Chinese literature is one of the major components of China’s splendid culture, and the Chinese poetry is just like the brightest of the gems in this ancient civilization’s literary treasure house. There were innumerable famous poets from different periods of time in China’s history, and hundreds or even thousands of their poems are still read and appreciated today.
Among our several renowned poets, there are a small number of them who can be called the best of the best. They are household names in China today and almost any Chinese who has finished high school would know a little bit about their poems. The following is a list of ten poets widely believed to have been the masters of Chinese ancient poetry. Based on the times when these poets lived, they are listed in a chronological order from the earliest to the latest in history.
Qu Yuan (340–278 BC)Image Source: Foshan
Qu Yuan was a Chinese poet and minister who lived during the Warring States period of ancient China. He is known both for his patriotism and classical poems and verses. As a statesman of the Chu State, Qu assisted the king in governing the country but later was sent into exile as a result of false accusations against him. Many years later, when the Chu State was defeated by Qin State, Qu was in great despair and committed suicide by drowning himself in Miluo River. The traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated to commemorate him.
In addition to being a true patriot, Qu was also well known for leaving behind many immortal poems. He wrote most of them during his exile. He expressed his love for his country and its people through these poems. Among his greatest works are Li Sao (The Lament), Tian Wen (Asking Questions of Heaven), Jiu Ge (Nine Songs), and Huai Sha (Embracing the Sand).
Li Sao is not only one of the most remarkable works of Qu, it ranks as one of the greatest poems in Chinese or world poetry. This long lyrical poem, by means of rich imagery and skillful similes, describes the search of a soul in agony and the sadness of separation. It touches upon various historical themes intermingled with legends and myths, and depicts the social conditions of that time. The poem also reflects Qu’s desire to save his country.
Tao Yuanming (365–427)Image Source: China Guardian Auctions
Tao Yuanming, also known as Tao Qian, was a Chinese poet who lived in the middle of the Six Dynasties period (220 – 589). Not only is he regarded as the greatest poet of the period, but he is also famous for his propensity for solitude. He seemed to have written his greatest poems while in reclusion. Most of his poems that survive depict an idyllic pastoral life of farming and drinking, and that is why he is called the greatest poet of “tianyuan,” or “fields and gardens.” Among his most famous poems are “Drinking Wine” and “Returning to Live in the South.”
Tao, who served more than ten years in government service, did not enjoy his life as a minor official and later retired to a farming village south of the Yangtze River. Tao was a master of the five-word line, but his simple and straightforward poetry was not fully appreciated until the Tang dynasty (618–907).
Aside from his poems, Tao is also known for his short and influential prose depiction of a land hidden from the outside world called “Peach Blossom Spring,” which has since become the standard Chinese term for “utopia.”
Meng Haoran (689–740)Image Source: Hubei China
Meng Haoran was a major Tang dynasty poet, and a somewhat older contemporary of more famous Tang poets Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu. He had a major influence on other poets of his era because of his focus on nature as a main topic for poetry.
Meng later gained more fame after he had been prominently featured in the Qing dynasty poetry anthology “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” having the fifth largest number of his poems included, for a total of fifteen, exceeded only by Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Li Shangyin.
Despite his brief pursuit of an official career, Meng mainly lived in and wrote about the area in which he was born and raised, in what is now Hubei Province in northern China. His works are mostly five-word short poems. The subject matter is quite narrow, mainly focused on the description of landscapes, pastorals, and reclusive and travel life.
Wang Wei (699–759)Image Source: My Poetic Side
Wang Wei was a famous poet in China’s Tang Dynasty, one of the golden ages of Chinese cultural history. He was also a well-known musician, painter, and statesman. His works often take a Buddhist perspective, combining an attention to the beauties of nature with an awareness of sensory illusion.
Many of Wang’s poems are preserved, and 29 of them were included in the highly influential 18th-century anthology “Three Hundred Tang Poems.” He was a master of the “jueju,” or “Chinese quatrain,” a type of modern form poetry that grew popular among Chinese poets in the Tang Dynasty. Many of his quatrains depict quiet scenes of water and mist, with few details and little human presence.
Among his most famous poems are “Farewell,” “At the Lake Pavilion” and “Random Poem.”Along with his achievement in poetry, painting and music, Wang furthermore had a successful career as a court official. Eventually, he became a devout Zen Buddhist and a vegetarian.
Li Bai (701 – 762)Image Source: Britannica
When talking about Chinese poetry, people in China almost never fail to mention “Tang Shi Song Ci,” or “Poems of Tang (Dynasty) and Poetry of Song (Dynasty).” It’s because the greatest poets in China are thought to have lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and Song Dynasty (960-1279). And Li Bai is regarded as one of the two most prominent figures in the flourishing of Chinese poetry in the Tang Dynasty. The other such figure is Du Fu.
Li was a Chinese poet acclaimed from his own day to the present as a poetry genius. Nicknamed “Immortal Poet,” he is believed to have taken traditional poetic forms to new heights. Described as a romantic poet, Li wrote many poems that were regarded as models for celebrating the pleasures of friendship, the depth of nature, solitude, and the joys of drinking wine. Among the most famous are “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day,” “The Hard Road to Shu,” and “Quiet Night Thought,” which still appear in school textbooks in China.
Li traveled widely, and many of the places he visited are reflected in his poems, which also feature such themes as friendship, dream-like imaginations, current events, and nature.
Du Fu (712 – 770)Image Source: Wards World
As mentioned above, Du Fu was one of the two most prominent poets of the Tang Dynasty. Along with his friend Li Bai, he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. Of his poetic writing, nearly 1,500 poems have been preserved over the ages. He liked to write in a structured form of poetry that was called “lu shi,” or “regulated poetry.”
Du is regarded as one of the greatest realist poets of China. His poems reflect the hard realities of war, people dying as a result of abject poverty, and primitive rural life. Here is a famous couplet from one of his poems: “Behind redden doors stink with wine and meat, but upon the road die frozen men.” He is thought to have lived in a thatched cottage near today’s Chengdu in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province
Just like Li Bai, Du also traveled a lot, and his early poems thread together incidents from his travels and personal accounts of the hardships he endured. Through his works, Du showed his strong sense of history, his moral engagement, and his technical excellence. Among his most famous poems are “Song of the Wagons,” “Facing Snow” and “Moonlit Night.”
Bai Juyi (772–846)Image Source: Wikipedia
Bai Juyi was a renowned Chinese poet and Tang dynasty government official. He is especially famous for using his elegantly simple verse to protest the social evils of his day, including corruption and militarism.
One of the most prolific of the Tang poets, Bai wrote over 2,800 poems, which he had copied and distributed to ensure their survival. They are notable for their relative accessibility. It is said that he would rewrite any part of a poem if one of his servants was unable to understand it. The accessibility of his poems made them extremely popular in his lifetime, in both China and Japan, and they continue to be read in both countries today.
Two of his most famous works are the long narrative poems “Chang Hen Ge” (Song of Everlasting Sorrow) and “The Song of the Pipa Player.” Like Du Fu, he had a strong sense of social responsibility and is well known for his satirical poems, such as “The Elderly Charcoal Seller.”
Li Shangyin (813–858)Image Source: Pen
Li Shangyin was a well-known Chinese poet of the late Tang Dynasty. His works are famous for their lush and obscure imagery, often described as sensuous, dense and allusive. Although his poetry and prose were appreciated within certain literary circles, his status as one of the most important poets of his time was not recognized until after his death.
Li, who held various posts as a low-level government official, composed poetry during and between his various posts. His works reflect the social and political conditions of his time, and, although few of his contemporaries recognized his genius, he greatly influenced early Song dynasty poets.
Li’s poems are difficult to understand and translate because of his use of imagery, abstruse allusions, political allegory, and personal satire. Many of his great poems have no titles. These “no title” poems are regarded as “pure poetry” by some modern critics.
Su Shi (1037 – 1101)Image Source: Sotheby
Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, was one of China’s greatest poets and writers. He was also an accomplished calligrapher and a public official in China’s Song Dynasty. His poetry has a long history of popularity and influence in China, Japan, and other areas nearby and is well known in the English-speaking parts of the world through the translations by Arthur Waley, among others.
Su was a master of nearly all literary forms, including shi (regulated verse), ci (typical poetic form of the Song Dynasty), fu (prose poetry), and essays. Emphasizing spontaneity and expressiveness, he made significant efforts to loosen poetic conventions on form and content, especially in ci, and became known as the founder of the “hao fang” (heroic abandon) school of writing.
Around 2,700 of Su Song’s poems have survived. Some of his notable works include the First and Second “Chi Bi Fu” (The Red Cliffs), “Nian Nu Jiao: Chi Bi Huai Gu” (Remembering Chi Bi, to the tune of Nian Nu Jiao) and “Shui Diao Ge Tou: Bing Chen Zhong Qiu” (Remembering Su Zhe on the Mid-Autumn Festival).
Lu You (1125–1209)Image Source: Imooo
Lu You was a prominent poet of China’s Southern Song Dynasty, noted for his collection of nearly 10,000 poems as well as numerous prose pieces. He is particularly famous for his simple, direct expression and for his attention to realistic detail. As his poems are featured by unconstrained style and grand verve, which is similar to those composed by Li Bai, Lu was also named as “Junior Taibai” (Taibai is Li Bai’s courtesy name).
Lu has been admired for the ardor of his patriotic poems, in which he protested the Jin invasion of Song in 1126, the year after his birth. He also expressed his dissatisfaction toward the Southern Song court for its passive attitude toward driving out the invaders. Demoted for his outspoken opinions, Lu resigned his official position and retired to his country estate.
During retirement, Lu devoted most of his poetry to the appreciation and praise of rural life. Like the great poet Tao Yuanming, whom he took as his model, Lu depicted the rural countryside in homely detail. Among the most renowned poems by Lu are “To Son,” “Full River Red” and “Ode to Plum Blossom.”
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