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China’s Greatest Poets

Five great Chinese poets from history


China’s Greatest Poets

Five great Chinese poets from history


Just because you know your Mo Yan from your Lu Xun that doesn’t make you some kind of Chinese literary know-it-all. And forget the novelists and short story writers, what about poets? If you’re clueless about Li Bai, Du Fu and the whole cohort of officials, misfits and even the odd Marxist revolutionary who produced China’s greatest verse, well you better get  reading, hadn’t you?

Much like Shakespeare, their work sits at the very core of the literary canon, and again, much like Shakespeare, their most famous rhymes are drummed into the heads of students at an early age. So much so, that you will be hard pushed to find a Chinese person with a high-school level education who doesn’t know at least a bit about Du Fu’s Autumnal rambles round Kui Prefecture, or the nocturnal contemplation of Li Bai as he sat looking at the moonlight at the foot of his bed, thinking it looked like frost. It makes for some pretty brilliant poetry.



Li Bai

Li Bai was known for the sheer amount of his poetic output. He is often referred to as  the “saint of wine” or the “drunken saint” (酒仙). He was born during the Tang Dynasty, probably in the northwestern region of China, and although he received a classical education, he went on to behave in a most un-Confucian way throughout the rest of his life. He went on to wander around China, writing of the things and people he encountered. His fame was such that he was able to spend several years at court as a poet and translator. He subsequently wandered in much the same vein, the sole exception being his participation in a failed rebellion, for which he got off relatively easily, his exile being cancelled before he even reached his intended destination. Legend has it that Li Bai died at 63, on a lake. An example of his work would be the typically titled “Drinking Alone by Moonlight”:











Drinking Alone by Moonlight

A cup of wine, under the flowering trees; I drink alone, for no friend is near.

Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon, for he, with my shadow, will make three men.

The moon, alas, is no drinker of wine; Listless, my shadow creeps about at my side.

Yet with the moon as friend and the shadow as slave, I must make merry before the Spring is spent.

To the songs I sing the moon flickers her beams; In the dance I weave my shadow tangles and breaks.

While we were sober, three shared the fun; Now we are drunk, each goes his way.

May we long share our odd, inanimate feast, And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky.


Translation by Arthur Waley (See bottom of page for source)


Du Fu

Du Fu was a contemporary and admirer of Li Bai, but the two were different types. Unlike Li Bai, who seems like he had the requisite qualities and contacts to dabble in court affairs, the height of  Du Fu’s ambition was supposedly to be a successful official, and yet he was supposedly frustrated in this multiple times. When he did finally gain a posting, a rebellion kicked off, resulting in a long period of drifting. When he did make it to court, he found himself in a post he found so frustrating he wrote:

“I am about to scream madly in the office/Especially when they bring more papers to pile higher on my desk.”

A rather modern sentiment. It was, ironically, in a lifestyle similar to his idol Li Bai that Du Fu found greatest happiness–that of artistic detachment. He traveled to Chengdu, and took up residence in a now famous thatched cottage, where he produced prolific amounts of verse — over 1,500 poems. A couple of highly productive years later, however, Du Fu died en route to his birthplace, Luoyang. Typical of some of Du Fu’s later work is “A Poem for Wei Ba” (《赠卫八处士 》). Here’s an excerpt:

人生不相见,                           It is almost as hard for friends to meet,
动如参与商。                           As for the morning and evening stars.
今夕复何夕,                           Tonight then is a rare event,
共此灯烛光。                           Joining, in the candlelight,
少壮能几时,                           Two men who were young not long ago,
鬓发各已苍。                           But now are turning grey at the temples.
访旧半为鬼,                           To find that half our friends are dead,
惊呼热中肠。                           Shocks us, burns our hearts with grief.

Translation from University of Virginia’s 300 Tang poems


Wang Wei

Wang Wei was different from the two poets already mentioned in that he was something of a polymath, an accomplished painter, musician, scholar and poet. He attained the achievement of zhuangyuan (状元, 1st place) in the civil service examinations, and rose through the ranks of court music through his proficiency with the pipa (Chinese lute) until he became “Deputy master of music,” a more important job than it sounds.

When rebellion came against the Tang, the fortunes of the resilient Wang fluctuated, but had risen enough for him to return to the capital, but unluckily he was struck down with dysentery and was left behind. In the hands of the rebels, captive Wang felt that he had to stick-up for his team nonetheless, and is said to have attempted a number of things to avoid being forced to work for the rebels, including pretending to be deaf and drinking medicine which created cankers in his mouth. With the subsequent Tang recapture of Luoyang, however, Wang’s seemingly limitless powers of political survival saw him rise to high office, and he enjoyed relative tranquility until his death. “One-hearted” is a good example of Wang Wei’s poetry.

相思                                                     One-hearted

红豆生南国,                                      When those red beans come in springtime,

春来发几枝?                                      Flushing on your southland branches,

愿君多采撷,                                      Take home an armful, for my sake,

此物最相思。                                      As a symbol of our love.

Translation from University of Virginia’s 300 Tang poems

Xu Zhimo

And now with a great leap forward, we come to Xu Zhimo. Xu seems to have been a scholarly type, a vast portion of his life being spent in a rather impressive roll-call of universities all over the world, including: Shanghai, Peiyang (now Tianjin) University, PKU, Columbia, London and Cambridge. His major contribution to Chinese poetry was the adding of western Romantic forms, and he had particular admiration for Shelley. His most famous piece is something of a standard for poetry recitations called “Another Farewell to Cambridge” (《再别康桥》). Here’s an excerpt:


但我不能放歌,                                       But I cannot sing aloud,

悄悄是别离的笙箫;                            Quietness is my farewell music;

夏虫也为我沉默,                                Even summer insects keep silence for me,

沉默是今晚的康桥!                            Silent is Cambridge tonight!

Translation from Peomhunter


Mao Zedong

Mao was an impressively self-made intellectual, at one point becoming assistant librarian at PKU, and perverse though it may seem, wrote highly accomplished verse in the classical Chinese style. How good it actually is and whether it compares to the output of Li Bai or Du Fu isn’t something I’m qualified to say, but there’s no doubt that it has been some of the most influential poetry of recent times, with many educated or semi-educated Chinese above a certain age being able to recite some of his most famous lines. It’s pretty powerful stuff. Take this, for example, a piece written by Mao about terrain the Red Army traversed on the Long March. It’s called “Liupan Mountain” (《清平乐·六盘山》):


天高云淡,                                                The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

望断南飞雁。                                            We watch the wild geese vanish southward.

不到长城非好汉,                                    If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men

屈指行程二万。                                        We who have already measured twenty thousand li

六盘山上高峰,                                        High on the crest of Mount Liupan

红旗漫卷西风。                                        Red banners wave freely in the west wind.

今日长缨在手,                                        Today we hold the long cord in our hands,

何时缚住苍龙?                                        When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?


Translation from Peomhunter


Translation of “Drinking Alone by Moonlight”: Waley, Arthur (1919). “Drinking Alone by Moonlight: Three Poems,” More Translations from the Chinese (Alfred A. Knopf, New York), pp. 27-28. Li Bai wrote 4 poems with the same name (Quantangshi 卷182_22 《月下獨酌四首》李白); Waley published translations of three.