The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Imperial Chinese poetry

BEFORE

c.4th century BCE A collection of lyric poems, Songs of Chu (Chu Ci), is compiled, attributed to Qu Yuan, Song Yu, and others.

2nd and 3rd centuries CE Cao Cao, later the Emperor Wu of Wei, and his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, establish the jian’an style of poetry of the later Han dynasty.

AFTER

960–1368 During the Song and Yuan dynasties, the lyric ci style becomes more popular than the Tang formal shi style.

1368–1644 Ming dynasty poetry is dominated by Gao Qi, Li Dongyang, and Yuan Hongdao.

1644 Manchu rulers establish the Qing dynasty, opening a period of scholarship in and publication of Tang literature.

China has a tradition of poetry that can be traced back to the 11th century BCE. While some early poetry was in a lyric style – ci – in the shape of songs and love poems, a more formal style – shi – tackled reflective themes and used stricter structures. During the early Han dynasty, in the 3rd century BCE, a collection of 305 shi poems was compiled, the Book of Odes (Shijing). Considered one of the Five Classics of Chinese literature, it set the standard for subsequent classical Chinese poetry.

Poetic traditions

This shi tradition reached its apex in the Tang era (618–907 CE). In the 8th century in particular a number of brilliant poets emerged. Foremost among them were Li Bai (701–762), also known as Li Po, whose poems included nostalgic meditations on friendship; his friend Du Fu (712–770), known as the “poet-historian”; and the polymath Wang Wei (699–759), whose nature portraits seldom mentioned any human interference.

In 1705, the Kangxi emperor (reigned 1661–1722) commissioned the scholar Cao Yin to compile a definitive collection to be known as the Quan Tangshi (“Complete Tang Poems”) with almost 50,000 poems by more than 2,000 poets. A shorter anthology was compiled in around 1763 by Sun Zhu, Three Hundred Tang Poems (Tangshi sanbai shou), which, like the Book of Odes, was accorded Classic status, and has remained essential reading in China to the present.

"We sit together, the mountain and me, until only the mountain remains."


"Alone Looking at the Mountain"
Li Bai

See also: Book of Changes • Romance of the Three Kingdoms • The Narrow Road to the Interior