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Some of the first recorded texts in China’s history are poems, such as its long and respected history in Chinese culture. Literary Chinese, which came about around 771 BCE, was the language used to write poetry during the ‘golden age’ of China, as well as many popular books of the time such as those written by Confucius.
Although this poetic language is not used in spoken and written Chinese in the modern day, poetry from China’s ancient times is still loved and enjoyed by many today.
Interestingly, unlike in the west, in Chinese culture, the genre of a poem is dictated by the content matter instead of its form.
These five influential poets wrote throughout the Song and Tang Dynasties and produced a number of poems spanning several different genres:
白居易 (bái jū yì) Bai Juyi (772-846)
Bai Juyi was a poet during the Tang Dynasty and started composing poetry at the age of 5 years old. Bai Juyi believed that poetry should contain a moral and social purpose and rejected the decedent behaviours prevalent at the time.
春眠 (chūn mián) Spring Sleep
(zhěn dī bèi nuǎn shēn ān wěn)
The pillow is low, the quilt is warm, the body lays sleeping peacefully
(rì zhào fáng mén zhàng wèi kāi)
The sun shines on the door of the room, the curtain is not yet open.
(hái yǒu shào nián chūn qì wèi)
The youthful scent of spring is still in the air,
(shí shí zàn dào mèng zhōng lái)
Often it will come to you in your dreams.
杜甫 (dù fǔ) Dufu (712-770)
Dufu was born into a traditional family and had a Confucian education. He met and travelled with Li Bai, who he had a great respect for. Although he was well-regarded, Dufu had no money or title. He held some positions in court but eventually became a gentleman farmer. His poetry celebrated the beauty of the natural world, although in his later years his tone took on more dark themes.
雨晴 (yǔ qíng) Rain Clearing
(tiān shuǐ qiū yún báo)
The sky’s water has fallen, and autumn clouds are thin,
(cóng xī wàn lǐ fēng)
The western wind has blown ten thousand miles.
(jīn zhāo hǎo qíng jǐng)
This morning’s scene is good and fine,
(jiǔ yǔ bù fáng nóng)
Long rain has not delayed farming time.
(sāi liǔ xíng shū cuì)
The row of willows begins to show green,
(shān lí jiē xiǎo hóng)
The pear tree on the hill has little red flowers
(hú jiā lóu shàng lóu shàng)
A hujia pipe begins to play upstairs,
(yī yàn rù gāo kōng)
One goose flies high into the sky.
杜牧 (dù mù) Dumu (803-852)
Dumu was one of the most influential poets of the Tang dynasty. He is most well known for his romantic quatrains, although he also wrong long-form narrative poems. Dumu held several official positions, however, felt that his career had ultimately been a failure and described his dissatisfaction in his poetry.
赠别 (zèng bié) On Parting
(duō qíng què sì zǒng wú qíng)
I feel deep love, but always seem heartless,
(wěi jué zūn qián xiào bù chéng)
I think I should laugh during the banquet, but I can not.
(là zhú yǒu xīn hái xī bié)’
The candle has a heart, so reluctant to part.
(tì rén chuí lèi dào tiān míng)
It is crying till dawn instead of us.
李白 (lǐ bái) Li Bai (701-762)
Although Li Bai had the same family name as the imperial family at the time, he was actually from a lower family. He left home at 24 when he got married and began to write poetry. He began to wander, showing off his poetry in order to receive employment. He eventually went to Chang’an, the Tang capital city and became part of a poetry group. He came the unofficial poet laureate for Prince Lin, who was eventually executed for treason. Li was arrested and eventually banished. Li Bai celebrated his love of drinking and wrote poems about friendship and nature.
自遣 (zì qiǎn) Amusing Myself
(duì jiǔ bù jué míng)
Drunk with friends, unaware that it is almost dusk.
(luò huā yíng wǒ yī)
Fallen blossom fill my clothes
(zuì qǐ bù xī yuè)
Drunk, I take a walk along a stream by moonlight,
(niǎo huán rén yì xī)
Birds come back home, few people on the road.
李煜 (lǐ yù) Li Yu (937-978)
Li Yu was the final ruler of the south Tang dynasty, before Taizu, founder of the Song dynasty invaded and took over. Li Yu was the master of the ‘词‘ song form and his earlier poems reflected the luxury of court. His most impressive poetry, came sadly when he experienced the loss of his kingdom.
(duō shao lèi, duàn liǎn fù héng yí)
How many tears cross my cheeks.
(xīn shì mò jiāng hé lèi shuō)
I do not speak things of my heart when crying,
(fèng shēng xiū xiàng lèi shí chuī)
Please do not play the phoenix flute when I cry,
(cháng duàn gèng wú yí)
I am no doubt extremely sad now.
梅尧臣 (méi yáo chén) Mei Yaochen (1002 – 1060)
Mei Yaochen was one of the most leading poets of the Song dynasty and helped revive the 古文 (gǔ wén) ‘guwen’ poetry style revival. Mei focused on social and political concerns as themes for his poetry, disregarding Confucian traditions.
悼亡 (dào wáng) Mourning Loss
(jié fà wéi fū fù, yú jīn shí qī nián)
It is 17 years ago since we got married.
(xiāng kàn yóu bù zú, hé kuàng shì cháng juān)
It is still not enough to stay with you, how can I afford to lose you now forever!
(wǒ bìn yǐ duō bái, cǐ shēn nìng jiǔ quán)
Already, the hair on my temples are mostly white, how long can my body survive?
(zhōng dāng yǔ tóng xué, wèi sǐ lèi lián lián)
In the end, we’ll share a tomb; As I’m still not dead, I still can not help but cry.
Do you have a favourite Chinese poem or poet? Share them with us below!