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Tang Dynasty poetry brings the past to life

NING XIN | 2021-04-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Remains of the Yumen Pass Photo: CFP

China has a tradition of intertwining literature with history. Artistic expression plays an important role in writing history, while literature is usually set in a certain historical context. For example, many poems written during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) discuss or refer to events of the time in an artistic way. 
History in poems
“Beyond the Gate of Jade no vernal wind will blow” (trans. Xu Yuanchong) is a line from the poem “Liangzhou Ci” (“Out of the Great Wall”), written by Wang Zhihuan (688–742), a poet who lived in the high Tang period (roughly between 650 and 755). This line portrayed the bleak and barren Yumen Pass, or Gate of Jade, which was located west of Dunhuang City in today’s Gansu Province. This location was fortified during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE) as a frontier defense post. What the poet saw or imagined beyond the Yumen Pass was a vast and barren desert, far from home and friends. 
This line reveals historical details from the time. “West beyond Yang Pass, no old friends you’ll see” is a similar line from a poem by the Tang poet Wang Wei (701–761). Wang Wei associated the Yang Pass, another important crossing point south of Yumen Pass, with sad parting, as it was the last stop for Tang travelers leaving the homeland and heading toward Western Regions (a historical name which referred to regions west of Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, mostly populated by Chinese ethnic minorities, and further to Central Asia and beyond). Both the Yumen and the Yang passes were the gateways to Western Regions on the ancient Silk Road. They also became a literary representation of the transition between two regions of different landscapes and cultures. The region east of the two passes was dominated by the Han people’s regime, and was mainly inhabited by the Han people, characterized by an agrarian economy. Beyond the two passes lived various ethnic groups, most of whom lived a nomadic life. 
“The moon of the Qin times still shines over the Han mountain passes,/ Few men return from their faraway expeditions./ If the Flying General were still here, giving commands,/ No truculent horses would dare to cross the Yin mountains.” This is a well-known poem written by the Tang poet Wang Changling (698–757). In this poem, Wang describes a landscape that had not changed—the moon  and the passes since the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han dynasties. There had been continuous military conflicts between the Han people’s regimes and nomadic groups. Therefore, readers can feel the underlying tone of sorrow when Wang laments that men seldom returned from their expeditions. Although the landscape in the Northwest had not altered, something about the state of China had changed. The change Wang referred to was the country weakening. The reason why the country experienced a downfall, Wang stated, was because the Flying General was no longer here. The Flying General referenced Li Guang (?–119 BCE), a famous general from the Han Dynasty, who fought primarily in campaigns against nomadic Xiongnu tribes north of the Han regime. This poem not only reveals past complicated relations between the people of the Central Plain and nomadic tribes in the north, it also marked a region of transition where the people’s way of living was transferred from farming to nomadism.
Tang Empire and poetry
There are several reasons why Chinese poetry thrived during the Tang Dynasty. 
After the founding of the Tang, the reign of Emperor Taizong (r. 627–649) in particular brought about advances in social economy. The country started to enjoy peace brought about by the solidification of imperial protection over the unified country. The Tang also made great progress in dealing with diplomatic relations and domestic relations with different ethnic groups. After decades of development, in the early years of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign (r. 712–756), Tang society made significant achievements in economic prosperity, which culminated in what historians later called “Kaiyuan Shengshi,” or “Prosperous Age of Kaiyuan.” The great poet Du Fu (712–770) composed a group of twelve poems entitled “Yixi” (“Recalling the Past”) in a fond remembrance of this prosperity—“I recall long ago when the Kaiyuan reign was in its glory days,/ even small towns contained within homes of ten thousand families./ The rice flowed with oil, the millet was white,/ granaries public and private both were filled with bounty” (see the second poem under the title of “Yixi,” translated by Stephen Owen). 
Cultural prosperity is based on economic advances, which is the only way to feed people who are not engaged in social production but have cultural careers. Economic advancement, social stability, a united country, and intensive economic and cultural exchanges between diverse ethnic groups, made it possible to have a large number of poets and writers in the Tang era. Beyond covering a wide range of subjects and having diverse forms, their works also mostly featured positive, direct, and powerful styles, full of the spirit of the time. 
The Tang saw the rise of urban inhabitants and the decline of aristocracy. With a political environment in which more people could air their views freely, the middle and lower social classes enjoyed a rather free and animated cultural atmosphere. Literati came from different social classes. Their works tended to be more vigorous and down to earth. Therefore, poetry became a lyrical form of literature, favored and chanted by the populace. As more people’s interest in poetry was kindled, more writers and poets joined the scene. 
During the Tang Dynasty, the imperial examination system and education system allowed a larger number of children from ordinary families to attend school. The Tang added poetry and fu (a literary form combining elements of poetry and prose) as part of the Jinshi section, a permanent section, and often the most difficult part, of the imperial examination. Adding poetry and fu tests to the imperial examination reflected the values of the times and people’s admiration for these literary forms. The Tang people believed that poems could best represent a person’s literary talent, which greatly promoted the development of Tang poetry.
Tang poetry inherited and improved upon the literary legacies of previous dynasties. Tang poets not only absorbed the essence of Tang folk songs and the yuefu poems (a form of Chinese poetry derived from folk-ballad traditions) that had been widely appreciated since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and Wei, Jin, and Southern & Northern dynasties (220–589), but also expanded beyond old traditions. Tang poets innovated new techniques and styles of five-character and seven-character poems (poems made up of fixed-length lines, with five or seven characters in each line), achieving a higher level of content and form in poetry. Moreover, the merits of pianwen, or parallel prose, which is characterized by antithetic construction and balanced tonal patterns without the use of rhyme, were absorbed into Tang poetry. Therefore, in terms of literary development, the Tang absorbed rich literary legacies of previous dynasties, and made new advances in poetry.
Another noticeable reason for the prosperity of Tang poetry lies in the growth of urban areas. The capital city’s development was the most representative example of urban growth. During the Tang era, increased population density made the capital a center for political and economic activities. Imperial examinations were held in the capital, since it was the political center. Increasingly convenient transportation allowed numerous literati and intellectuals to gather in the capital. They had rich experiences from travelling around the country. They came to the capital to attend the imperial examination or visit relatives and friends. These historic figures often met one another in the capital, as they had plenty of time for gathering. Every year, only dozens of candidates could pass the imperial examination, which meant a large number of candidates failed the exam. They usually preferred to stay in the capital and prepare for the next examination. These intellectuals made gathering, drinking, composing, and sharing poems trendy. They left the later generations a rich collection of poems, and a new way to learn history through poems.
The Tang Dynasty had large records of poetry and poets. Quantangshi, the largest collection of Tang poetry, commissioned at the direction of the Kangxi Emperor in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), includes roughly 50,000 poems written during the Tang Dynasty. However, it is just a very small proportion of the Tang poems. Many poems have been lost in history. 
Tang poems were often inspired by their contemporary social reality. Behind the poets’ aspirations and ideals, were their humanistic concerns about the country and society. Therefore, these poems are important sources and materials for studying history. 
Ning Xin is a professor from the School of History at Beijing Normal University.