Tang Poetry: Du Fu and Li Bo

The Tang Dynasty was a time when art and literature flourished in China. Two distinguished poets of the 8th century were Li Bo and Du Fu. These men practiced very different styles of poetry writing, but were bound together through their immense talent. The two met sometime between 744 and 745 and Du Fu stayed with Li Bo for a while; the poets continued to write poems to one and another up until Li Bo’s death. While they both were very successful during their lifetime, their fame continues to live on through their work.
It is widely accepted that Li Bo was born in 701 in what is now Central Asia, outside of modern-day China. He is thought to be of Turkish descent, but his family moved to Sichuan province when he was around five years old. Despite his immense talent, Li Bo LiBonever took the Chinese Civil Service exam, but was still given high positions in government. Li Bo’s poems were not political, but rather more focused on nature. This may be due to the heavy influence Daoism had on him. Li Bo is considered by many to be a romantic poet and is considered a master of the old ballad or yueh-fu style poetry. One of his most famous poems is “The Road to Shu is Steep,” which describes ascending up a steep path to Shu. He repeats the phrase “The Road to Shu is steep, steep as climbing to the sky!” multiple times. He describes the mythical rulers of Shu, Ts’an Ts’ung and Yu Fu, as the founders of Shu. Despite this, and the fact that this poem was found in a Tang anthology three years before the fact, many scholars have pointed to this poem referring to the An Lushan Rebellion. This is interesting considering how that tumultuous event affected Li Bo’s friend Du Fu.
Du Fu was most likely born later than Li Bo in 712. His family had old connections with the court, but this did not help him during du-fu1the Civil Service Examination. It is widely speculated that he failed because his ideas were not mainstream, but rather before their time. Unlike his friend Li Bo, Du Fu’s poetry was extremely political. Du Fu also was a master of the Chinese sonnet style poetry rather than ballad style. One event that shaped Du Fu’s poetry was the An Lushan Rebellion. The An Lushan rebellion was against the Tang Dynasty by General An Lushan. General An Lushan had been a favorite of Emperor Xuanzong’s favorite concubine Yang Guifei. In late 755, General An Lushan began his rebellion in Xi’an. At this time, Xi’an was where the emperor and his government lived. An Lushan and his forces were able to take Xi’an and forced the emperor and Yang Guifei to flee. An Lushan was eventually killed by his power-hungry men, while the Tang Dynasty continued to stay in power for over 100 years afterwards. During part of the violence in Xi’an, Du Fu was in the city and kidnapped by the rebels. Although he was not killed, the situation left a lasting impact on his poetry. In ‘Gazing in Spring, Du Fu describes the impact on the An Lushan Rebellion. In four sonnets, he describes flames lasting for three moons and birds leaving the city in fear. While Du Fu never outwardly writes about his dramatic experience, he does allude to the fact that this was an unfortunate time for the Tang Dynasty.
Despite the horror of the An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty is still thought to be one of the best dynasties in Chinese history. Li Bo and Du Fu fortunately were a part of this dynasty we remember today. They both, despite never passing the civil service exam, had much success during their lifetimes. In 762, Li Bo died most likely due to natural causes. Two years later, Du Fu died in Hunan province. The two are remembered fondly in China and the world today as we still study their beautiful poetry.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is arguably one of the most recognized landmarks in China. First built under the orders of Ming Emperor Yongle, it has since been a landmark of Beijing. Under the Qing Dynasty many other structures were built. During the Republic of China, Emperor Xuantong or Puyi and his small court continued to live there until they were expelled in 1923 and a Palace Museum was opened two years later. Despite threats under the Communist Party, the Forbidden City was able to survive and is today one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Forbidden City Map (1)
The Forbidden City was built after the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty when the capital was moved from Nanjing to Beijing. Between 1416-1420, the main structures of the Forbidden City were constructed. These include the Meridian Gate and the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The Meridian Gate is the massive main entrance into the Forbidden City, while the Hall of Supreme Harmony is where many palace events would take place. The Hall of Medium Harmony is where the emperor would rest before these important events. In the Hall of Protective Harmony, the emperor would hold banquets and also interview those who had passed the civil service exams. Also built in 1420 was the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the living quarters of Ming emperors. During the Ming Dynasty, the Hall of Union and Peace was established behind the Palace of Heavenly Purity, intended to be the empress’s throne room, but later becoming the house of seals. In the middle of these two stands the Hall of Earthly Peace, which was the empress’s living quarters. In the midst of the Hall of Imperial Peace, a Taoist temple was erected in the Imperial Garden. The Gate of Divine Prowess is where the servants would enter and leave the Forbidden City.
The Ming Dynasty ended in 1644 and the Qing Dynasty began with Manchu Emperor Shuzhi assuming control. Emperor Kangxi, the second Qing emperor, was mainly interested in education, therefore the Hall of Literary Flourishing and the Hall of Relaying the Mind were built under his rule in 1683. His son, Emperor Yongzheng was more interested in eternal life and had the Palace of Longevity and Health built in 1735. Ironically, he died the same year most likely due to the lead-based elixirs he took to achieve immortality. The most notable Qing ruler, Dowager Empress Cixi, was one of the last rulers in the Forbidden City. During this time, the Han Chinese were becoming disillusioned with the idea of Manchus ruling them. While Emperor Guangxu was working to enacting reform, he and the Dowager Empress Cixi died and the Qing Empire ended in 1911.
During the era of the Republic of China, Emperor Xuantong or Puyi, who took the throne at 6 years old with a small court, continued to live in the Forbidden City. They were eventually expelled in 1923 and a Palace Museum was opened in 1925. Under the Nationalist government, the capital was moved back to Nanjing. After its defeat in 1949, the Nationalists took a great deal of the palace’s treasures with them to Taiwan. In 1949, the Communist Party formed the People’s Republic of China.
Chariman Mao Zedong wanted China to forget its feudal past and enter the modern world. He moved the capital back to Beijing. When architects Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhongxiang presented the 49 Scheme, involving the preservation of the Forbidden City, the plan was rejected. Beijing Mayor Peng Zhen advocated tearing down the palace walls, and so they were. During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, many plans were made to demolish the main palace structures, but the economic and political turmoil of the time prevented that. The museum in the palace was closed from 1967-1970, but was reopened by Premier Zhou Enlai for the Nixon China visit in 1973.
In 1987, the Forbidden City became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then it has become a popular tourist destination in China. Its rich cultural history has helped it survive despite many threats during the Maoist period. Today, travelers from all of over the world can visit the Forbidden City and see how emperors under the Ming and Qing Dynasty lived.


Beginning in the Western Zhou Dynasty, around 1040 BCE, the Chinese imperial court sanctioned an office to focus solely on the development and promulgation of music that was based on Confucian teachings, in particular within the sayings of the Shijing. While yayue (or, “elegant music”) became the popularized notion of Chinese court music, ceremonial and state-sanctioned musical works actually persisted before the name became codified. In an essay by Chi Fengzhi, the musicologist notes that it was not until Confucius compared the problematic nature of popular music to the sanctity of the state and the harmony of society that yayue came to prominence.[1] Yayue, then, served as a means for further aligning one’s self with Confucian ideals and to cultivate the self.

Yayue proliferated at a time following the Duke of Zhou’s original Mandate of Heaven proclamation, solidifying the Emperor’s position as a liaison between Heaven and Earth, and validating China’s religious and social climate. Elegant music functioned as a means of not only venerating both the Heaven and the Earth, but also propagating formal diplomatic interactions. Often, a yayue musical ensemble would be separated into two sections which designate the interplay of yin and yang.


While the musical style adapted as dynasties shifted in China, the genre is traditionally very strict towards its application—methodical, pensive, and wholly formal. Instruments featured range from the traditional and popular—dizi, guqin, and traditional drum—to their more contemporary metal analogs—such as a fangxiang, much like a xylophone. Yayue could be performed as an accompaniment to many events, so long as their court sanctioned; famously, Confucian court music was performed during a fox hunting expedition, and was attributed as the primary reason for success. While the original manifestation of yayue was solely comprised of a musical ensemble with accompanied dance, singing became a widespread component during the Sui Dynasty.

Due to the expanding efforts of the Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, music—alongside political and social infrastructure—was exported to Emperor Yejong of Korea. Later, yayue became widely accepted in Goryeo Korea and became known as aak, but only two recorded melodies have survived from Korea.

Further Reading:




[1] “The Master said: detests the purple seizes the red, popular music disorders yayue, bad words overthrows the country”


This is the front cover art for the book Mencius [Mengzi] written by Jiang Rong (pseudonym). The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Zhonghua Shuju, or the cover artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Mencius is a later text modeled on the Analects in which a famous adherent to Confucianism, Mencius (~372-289BCE), demonstrates the principles of The Analects in action.  Like the great teacher of long ago, Mencius too wandered around the Chinese countryside offering his wisdom at various courts in efforts to increase humaneness and benevolent government.  The Mencius records the numerous conversations he had with legendary rulers of the time.

The work dates from the second half of the 4th century BC and like the Analects, was included as one of the Four Books by Zhu Xi. The authorship of the Mencius is disputed. The Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian have argued that Mencius himself wrote the book with the help of his students Wan Zhang and Gonsun Chou. Other scholars have argued that Mencius wrote the book without any assistance from others. Others have also believed that Wan Zhang and Gongsun wrote the book after Mencius’s death.

To read the text, click here.

Further reading:

* Graham, A.C.  Disputers of the TAO: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China.  Chicago: Open Court, 1993.

The Analects

A page from the Analects

A page from the Analects. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Analects are a collection of lessons, aphorisms and dialogues attributed to the Chinese sage Confucius and his most important disciples.  As the original site of Confucian philosophy and ethics, this text is in many ways the cultural foundation of China (and much of the rest of East and Southeastern Asia).

Confucius was born into a poor family of minor nobility on the cusp of an age of political and militaristic turmoil (circa 550BCE).  An outsider by virtue of his family’s humble circumstances, Confucius relied mostly on his learning and integrity to eek out an existence as a teacher and minister to eager disciples and wayward rulers.  His idealistic, conservative take on ethics and social philosophy is very much the product of his chaotic times in which relationships between individuals, classes and states were in constant, violent motion.  The Analects were designed to be a distillation of Confucius’ decades of learning gleaned from studious research of old, classical texts that provided formulae of golden eras and benevolent kings of the past.  It was his belief that if proper guidelines for behavior, social interaction and rulership were laid out and obeyed, that society would become whole and peaceful again.

Confucius believed that an all-encompassing sense of virtue could be cultivated through ren and that the most way to cultivate ren was devotion to one’s parents and older siblings. Thus, filial piety was emphasized. He also taught that one’s individual desires do not need to be suppressed but that people could learn to reconcile their desires with the proper ritual and roles in society. Confucius’s primary goal was to produce ethically well-cultivated men who would carry themselves with gravity, speak correctly, and demonstrate consummate integrity in all things.

The Analects
 were first copied down by Confucius’ disciples, then finally edited and compiled during the Han dynasty (~220BCE-200CE).  The status of the Analects as a central text of Confucianism was established at the end of the Han dynasty and during the late Song dynasty, the Analects importance as a philosophical work was raised above that of the older Five Classics. It became recognized as one of the “Four Books,” a collection of Chinese classic texts that made the core of the official curriculum for civil service examinations. The version of the Analects we have today is the product of Zheng Xuan’s scholarship and contains 20 chapters.

The Mencius
 is a later text modeled on the Analects in which a famous adherent to Confucianism, Mencius (~372-289BCE), demonstrates the principles of The Analects in action.  Like the great teacher of long ago, Mencius too wandered around the Chinese countryside offering his wisdom at various courts in efforts to increase humaneness and benevolent government.  The Mencius records the numerous conversations he had with legendary rulers of the time.

To read the text, click here.

Further reading:

* Graham, A.C.  Disputers of the TAO: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China.  Chicago: Open Court, 1993.

The Book of Poetry


Wikimedia Commons
The first song of the Classic of Poetry, handwritten by the Qianlong Emperor, with accompanying painting. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This text, also known as the Classic of Poetry or Shijing, is one of China’s oldest and most important pieces of literature.  It is a collection of short lyrical and long narrative poems dating back to 1000BCE (the early Zhou dynasty) thought to have originally been sung and performed by commoners and statesmen at various social and religious functions.  Legend has it that the collection was assembled in the 6th century BCE by Confucius himself and 99 other ministers charged with assembling the songs and thoughts of the people about their government.  The belief was that if Chinese rulers were to listen to the poems of the people that they would have a better understanding of the formers’ well-being and character, and, subsequently, know better how to implement policies to establish greater peace and righteousness in the land.

The Classic of Poetry at one time contained 3,000 poems but the version transmitted to us today by a literary school called the Mao contains only a small percentage of that original sum: ~300.  These poems are divided into four main sections: the Aires, the Lesser Odes, the Greater Odes and the Hymns.  The largest section, and the one most often read and appreciated, is the first section.  This unit’s readings are taken from the first two chapters of the Aires.

To view the text in Chinese and English translation, click here.

Sources that have been drawn upon and that you may find interesting if you wish to do additional reading: * Waley, Arthur.  The Book of Songs.  Ed. Joseph R. Allen.  New York: Grove Press, 1996.

Yu Yuan

A Site plan of Yu Yuan

A Site plan of Yu Yuan

YuYuan is a classical garden located in the northeast part of Shanghai Old Town, which sits in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. The garden was built by Pan Yunduan over 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. Hoping to provide a place of comfort for his parents in their old age, Yunduan named the garden Yu which means peace and comfort. Construction on the garden took 28 years and Yunduan spent all of his life savings in order to build Yu Yuan. The tumultuous events of the 19th century and early 20th century caused the garden to fall into a state of disrepair. In 1956, the Shanghai Municipal Government invested enormous funds in order to renovate the garden. It was opened to the public in 1961 and in 1982, it was declared a national monument.

Spanning an area of 2 hectares, Yu Yuan consists of more than 40 buildings, divided into 6 general areas: Sansui Hall, Wanhua Chamber, Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall, and the Inner Garden. One notable feature is the Grand Rockery located in Sansui Hall. The rockery is made of the largest yellow stone, reaching 14m in height. It has cliffs and valleys with a hidden flight of stairs zigzagging up to the top of the hill. It was believed to have been designed by Zhang Nanyang in the Ming Dynasty. Another notable feature is the collection of brick carvings and clay sculptures spread across the whole gardem. Finally, some of the trees in the garden are over 100 years old. The oldest tree is the Gingo tree that stands in front of the Wanhua Chamber. It is said that this tree was planted by the garden owner himself over 400 years ago.