Day: March 15, 2022

Tao Qian

Shitao (1642-c. 1707) – note the chrysanthemums in this painting


“Earth and heaven endure forever,

Streams and mountains never change.

Plants observe a constant rhythm,

Withered by frost, by dew restored.

But man, most sentient being of all,

In this is not their equal.” – Substance to Shadow

The poetry of Tao Qian reigns true in our world today, but was very influential in China during the Period of Disunion, when China’s political state was unstable. The spread of Daoism created a society that “sanctioned a retreat from public life” according to the Norton Anthology of World Literature, and Tao Qian’s writing captured that point in history. Being someone who had taken public office for a few years before becoming a farmer, he had the experience to speak about the benefits of a simple life over that of one of power and luxury. 

Who is Tao Qian?

“Born into an impoverished aristocratic family, Tao Qian took a minor official post while in his 20s in order to support his aged parents. After about 10 years at that post and a brief term as county magistrate, he resigned from official life, repelled by its excessive formality and widespread corruption” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Even though his family struggled from time to time, Tao Qian found comfort in things like writing, gardening, and drinking wine. These themes all appear within his poetry and represent the separation of oneself from high society and the fulfillment that comes with enjoying the experiences that money cannot buy. Although his work was not widely read and appreciated until years later, he was “admired as a recluse and a man of principle” because of his separation from societal norms and implementation of newer religious practices (Norton Anthology of World Literature). Not much else is known about his life other than what can be read in his poetry.

The Return

Tao Qian’s belief in Daoism is apparent in his poetry. Daoism was originally seen as a religion that rebelled against Confucianism because Confucianism mainly focused on morality and politics while Daoism supported personal and metaphysical development. There exists a more “let it flow” kind of attitude to Daoism which is prominent throughout Tao Qian’s poetry. In his poem The Return, Tao Qian says,

 “It was my own doing that made my mind my body’s slave 

Why should I go on in melancholy and lonely grief?

I realize there’s no remedying the past

But I know that there’s hope in the future.”

Although he realizes that his faults or misdeeds were his own, he keeps an open mind about the future and all of the lessons he has learned from letting himself be a slave to his body. He chooses not to dwell on the past because the mistakes were all his own and he understands that he can do better in the future. In Daoism, they believe in cosmology, or the natural order of the universe. Fighting this natural order will only cause more pain and suffering, so Tao Qian listens to his mind and chooses a relaxed life of a farmer over the job of a politician. Also the idea of primitivism, or that any human intervention the the natural order of things will disrupt natural harmony of the world, is clearly hinted at in this poem.

Biography of Master Five Willows

Tao Qian’s Biography of Master Five Willows could technically be seen as an autobiography. In Stephen Owen’s translation of this text, it is noted that Master of Five Willows, “is Tao Qian’s playful name for himself.” In this poem, the reader gets a glimpse of how Tao Qian might have lived. The poem states, “His coarse clothes were full of holes and patches; his plate and pitcher always empty; he was at peace. He forgot all about gain and loss and in this way he lived out his life.” Being a farmer was not a glamorous lifestyle and food was scarce, but Tao Qian much preferred this life over his old one. He was much more fulfilled with “swigging wine and writing poems to satisfy his inclinations.” 

Substance, Shadow, and Spirit

In Substance to Shadow, Tao Qian speaks about the impermanence of human life. He states,

“But man, most sentient being of all,

In this is not their equal.

He is  present here in the world today,

Then leaves abruptly, to return no more.

No one marks there’s one man less —

Not even friends and family think of him”

If people are not thinking about others once they are deceased, there should be no pressure to cater to anyone’s desire but their own. The last stanza in the poem, “When wine is offered, don’t refuse,” Tao Qian is telling his audience to not abandon the things they love because they won’t be able to indulge in those things once they are gone. At the same token, Daoists such as Zhuangzi referred to life and death as partners, and that fearing death was a foolish thing to do. The entirety of Tao Qian’s Substance, Shadow, and Spirit seem to be him coming to terms with death in a series of three poems. At the end of Spirit’s Solution, he states, 

“Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change

And when it is time to go, then simply go

Without any unnecessary fuss.”

This is a very different sentiment than he has in Substance to Shadow, so the reader is watching as Tao Qian slowly accepts death for what it is: an inevitable part of life.


Tao Qian was one of the most influential poets in Ancient China. His writing, though not thoroughly appreciated until his death, was a vessel for Daoist teachings and ideals. Themes like impermanence, primitivism, and enjoying the pleasures of life are major philosophical and metaphysical notions that are still discussed to this day. After all, I’m sure most people would rather live in a little cottage in the woods, reading books and isolating themselves from society, than going to work and contributing to consumerism.

Works Cited

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Daoism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, August 1999, Accessed 15 March 2022.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tao Qian”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2022, Accessed 15 March 2022.

Qian, Tao. “Biography of Master Five Willows.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1096–1097.

Qian, Tao. “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1097–1098.

Qian, Tao. “The Return.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, 4th ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 1094–1096. 

Wang Wei

What kind of person was Wang Wei?

China can be said to be a “country of poetry.” Among the numerous poetry literature, the Tang Dynasty was the best golden age for Chinese poetry, and Wang Wei was a master of Tang Dynasty poetry, and a great poet who had a huge influence on the overall development of future Chinese poetry. Some interesting points about him is, Wang Wei was not just a poet, but he was a painter, musican as well during the Tang Dynasty in China. He was famous for poetry early enough to write poetry when he was nine years old, but he was so versatile that he showed talent in music as well, yes he was just a genius.

Wang Wei, the eldest son, lost his father when he was young and grew up in a bad environment with his younger siblings under his single mother. Wang Wei was usually very filial and friendly with his wife. Additionally, he was such a talented person in many things such as calligraphy, music, painting, etc. In particular, his musical talent was so outstanding, which made him as different from others. For example, he was such an amzaing person that he saw only the musician in the painting and accurately guessed what song the musician was playing in the painting. I think the words are too insufficient to describe him as a poet. He was more than a poet, and therefore, his poems gave him a feeling of something complex and diverse rather than ordinary and monotonous poems.

Wang Wei’s Poems.

Just as Wang Wei’s life and thoughts do, the subject of poetry is relatively complex. For example, there are poems of active nature, while there are also passive tendencies. He’s idea of thought can be divided into three periods: early, middle, and late period. Wang Wei’s poems show a distinct difference between the first, second, and third periods. While the poems of the early period are based on the life of the city, the later poems are mainly composed of works that represent the atmosphere of life and nature. Let’s look at one of his poems called ‘House in the Bamboo Grove.’

“Sitting alone in a bamboo grove
Plucking a zither, whistling along
Deep in the forest, in a spot unknown
Waiting for a bright moon to come”

Wang Wei’s poems are mostly short, and this poem is not a poem that feels so long. However, even if it was short, he properly revealed his presence in each poem by using various expressions.

What do you think of after reading this poem? It is a poem depicting a poet who whistles while playing a zither under the moonlight in a quiet bamboo forest. Do you all get what does this poem try to give us a message or anything? While reading this poem, I imagined the main character, and when I thought of the main character playing a zither alone in the bright moonlight, I felt at ease without even realizing it. I hope other readers also can feel like this with his amazing poem.

Let’s take a look at another poem by him. Like this poem, Wang Wei’s poem which is called ‘Deer Enclosure’ is also based on nature.

“Empty mountain. No one in sight
Only the echo of voices in the air
Glimmers and glints return to the forest depths
Once more, the green moss filled with light.”

Likewise, this poem is a very short poem, and it’s pretty similar to the poem that we just looked. However, as mentioned earlier, the length of his poem is not important, and it is right to focus more on what content is contained in the poem, what message is delivered to readers.

How do you feel when you read this poem? This poem is also talking about the nature just like the first poem. From my perspective, I can vividly imagine such a scene walking alone in a quiet mountain where no one is there. Explain this feeling more would be like, It’s very quiet, and you can’t hear anything other than your own voice, but you keep walking in the mountains and trying to maintain that feeling.

We just looked the two poems from Wang Wei. The characteristics of this two poems or his poems in gerneal is, it mostly talks about natures. Poetry that mainly deals with nature is called Sansu Poetry or Nature Poetry. The meaning of Sansu is a combination of mountains and water, which is represents our nature. As mentioned earlier, it is no exaggeration to say that China’s Sansu or Nature poetry reached the highest level at that time, and that Wang Wei was the best poet among Sansu poetry at the time.

To add additional explaination, most of Wang Wei’s natural poems were built during his post-middle age period, and he was a person who was related not only to poetry but also to politics at that time. However, he was forced to live a proper political life due to political disappointment. However, whenever he had time, he left the world and pursued spiritual “given up” in the arms of Mother Nature. In short, Wang Wei was immersed in the atmosphere of natural poetry, wiped his body and nurtured his nature to relax his mind and body. At the same time embodied his relaxed and peaceful emotions, and put his emotions into his wonderful poems.

At the conclusion, Wang Wei is widely known as the best natural poet in Chinese literature using the diversity of literary and artistic achievements at its beginning. He excelled in literary embodiments of a noble spirit out of the world through a high degree of political and economic fusion in poetry. He describes the nostalgic mountains and clear streams, expressing the joy of being intoxicated by the beautiful scenery and satisfaction of escaping from worldly anguish, and captures the feelings of hatred for dark and corrupt real politics in poetry.

Work Cited

Information of Wang Wei

Photo of Wang Wei.

Photo of bamboo street.

Photo of an Empty Mountain.

The House in the Bamboo Grove.

Deer Enclosure.