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The Rise and Progress of Chinese Poetry

by Arthur Waley

The Odes.—From the songs current in his day Confucius (551-479 B.C.) chose about three hundred which he regarded as suitable texts for his ethical and social teaching. Many of them are eulogies of good rulers or criticisms of bad ones. Out of the three hundred and five still extant only about thirty are likely to interest the modern reader. Of these half deal with war and half with love. Many translations exist, the best being those of Legge in English and of Couvreur in French. There is still room for an English translation displaying more sensitivity to word-rhythm than that of Legge. It should not, I think, include more than fifty poems. But the Odes are essentially lyric poetry, and their beauty lies in effects which cannot be reproduced in English. For that reason I have excluded them from this book; nor shall I discuss them further here, for full information will be found in the works of Legge or Couvreur.

Elegies of the Land of Ch’u.—We come next to Ch’ü Yüan (third century B.C.) whose famous poem “Li Sao,”[13] or “Falling into Trouble,” has also been translated by Legge. It deals, under a love-allegory, with the relation between the writer and his king. In this poem, sex and politics are curiously interwoven, as we need not doubt they were in Chü Yüan’s own mind. He affords a striking example of the way in which abnormal mentality imposes itself. We find his followers unsuccessfully attempting to use the same imagery and rhapsodical verbiage, not realizing that these were, as De Goncourt would say, the product of their master’s propre névrosité.

“The Battle,” his one thoroughly intelligible poem, has hitherto been only very imperfectly translated. A literal version will be found on p. 23.

His nephew Sung Yü was no servile imitator. In addition to “elegies” in the style of the Li Sao, he was the author of many “Fu” or descriptive prose-poems, unrhymed but more or less metrical.

The Han Dynasty.—Most of the Han poems in this book were intended to be sung. Many of them are from the official song-book of the dynasty and are known as Yo Fu or Music Bureau poems, as distinct from shih, which were recited. Ch’in Chia’s poem and his wife’s reply (p. 54) are both shih; but all the rest might, I think, be counted as songs.

The Han dynasty is rich in Fu (descriptions), but none of them could be adequately translated. They are written in an elaborate and florid style which recalls Apuleius or Lyly.

The Chin Dynasty.

(1) Popular Songs (Songs of Wu). The popular songs referred to the Wu (Soochow) district and attributed to the[14] fourth century may many of them have been current at a much earlier date. They are slight in content and deal with only one topic. They may, in fact, be called “Love-epigrams.” They find a close parallel in the coplas of Spain, cf.:

El candil se esta apagando, La alcuza no tiene aceite— No te digo que te vayas, ... No te digo que te quedes.
The brazier is going out, The lamp has no more oil— I do not tell you to go, ... I do not tell you to stay.

A Han song, which I will translate quite literally, seems to be the forerunner of the Wu songs.

On two sides of river, wedding made: Time comes; no boat. Lusting heart loses hope Not seeing what-it-desires.

(2) The Taoists.—Confucius inculcated the duty of public service. Those to whom this duty was repulsive found support in Taoism, a system which denied this obligation. The third and fourth centuries A.D. witnessed a great reaction against state service. It occurred to the intellectuals of China that they would be happier growing vegetables in their gardens than place-hunting at Nanking. They embraced the theory that “by bringing himself into harmony with Nature” man can escape every evil. Thus Tao (Nature’s Way) corresponds to the Nirvana of Buddhism, and the God of Christian mysticism.

They reduced to the simplest standard their houses, apparel, and food; and discarded the load of book-learning which Confucianism imposed on its adherents.


The greatest of these recluses was T’ao Ch’ien (A.D. 365-427), twelve of whose poems will be found on p. 71, seq. Something of his philosophy may be gathered from the poem “Substance, Shadow, and Spirit” (p. 73), his own views being voiced by the last speaker. He was not an original thinker, but a great poet who reflects in an interesting way the outlook of his time.

Liang and Minor Dynasties.—This period is known as that of the “Northern and Southern Courts.” The north of China was in the hands of the Tungusie Tartars, who founded the Northern Wei dynasty—a name particularly familiar, since it is the habit of European collectors to attribute to this dynasty any sculpture which they believe to be earlier than T’ang. Little poetry was produced in the conquered provinces; the Tartar emperors, though they patronized Buddhist art, were incapable of promoting literature. But at Nanking a series of emperors ruled, most of whom distinguished themselves either in painting or poetry. The Chinese have always (and rightly) despised the literature of this period, which is “all flowers and moonlight.” A few individual writers, such as Pao Chao, stand out as exceptions. The Emperor Yüan-ti—who hacked his way to the throne by murdering all other claimants, including his own brother—is typical of the period both as a man and as a poet. A specimen of his sentimental poetry will be found on p. 90. When at last forced to abdicate, he heaped together 200,000 books and pictures; and, setting fire to them, exclaimed: “The culture of the Liang dynasty perishes with me.”

T’ang.—I have already described the technical developments of poetry during this dynasty. Form was at this[16] time valued far above content. “Poetry,” says a critic, “should draw its materials from the Han and Wei dynasties.” With the exception of a few reformers, writers contented themselves with clothing old themes in new forms. The extent to which this is true can of course only be realized by one thoroughly familiar with the earlier poetry.

In the main, T’ang confines itself to a narrow range of stock subjects. The mise-en-scène is borrowed from earlier times. If a battle-poem be written, it deals with the campaigns of the Han dynasty, not with contemporary events. The “deserted concubines” of conventional love-poetry are those of the Han Court. Innumerable poems record “Reflections on Visiting a Ruin,” or on “The Site of an Old City,” etc. The details are ingeniously varied, but the sentiments are in each case identical. Another feature is the excessive use of historical allusions. This is usually not apparent in rhymed translations, which evade such references by the substitution of generalities. Poetry became the medium not for the expression of a poet’s emotions, but for the display of his classical attainments. The great Li Po is no exception to this rule. Often where his translators would make us suppose he is expressing a fancy of his own, he is in reality skilfully utilizing some poem by T’ao Ch’ien or Hsieh Ti’ao. It is for his versification that he is admired, and with justice. He represents a reaction against the formal prosody of his immediate predecessors. It was in the irregular song-metres of his ku-shih that he excelled. In such poems as the “Ssech’uan Road,” with its wild profusion of long and short lines, its cataract of exotic verbiage, he aimed at something nearer akin to music than to poetry. Tu Fu, his contemporary, occasionally abandoned the cult of “abstract form.” Both poets[17] lived through the most tragic period of Chinese history. In 755 the Emperor’s Turkic favourite, An Lu-shan, revolted against his master. A civil war followed, in which China lost thirty million men. The dynasty was permanently enfeebled and the Empire greatly curtailed by foreign incursions. So ended the “Golden Age” of Ming Huang. Tu Fu, stirred by the horror of massacres and conscriptions, wrote a series of poems in the old style, which Po Chü-i singles out for praise. One of them, “The Press-gang,” is familiar in Giles’s translation. Li Po, meanwhile, was writing complimentary poems on the Emperor’s “Tour in the West”—a journey which was in reality a precipitate flight from his enemies.

Sung.—In regard to content the Sung poets show even less originality than their predecessors. Their whole energy was devoted towards inventing formal restrictions. The “tz’u” developed, a species of song in lines of irregular length, written in strophes, each of which must conform to a strict pattern of tones and rhymes. The content of the “tz’u” is generally wholly conventional. Very few have been translated; and it is obvious that they are unsuitable for translation, since their whole merit lies in metrical dexterity. Examples by the poetess Li I-an will be found in the second edition of Judith Gautier’s “Livre de Jade.” The poetry of Su Tung-p’o, the foremost writer of the period, is in its matter almost wholly a patchwork of earlier poems. It is for the musical qualities of his verse that he is valued by his countrymen. He hardly wrote a poem which does not contain a phrase (sometimes a whole line) borrowed from Po Chü-i, for whom in his critical writings he expresses boundless admiration.


A word must be said of the Fu (descriptive prose-poems) of this time. They resemble the vers libres of modern France, using rhyme occasionally (like Georges Duhamel) as a means of “sonner, rouler, quand il faut faire donner les cuivres et la batterie.” Of this nature is the magnificent “Autumn Dirge” (Giles, “Chinese Lit.,” p. 215) by Ou-yang Hsiu, whose lyric poetry is of small interest. The subsequent periods need not much concern us. In the eighteenth century the garrulous Yüan Mei wrote his “Anecdotes of Poetry-making”—a book which, while one of the most charming in the language, probably contains more bad poetry (chiefly that of his friends) than any in the world. His own poems are modelled on Po Chü-i and Su Tung-p’o.