Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a period of blooming and flourishing poetry; it produced many great poets. The Complete Poetry of Tang compiled during the Kangxi Period of Qing Dynasty consists of 900 volumes, more than 48,900 poems by more than 2,300 poets were included in it. Forms of poetry also varied, aside from the frequent “Wu Yan”ancient form, “Qi Yanseven-character a line poem”, Jue Ju (four-line form) of both Wu Yan and Qi Yan, Lu Shi (eight-line form) of both Wu Yan and Qi Yan and new formats of “Yue Fu” were all fashionable at the time. Rich and colorful contents and styles of Tang poetry reflected the high spirit of the time and the power of the state.

Affected by the nation-wide farmers’ uprising at the end of Sui Dynasty, the rulers of Tang who seized power by using the uprising, could not but give considerations to the demands of farmers in their systems and policies at the initial period of their rule, and thus created favorable conditions for the development of production and the prosperity of economy. Tang Dynasty ended 400 years of disorder caused by separated regimes and became very powerful. The “Kai Yuan”period during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, which has been referred to as the “Flourishing Tang”, witnessed peace and prosperity all over the country.

Du Fu described this period in his poem “忆昔, Yi Xi, Remembering the Past” as the following:

 忆昔开元全盛日,         Yi xi kai yuan quan sheng ri,

 小邑犹藏万家室。         Xiao yi you cang wan jia shi.

 稻米流脂粟米白,         Dao mi liu zhi su mi bai,

公私仓廪俱丰实。         Gong si cang lin ju feng shi.

九州道路无豺虎,         Jiu zhou dao lu wu chai hu,

 远行不劳吉日出。         Yuan xing bu lao ji ri chu.

 齐纨鲁缟车班班,         Qi wan lu gao che ban ban,

男耕女桑不相失。         Nan geng nu sang bu xiang shi.

A Portrait of Du Fu



 A small city could house ten thousand families.

 Rice looked greasy and corns white,

Public and private barns were all full.

Neither jackal nor tiger appeared on all the roads,

Man’s farming and woman’s weaving were all done in time.

Political unity and economic prosperity naturally boomed culture. Foreign cultures, which were brought in together with trade from other countries, broadened people’s vision. Music, dances, painting, arts and crafts were being developed in new styles. Poetry, the most effective means of expression, after shaking off the yokes of formalism which pursued flowery words and tonal patterns and fashion since Qi and Liang Kingdoms of the Southern Dynasty, found its own way to compliment with the greatness of the time.

 The first hundred years saw neither great poet nor great poems. Yet, we have to remember the names of Lu Zhaolin and Luo Binwang who gave new contents to the “palace form poems” which was quite popular in the 6th century; and the names of Wang Bo, Yang Jiong, Shen Quanqi and Song Zhiwen who laid down the basis of the modern form of poetry, i.e., the basis of “Wu Lu” and “Qi Lu”. Chen Ziang (656-698) ardently redressed the soft and decadent tendency since the late period of the 5th century and promoted the “vigorous style of Han and Wei”. Chen’s “感遇诗, Gan Yu Shi, Touched by the Encounter” was his efforts in learning the vehemence of the Jian An period. But Chen didn’t have enough influence. It was 李白 (Li Bai 701-762) who changed the whole picture of poetry and portrayed vividly the age of the “Flourishing Tang”. Li Bai said, “To restore to the old way, if not me, who else?” He wrote 59 poems under the title of “Ancient Style”and in the name of “restoring to the old ways”and with numerous creations (some 900 poems are available today), he was able to channel poetry into the realistic path which was closely related to the life of the people.

 A portrait of Li Bai

Li Bai’s main activities were almost conducted in the 40 years of the “Flourishing Tang” period. He spent his childhood in Sichuan and nurtured by the beautiful scenery there. To seek opportunities for realizing his ambitions, he started at the age of 25 to travel the places around Anlu of Hubei for 15 years. Li was supercilious, never an official in any formal sense and never thought of taking the imperial examination. He said he was “willing to assist an emperor by exerting all his wisdom and ability”; “when come to the political scene,”he wanted “to deal with kings and dukes on an equal footing.” He didn’t wish to “condescend self and rely on other’s kindness.”He always compared himself to a roc or a steed, and thought he could amaze the world one-day with a brilliant feat. Yet, in reality what he encountered was derision and misunderstanding. He had, through experience, seen through the bigwigs, so he concluded: “How could I bow to serve the bigwigs, and not making myself happy!” He despised and laughed at vulgar persons, he was furious at the trammels and fetters imposed on man by social customs. He demanded freedom. He demanded emancipation. He often drank wildly and sang out his mind at the top of his voice. That’s why he wrote so many poems praising chivalry and immortals. He “bought singing and smiles with yellow gold and white jade, I belittle kings and dukes during the month-long drunkenness,”he often showed his haughtiness unbridledly when he was drunk. The poetry of the “Flourishing Tang” was remarkable for the romantic, bold and uninhibited style in the pursuing of ideals and the spirit of seeking freedom, development and emancipation. Li Bai’s poetry is the representative of the poetry of the “Flourishing Tang”, because his poems are an embodiment of such a style and spirit.

 In 742, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang called Li Bai into the capital because of his fame. Li Bai was happy and thought it would be an opportunity for him to realize his aspirations. In fact, he was only used as a hack writer, he was asked to write flowery poems for the pleasure of the emperor. He found out the emperor and his ministers were as vulgar as the officials he encountered before. He often “walked back and forth before the palaces, and sighed at the passing of time.” He stayed at the capital for less than three years, was never formally appointed an official, he then “exited from the city gate with a big laughter”and began his life of roaming again for 10 years around Kaifeng of Henan Province until the An Lushan Rebellion broke out. He was distressed to see "white bones piled up as hills”, he cried out,what crimes is there for the common folks?” He joined the army led by Li Lin, the 16th son of the emperor in order to fight against the rebels, without knowing Li Lin had his own hidden motives. The emperor wiped out the army when Li Bai joined it for less than three months. Li Bai was punished for joining the army and sent into exile to Guizhou. He felt he was having a similar experience as Qu Yuan and lamented:

 远别泪空尽,           Yuan bie lei kong jin,

 长愁心已摧,           Chang chou xin yin cui,

 三年吟泽畔,           San nian yin ze pan,

 憔悴几时回!           Qiao cui ji shi hui! 

 My heart is being gnawed by the endless anxiety,

For three years I could only hum by the swamp,

I shall wan and sallow because of longing for return.

Yet, amnesty came when he was half way to Guizhou. After being released, he continued his life of roaming around Jinling (Nanjing) and Xuancheng for two or three years and led a very poor life. In November 726, he died of illness at Dangtu County, Anhui Province at the age of 62. 

What was most expressed in Li Bai’s poems was his desire for personal freedom; his despise at mediocre persons who were satisfied with established orders and his indignation at the lack of respect to talented people. He described the society thus:

 鸡聚族以争食,          Ji ju zu yi zheng shi,

 凤孤飞而无邻。          Feng gu fei er wu lin.

 蝘蜓嘲龙,              Yan ting chao long,

鱼目混珍。              Yu mu hun zhen.

嫫母衣锦,              Mo mu yi jin,

西施负薪。              Xi shi fu xin.

To fight for food chicken gather,

Without company phoenix flies alone.

Gecko laughs at dragon,

Momu (the ugliest lady) wears beautiful cloths,

Xishi (the most beautiful lady) carries firewood.

While exposing and critiquing in depth the crimes of the Tang ruling clique, Li Bai also showed his sympathy to the laboring people and the humanitarian spirit of his own, let’s read his “丁都护歌, Ding Du Hu Ge, Song of Supervisor Ding”:

云阳上征去,           Yun yang shang zheng qu,

 两岸饶商贾。           Liang an rao shang gu.

吴牛喘月时,           Wu niu chuan yue shi,

拖船一何苦!           Tuo chuan yi he ku!

水浊不可饮,           Shui zhuo bu ke yin,

 壶浆半成土。           Hu jiang ban cheng tu.

一唱都护歌,           Yi chang du hu ge,

 心摧泪如雨。           Xin cui lei ru yu.

万人系盘石,           Wan ren xi pan shi,

无由达江浒。           Wu you da jiang hu.

 君看石芒砀,           Jun kan shi mang dang,

 掩泪悲千古。           Yan lei bei qian gu.

 Towing boats up north from Yunyang,

Shops and stores on the banks all along.

When Wu buffaloes gasping under the moon,

How hard to tow the boats on.

The water is too turbid to drink,

In the pot half is mud.

Singing the “Supervisor ‘s Song”,

Hearts are broken and tears run down.

Still no way to tug it to the bank.

 A sight at the Mang and Dang Mountains,

One can’t hide tears and feel sad always.

 “Song of Supervisor Ding”was an old title in“Yue Fu”which had been a reminder of sadness. Li Bai used it to describe the hard life of boat rackers in hot summer days. The “Supervisor Song” mentioned in the poem is not necessarily the one in “Yue Fu”, it was a work song boat rackers used to sing to synchronize their steps.

 Many of Li Bai’s poems sang praise of mountains and rivers, and often with an artistic touch. These poems can always arouse the reader’s imagination and their love of motherland. For instance “望庐山瀑布, Wang Lu Shan Pu Bu, Looking at the Lushan Waterfall”:

日照香炉生紫烟,         Ri zhao xiang lu sheng zi yan,

遥看瀑布挂前川。         Yao kan pu bu gua qian chuan.

飞流直下三千尺,         Fei liu zhi xia san qian chi,

 疑是银河落九天。         Yi shi yin he luo jiu tian.

  Purple smoke comes out from the Incense Burner

Looking from afar before the mount waterfall seemed to be Hung.


The flying torrent lands itself right 3 thousand-foot down,

I doubt if it is the Milky Way falling from the sky.


 Here, Li Bai projected to us a remote and grand sight of waterfall running down swiftly amidst purple clouds. He wrote another poem about the Lushan Waterfall:

西登香炉峰,            Xi deng xiang lu feng,

 南见瀑布水。            Nan jian pu bu shui.

挂流三百丈,            Guo liu san bai zhang,

 喷壑数十里。            Pen he shu shi li.

歘如飞电来,            Xu ru fei dian lai,

隐若白虹起;            Yin ruo bai hong qi;

初惊河汉落,            Chu jing he han luo,

半洒云天里。            Ban sa yun tian li.

 仰观势转雄,            Yang guan shi zhuan xiong

壮哉造化功!            Zhuang zai zao hua gong!


 海风吹不断,            Hai feng cui bu duan,

 江月照还空。            Jiang yue zhao hai kong.

 。。。。。。                 …

Climb up the Incense Burner Peak from the west,

I see the waterfall in the south.

The hanging torrent is 3 hundred foot long,

Water is being spurted out and runs several dozen li.

It comes down as sudden as lightening,

There is a white bow looming.

I’m startled as if the Milky Way is falling,

Vapor is being sprayed into half of the sky.

So, when looking up it becomes more powerful,

It’s so transparent under moonlight.

In this poem, we see no metaphor, no figure of speech, just plain and straightforward words with a little association of thoughts, yet the poet portrayed for us a simple and natural beauty.

But, Li Bai is a master of metaphor and hyperbole. Let me give you a few examples:

 抽刀断水水更流, chou dao duan shui shui geng liu,

举杯消愁愁更愁. ju bei xiao chou chou geng chou.

To cut water with a sword, water still runs,

To extinguish anxiety with wine, there is more anxiety.

白发三千丈, 缘愁似个长。Bai fa san qian zhang, yuan chou si ge chang.

White hair can run for 9 thousand meters,

It was worry that made it so long.


 Tao hua tan shui shen qian chi, bu ji wang lun song wo qing.

 The Peach Flower Pond is a thousand foot deep,

 Yet still deeper is Wang Lun’s friendship.


 Yan shan xue hua da ru xi, pian pain chui luo xuan yuan tai.

 Snowflakes at Yanshan are big as straw mats,

 Every piece of them lands on the Xuan Yuan Terrace.

 Li Bai’s imagination was surprisingly rich, his “狂风吹我心, 西挂咸阳树”(The wild wind blows my heart away, and hang it on the tree in Xian Yang in the west) expressed how he missed Changan, because Xian Yang is very close to Changan; “我寄愁心与明月, 随风直到夜郎西”(I mail my worrying heart to the bright moon, it will go with the wind to the west of Yelang County) voiced his worries about a poet friend Wang Changling who was reduced to a lower rank. 《蜀道难, Shu Dao Nan, The Difficult Road to Shu and 《梦游天姥吟留别, Meng You Tian Lao Yin Liu Bie, Touring Mount Tianlao in Dream and Saying Good-bye created colorful and soul-stirring scenes by the aid of legend and fairy-tails.

 As far as forms of poetry are concerned, Li Bai preferred freer forms, not “Lu She” which has so many restrictions in tonal pattern and rhyme schemes. He was very good at “Yue Fu”, his “Wu Yan Jue Ju”“静夜思, Jing Ye Si, Thoughts at a Quiet Night” has been most popular:

床前明月光,           Chuang qian ming yue guang,

疑是地上霜。           Yi shi di shang shuang.

举头望明月,           Ju tou wang ming yue,

低头思故乡。           Di tou si gu xiang.

Bright moon light before my bed,

I thought it was frost on the ground.

Looking up I see the bright moon,

Looking down I think of my hometown

Critics said this poem just flowed out of Li’s mouth, the poet was not especially particular about refinement, yet every thing is refined. Many of his “Qi Jue” are outstanding works, I have quoted his “Looking at the Lushan Waterfall”, I would like to cite another one, “早发白帝城, Zao Fa Bai Di Cheng, Setting out from Baidi City in the Morning”:

朝辞白帝彩云间,      Zhao ci bai di cai yun jian

千里江陵一日还。      Qian li jiang ling yi ri huan.

两岸辕声啼不住,      Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu,

 轻舟已过万重山。       Qing zhou yi guo wan chong shan.

Setting out from the rosy clouds at Baidi in the morning,

I covered one thousand li in one day to Jiangling.

While the apes along the banks kept crying,

The light boat has dashed through numerous hills.

 This poem, which depicted his delighted heart when he was released from the exile, has always been regarded as a treasure. Li Bai was an expert in using old “Yue Fu”titles; his language was straightforward and natural. Aside from the above, Li Bai’s poetry is also conspicuous for his desire for freedom and his humanitarian thoughts. That’s why his influence has been most far-reaching and profound, and that’s why he is one of the greatest poets of China.

 There were many famous poets who were peers of Li Bai. 王维 (Wang Wei, ?-761) has been most known for his poems on nature and landscape. He was an artist and believed in Buddhism. He described scenarios in exquisite ways with the eyes of a painter, for instance:

大漠孤烟直, 长河落日圆。 

Da mo gu yan zhi, chang he luo ri yuan.

The lonely smoke went up straight in the big desert,

The setting sun at the long river is round.

With a few touches, a scenery of frontier desert was vividly portrayed.

   草枯鹰眼疾, 雪尽马蹄轻。

Cao gu ying yan ji, xue jin ma ti qing.

Eagle’s eyes scan swiftly through withered grass,

Horse runs with lighter hoofs when snow thaws.

 With only ten characters in Chinese, the poet told you about the season and the feelings the eagle and the horse had. Almost 400 of Wang Wei’s poems are available today. Meng Haoran (孟浩然, 689-740) was good at “Wu Yan Lu Shi” and “Jue Ju”. Country life and nature were often his themes. His “春晓, Chun Xiao, Daybreak in Spring”has been widely known:

春眠不觉晓,           Chun mian bu jue xiao,

处处闻啼鸟,           Chu chu wen ti niao.

夜来风雨声,           Ye lai feng yu sheng,

花落知多少!           Hua luo zhi duo shao!

A Painting depicting the theme of “Daybreak in Spring”


I hear everywhere birds chirping,

There was much wind and rain during the night,

How many flowers would have fallen?

Other important poets of this period are Wang Changling (? -756) who was most famous for his “Qi Yan Jue Ju”and Cen Shen (715-770) who was well versed in “Qi Yan”old style poetry and in depicting frontier landscape