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Poetry before the T'angs

by L. Cranmer-Byng

Following on the Odes, we have much written in the same style, more often than not by women, or songs possibly written to be sung by them, always in a minor key, fraught with sadness, yet full of quiet resignation and pathos.

It is necessary to mention in passing the celebrated Ch`u Yuan (fourth cent. B.C.), minister and kinsman of a petty kinglet under the Chou dynasty, whose `Li Sao', literally translated `Falling into Trouble', is partly autobiography and partly imagination. His death by drowning gave rise to the great Dragon-boat Festival, which was originally a solemn annual search for the body of the poet.

Soon a great national dynasty arrives whose Emperors are often patrons of literature and occasionally poets as well. The House of Han (200 B.C.-A.D. 200) has left its mark upon the Empire of China, whose people of to-day still call themselves "Sons of Han". There were Emperors beloved of literary men, Emperors beloved of the people, builders of long waterways and glittering palaces, and one great conqueror, the Emperor Wu Ti, of almost legendary fame. This was an age of preparation and development of new forces. Under the Hans, Buddhism first began to flourish. The effect is seen in the poetry of the time, especially towards the closing years of this dynasty. The minds of poets sought refuge in the ideal world from the illusions of the senses.

The third century A.D. saw the birth of what was probably the first literary club ever known, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. This little coterie of friends was composed of seven famous men, who possessed many talents in common, being poets and musicians, alchemists, philosophers, and mostly hard drinkers as well. Their poetry, however, is scarcely memorable. Only one great name stands between them and the poets of the T`ang dynasty — the name of T`ao Ch`ien (A.D. 365-427), whose exquisite allegory "The Peach Blossom Fountain" is quoted by Professor Giles in his `Chinese Literature'. The philosophy of this ancient poet appears to have been that of Horace. `Carpe diem!'

"Ah, how short a time it is that we are here! Why then not set our hearts at rest, ceasing to trouble whether we remain or go? What boots it to wear out the soul with anxious thoughts? I want not wealth; I want not power: heaven is beyond my hopes. Then let me stroll through the bright hours as they pass, in my garden among my flowers, or I will mount the hill and sing my song, or weave my verse beside the limpid brook. Thus will I work out my allotted span, content with the appointments of Fate, my spirit free from care."* For him enjoyment and scarcely happiness is the thing. And although many of his word-pictures are not lacking in charm or colour, they have but little significance beyond them. They are essentially the art works of an older school than that of the Seven Sages. But we must have due regard for them, for they only miss greatness by a little, and remind us of the faint threnodies that stir in the throats of bird musicians upon the dawn.

— * Giles, `Chinese Literature', p. 130. —