BORN: 365, China
DIED: 427, China
Poetic Works (1883)
T’ao the Hermit: Sixty Poems (1952)
Also known as Qian Tao or Ch’ien T’ao, T’ao Yuan-ming T’ao Ch’ien was one of China’s foremost poets in the five-word shih style. He was not recognized as a major poet until the T’ang dynasty (618-907). By the Song times (960-1279), however, his status as one of China’s greatest lyrical poets had become generally recognized, and his poetry has never ceased to fascinate the Chinese since.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Secluded Life. T’ao Ch’ien lived during the Eastern Chin and Liu Sung dynasties of the fourth and fifth centuries. He was born in Ch’ai-sang in present-day Kiangsi Province, the great-grandson of T’ao K’an, a famed Chin general. Both his grandfather and father had served as prefects, but by T’ao Ch’ien’s time the family must have become poorer, and despite his preference for a life of seclusion, he held at least four different posts during some dozen years (393-405) in order to support his family.
T’ao did not serve very long, however, in his last post as magistrate of P’eng-tse. According to a famous anecdote recorded in his official biographies, he resigned when summoned to appear before a superior so that he did not have to bow in obeisance for the sake of a meager salary. Upon returning home afterward, he wrote a sequence of five-word poems as well as a long poem titled ‘‘On Returning Home’’ in celebration of his liberation from the shackles of official life. He was then only forty years old. Subsequently, many eminent men sought him out for an official appointment, but he declined. He apparently enjoyed the remainder of his life as a gentleman farmer, reading his favorite books at leisure, exchanging visits with his neighbors, and observing the lack of promise of his several sons.
Like much of Chinese lyricism, T’ao’s poetry is an expression of personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It is thus important to remember that he was also an ardent visionary forced by political and social ills to choose a hermit’s life for his last twenty years. Virtually isolated in the political and artistic ethos of the day, T’ao was largely left in oblivion for three centuries after his death before being recognized by the poets of the High T’ang period, and it was another three centuries before he was fully appreciated by the Song era writers. It was at this point that the Chinese lyric vision of nature came to maturity.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Though T'ao Ch'ien was certainly cerebral, he also celebrated pastoral, humble ideas. He was impressed by the fields and blossoms and by farmers and their flocks. Here are some other works that consider the value of the simple, natural life:
Idylls (third century BCE), a poetry collection by Theocritus. Probably the first collection of pastoral poetry, this book centers around the mythical Greek gods who are, in this instance at least, very down to earth.
''The Passionate Shepherd to His Love'' (1590s), a poem by Christopher Marlowe. This poem begins with the famous line ''Come live with me and be my love.''
As You Like It (1599-1600), a play by William Shakespeare. Set in the forest of Arden, this comedic play involves love, disguises, and intrigue.
Lycidas (1638), a poem by John Milton. Herdsmen, pipes, and sheep populate this poem, an elegy written for the poet's friend.
Works in Literary Context
Taoism and Confucianism. T’ao Ch’ien is often described as a Taoist nature poet with a fondness for wine and chrysanthemums. Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy that sees the universe as a whole and stresses the connection between humans and nature. He is also, however, a meditative poet. He represents the culmination of the five-word poetry of the Han dynasty and its obsession with life’s meaning. Additionally, his poetry is infused with a strong attraction to the teaching of Confucius, another Chinese philosophical system based on the teaching of Confucius (551-479 B.C.E., a philosopher who stressed the importance of right action and self-control.
A Contented Solitude. The view of T’ao Ch’ien as a Taoist recluse is supported by some of his most celebrated works. In a brief autobiography, he styles himself ‘‘Mr. Five Willows’’ and speaks of his contentment with poverty, his fondness for wine, and his joy in reading, though he makes no attempt to probe the deeper meanings of books. His prose description of the Peach Fount Colony living in happy oblivion of the outside world has been celebrated since his time as the Taoist vision of a simple, good life unrealizable on earth.
The Pastoral Life. Many of T’ao Ch’ien’s earlier poems show an appreciation of the freedom and vulnerability of rural existence—from the delights of work and familial contentment to material privation and plaintive reflection. They feature not rustic or aesthetic shepherds but real farmers worried about their crops. Tao’s farmstead poetry is marked by plain, lucid language and a simple, direct voice. These poems have as their objects hills, birds, fish, pines, and chrysanthemums.
Works in Critical Context
The simplicity and seemingly effortless ease of T’ao’s poetry are artistic attributes reflective of his own nature and determined by his ideals. Poetry, for T’ao, became witness and companion to his life, the sustaining mainstay of his idealism, and the fortifying inspiration that enabled him at times to attain a spiritual transcendence.
Farmstead Poetry. T’ao is best known for his “farmstead poetry’’ (tianyuan shi), which has often been called ‘‘pastoral.’’ Certainly some of his poems—especially those from the earlier years after his permanent withdrawal from society, such as ‘‘Return Home’’—sing of the peacefulness of country dwelling, the harmony of domestic life, and of a return to nature that is also a return to the natural Way (Tao) and original human nature. Vibrant with a conversational vitality and immediacy, his ‘‘farmer’s words’’ blend life and art into a presentation lacking embellishment. The concerns of his livelihood— concerns that constitute what, until then, was assumed to be ‘‘unfitting’’ content for verse—and the ‘‘inelegant’’ language of such concerns, which infuses his style, mark the literary and cultural originality of a poetry that records heartfelt experience.
Responses to Literature
1. Compare T’ao Ch’ien’s earlier poetry to his later works. What changes do you notice, both in content and style? What do you think accounts for these changes?
2. Look up what pastoral means and determine if T’ao Ch’ien’s works should be placed in this category.
3. Research the history of Chinese dynasties and identify the cultural characteristics of each. Why do you think T’ao Ch’ien’s poetry was ignored until the T’ang dynasty?
4. T’ao Ch’ien’s ‘‘Peach Blossom Spring’’ has often been described as the poet’s version of a utopia. Can you find other descriptions of utopia in more recent works of art? Do visions of perfection seem to change over time?
Davis, A. R. T'ao Yianming: His Works and Their Meaning. 2 vols. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1983.
Hightower, James Robert, ed. The Poetry of T'ao Ch'ien. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.
Kwong, Charles Yimtze. Tao Qian and the Chinese Poetic Tradition: The Quest for Cultural Identity. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1994.