunder heard a hundred miles,
The song of the lute falls still.
Horsemen stream from the compound gate,
And riverside watch for the tide.

“The sun hangs far in the autumn air,
Clouds float on the vastness of sea –,
Then an egret wave like a surge of snow,
All at once, a frost-born chill.

“For Master Yi at the Temple of Yu the Great” reads:
There where Master Yi practices zen,
A thatched frame by an empty wood.
Outside his door one lone peak looms,
Beyond his steps ravines range deep,
Evening rays in rain filled prints,
Jade air drops to the courtyard dim.
Lotus petals pure within his sight,
No recognition of them stains his mind.

Wang Wei (699-761)

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Wang Wei (699-761) was born into an aristocratic Tang family. As a youth, he was sent to the capital cities of Luoyang and Chang’an to study, make connections with influential people who could act as his patrons (a necessity for career advancement in the Tang), and take the civil service examinations. A brilliant and talented young man, Wang Wei was a great success in society, literature, art, music, and academics. He had a successful but turbulent career as a court official. Like many men of his time, Wang Wei’s success as an official rose and fell with the rise and fall of his patrons. Thus his career alternated between periods of service at the imperial court and periods of less glamorous service in provincial administrative positions. Wang Wei’s career also suffered a setback when he was captured by An Lushan’s rebel forces in 755. Wang Wei eventually agreed to serve in An Lushan’s rebel government — a decision that turned out to be a mistake when the new Tang emperor, Suzong, finally defeated the rebels in 764. Wang Wei was, however, spared punishment and even gained appointment in the new emperor’s court, perhaps because his younger brother was one of the Suzong emperor’s generals. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“Fields and Gardens by the River Qi” by Wang Wei goes:
I dwell apart by the River Qi,
Where the Eastern wilds stretch far without hills.
The sun darkens beyond the mulberry trees;
The river glistens through the villages.

Wang Wei, Clearing of Rivers and Mountains After Snow

Shepherd boys depart,
gazing back to their hamlets;
Hunting dogs return following their men.
When a man’s at peace,
what business does he have?
I shut fast my rustic door throughout the day. [Translated by Paul Rouzer]

“Deer Fence” reads:
No one is seen in deserted hills,
only the echoes of speech are heard.
Sunlight cast back comes deep in the woods,
and shines once again upon the green moss. [Translated by Stephen Owen]

“Villa on Zhong-nan Mountain” goes:
In my middle years I came to much love the Way,
and late made my home late by South Mountain’s edge.
When the mood comes upon me,
I go off alone,
and have glorious moments all to myself.

I walk to the point where a stream ends,
and sitting,
watch when the clouds rise.
By chance I meet old men in the woods;
we laugh and chat,
no fixed time to turn home. [Translated by Stephen Owen]

“Reading the Classic of Mountains and Sea, I” goes:
Summer’s first month,
all plants grow tall;
around my cottage,
trees dense and full.

There flocks of birds rejoice to find lodging,
and I too cling with love to my cottage.
With the plowing done and the sowing,
now and then I can read my books.
The narrow lanes keep out deep ruts,
and tend to turn away old friends’ carts.

In pleasure I pour out the wine of spring,
and pick from the garden’s vegetables.
A light rain is moving in from the east,
a nice breeze comes along with it.

I browse in the tales of the King of Zhou,
look through the charts of the Mountains and Seas.
In an instant I have covered the universe —,
if this is not joy,
what is?
[Translated by Stephen Owen, Source:“An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, edited and translated by Stephen Owen (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 318.319, 390, 393]

Nineteen Ways To View a Wang Wei Poem

In a review of the book “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways)” by Eliot Weinberger, Perry Link wrote in the New York Review of Books: Wang Wei, one of the best Tang poets, and present it many ways: in Chinese characters, in a transliteration into modern Mandarin, in a character-by-character literal translation, and in seventeen different ways translators have tried to put it into English, French, or Spanish. “They find that none of the translations is perfect (there is no such thing as “perfect” in such matters), but that some are very worthwhile as poems on their own. Weinberger writes that a good poem contains “living matter” that “functions somewhat like DNA, spinning out individual translations that are relatives, not clones, of the original.” Now, in 2016, we have an updated version of the book, called Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways), that offers sixteen additional offspring, three in German, for a total of thirty-four. [Source: Perry Link, professor at Princeton University, New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016]

“The title of the poem is “Deer Fence” (or Deer Park, Deer Enclosure, Deer Forest Hermitage, and others). Weinberger’s literal translation reflects the five-characters-per-line of the original:
“Empty/mountain(s) [or] hill(s)/(negative)/to see/person [or] people
But/to hear/person [or] people/words or conversation/sound [or] to echo
To return/bright(ness) [or] shadow(s)/to enter/deep/forest
To return/to shine/green/moss/above

“Of the finished translations, this one by Burton Watson is among Weinberger’s favorites:
“Empty hills, no one in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.

“ Weinberger congratulates Kenneth Rexroth, whose translation inserts much more than” other translations,” for producing a “real poem” that is closest “to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original.” Most translators will agree that we should not try to improve and also that loyalty to spirit must sometimes outweigh loyalty to letter. But to look at a specific addition to a poem and decide which of these things it is doing is very difficult. At the literalist extreme, there is a school of Western Sinology that aims to ferret out and dissect every conceivable detail about the language of an original. The dissection, though, normally does to the art of a poem approximately what the scalpel of an anatomy instructor does to the life of a frog. Peter A. Boodberg, a distinguished Sinologist at Berkeley fifty years ago, translates Wang Wei’s poem titled “Deer Wattle (Hermitage)” this way:
“The empty mountain; to see no men,
Barely earminded of men talking — countertones
And antistrophic lights-and- shadows incoming deeper the deep-treed grove
Once more to glowlight the blue-green mosses — going up
(The empty mountain…)

“Although he is critical of nearly everyone’s translation in Nineteen Ways, Weinberger wisely adopts the position that “quite a few possible readings” can all be “equally ‘correct.’” Dilemmas about translation do not have definitive right answers (although there can be unambiguously wrong ones if misreadings of the original are involved). Any translation (except machine translation, a different case) must pass through the mind of a translator, and that mind inevitably contains its own store of perceptions, memories, and values.

“Weinberger — rightly, in my view — pushes this insight further when he writes that “every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life.” Then he goes still further: because a reader’s mental life shifts over time, there is a sense in which “the same poem cannot be read twice.” Here, too, I agree. But I feel Weinberger goes a bit too far when he writes that the possible word combinations in a translation are “infinite.” Perhaps we can say that possible interpretations in receiving minds are infinite, since gradations of their differences can be infinitesimal. But “word combinations” in a translation cannot be infinite.

Book: “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways)” by Eliot Weinberger, with an afterword by Octavio Paz (New Directions, 2016]

Late Tang Poetry

Dr. Eno wrote: “Bo Juyi (772-846) was famous for a combination of socially conscious poems and love poems. The poem represented here, in the persona of the Confucian magistrate, illustrates the tension between the political role that Confucians were expected to play and the urge to abandon themselves to the aesthetic values better associated with the Daoist tradition. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“After Collecting the Autumn Taxes” by Bo Juyi goes:
From my high castle I look down below,
Where the natives of Ba cluster like a swarm of flies.
How can I govern these people and lead them aright?
I cannot even understand what they say.
But at least I am glad, now that the taxes are in,
To learn that in my province there is no discontent.
I fear its prosperity is not due to me,
And was only caused by the year's abundant crops,
The papers that lie on my desk are simple and few;
My house by the moat is leisurely and still.
In the autumn rain the berries fall from the eaves;
At the evening bell the birds return to the wood.
A broken sunlight quavers over the southern porch,
Where I lie on my couch abandoned to idleness. [Source: translated by Arthur Waley]

Eno wrote: “ Han Yu (768-824) was perhaps the most influential Confucian of the Late Tang. He was a rigid and puritan Confucian, who stridently protested official patronage of Buddhism and the high valuation of excessively flowery writing in government examinations. Banished from Chang’an for his intolerant arrogance, he won his way back to power and prestige through impressive feats of administration and military command in distant southern jurisdictions. Paradoxically, in the poem we see here, this Confucian paragon demonstrates his sympathy with the Daoist taste for withdrawal into nature and an almost Buddhistic meditation on the evanescence of life.

“Evening: For My Friends Zhang Ji and Zhou Kuang” by Han Yu goes: The sunlight thins, the view empties:
Back from a walk, I lie under the front eaves.
Fairweather clouds like torn fluff,
And the new moon like a whetted sickle.
A zest for the fields and moors stirs in me,
The ambition for robes of office has long since, turned to loathing.
While I live, shall I take your hand again,
Sighing that our years will soon be done? [translated by A. C. Graham]

Li He

Dr. Eno wrote: “ Li He (791-817) was an anomaly. A child prodigy as a poet, he was unable to pass the state examinations and wrote increasingly lurid poetry of an almost surreal quality until his early death at the age of twenty-six. The values Li expresses are hard to pin down, but above all they seem to capture an aesthetic voice of protest that pictures society as an almost absurdist play of people caught in forces beyond their moral control – Li He's social vision often comes close to Zhuangzi's, but with a more cynical tone. It is surprising to learn, therefore, that Li He's greatness was recognized by none other than Han Yu, who became his greatest patron and advocate. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Li He

“Song of the Warden of Goose Gate’ by Li He goes:
Black clouds press on the city walls,
till the walls are ready to fall.
In the light of the moon the chain mail gleams,
metal scales agape.
The call of the horns start to fill the sky,
all amidst the colors of fall.
Like rouge painted skin, up over the pass,
the purpled night congeals.
Our banner withdraws towards the River Yi,
its crimson folds half furled.
In the thick frost of dawn,
the drums grown cold,
their roll does not rise in the air.
We repay now the gold that you hung from the tower,
to bring us to serve you, our lord –

Dragon swords clutched in our hands raised high,
now for our lord we shall die.

Song of the Bronze Immortal Bidding Farewell to the Han by Le Hi: Preface: In the eighth month of the first year of the Qinglong reign period (233) Emperor Ming of Wei ordered his palace officers to drive carts to the west and obtain a statue of an immortal holding a dew basin on its head that had been cast for Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. He wished to place it in the anterior pavilion of his palace. After the officers had broken off the dew basin and were preparing to load the immortal into its cart, tears were seen flowing from its eyes. Thus have I, Li Changji [Li He], son of the royal lineage of the Tang, composed “The Song of the Bronze Immortal Bidding Farewell to the Han.”

Young Master Liu of the Maoling tomb,
the guest of the autumn wind;*
no trace of its hoofs in the dawn.
Figured balustrades, cassia trees,
suspended in fragrance of fall;

Over the thirty-six halls of the Han,
the emerald mosses unfold.

Verses by Li He

The trailing carts of the guardsmen of Wei,
winding a thousand leagues,
The acid winds of the eastern pass,
piercing the pits of their eyes.
Beneath the void where the Han moon hangs,
I am borne through the palace gate.

Recalling my Lord the clear tears flow,
like lines of liquid lead.
Withering orchids see travelers off,
along the Xianyang road.
If Heaven could only feel as we feel,
then Heaven too would grow old.
Carrying my basin I go forth alone,
cold wilderness under the moon.
The Wei River city now far off behind,
rippling waves fading away.

*Maoling was the tumulus of Liu Che, Emperor Wu of the Han, located in Chang’an, by the Wei River, near the old Qin capital of Xianyang. When young, the Emperor composed an ode to the autumn wind, The neigh of his horse can be heard in the night,

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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