Tao Yuanming (365?–427), also known as Tao Qian, courtesy name Yuanliang, and the alternate name of Wuliu Xiansheng (Mr. Five Willows), was a native of today’s Jiujiang, Jiangxi province. He was a famous poet and philosopher in the transitional period of between the Eastern Jin (317–420) and the Liu Song (420–479), a time of political gloom, frequent wars, and hard life.
Tao Yuanming was born into an impoverished family of government officials, though his great-grandfather Tao Kan had served as grand marshal in the Eastern Jin dynasty. Even in his youth, he displayed a disposition different from ordinary men. He loved nature, studied hard, and harbored lofty aspirations. He wished to distinguish himself by returning the country to the golden age of emperors Yao and Shun. Given the reality of the times, the goal was impossible to achieve. Throughout his entire life he was confronted with contradictions between the ideal and reality. He faced the difficult choice between political ambition and a desire to retire in solitude; after he left office, he endured frustration and anger.
In order to advance his political goals and earn himself a living, Tao Yuanming took five official posts one after another between the ages of twenty-nine and forty. He successively was the director of education of Jiangzhou prefecture, an aide to General Huan Xuan, a military adviser to both General Liu Yu and Governor Liu Jingxuan of Jiangzhou, and magistrate of Pengze county. He did not remain long in any of these positions. In 405, finding his aspirations difficult to fulfill, and unwilling to follow contemporary mores, Tao Yuanming eventually resigned and went into seclusion, refusing to serve the imperial court again even if it meant deprivation. He farmed the countryside and wrote poems which expressed the joy he took in his seclusion and his determination to retreat from political life. Though these were his true feelings, the poems also served to strengthen his resolve. He expressed his anguish over the passage of time and unfulfilled dreams in lines such as “Days and months toss a person away, / One’s aspirations will never be attained. / I ponder this and my heart is filled with grief; / Until dawn breaks I was unable to find repose.”
Apart from being a profound thinker, Tao Yuanming was a strong admirer of nature. He believed that humankind, born out of the spirit of heaven and earth but shackled by the desire for worldly fame and wealth, could only regain freedom by returning to nature. He adhered to the principle of contentment in poverty and contempt for wealth and fame. He thought highly of Yan Hui (521–487 BCE), Yuan An (d. 92), and other poor scholars, and vowed to work hard and maintain an uncompromised moral integrity like they did. When Tan Daoji (d. 436), a famous general of the Liu Song dynasty, paid him a personal visit, Tao Yuanming was too weak to get up as he had been without food for days. Even under such circumstances, he firmly declined Tan’s offer of an official post and rejected the exquisite food he had brought. “Neither mournful on account of being poor and lowly, / Nor eager to seek fame and fortune,” he conquered the profane desire for wealth by reveling in nature and refusing to compromise his integrity. Taking Tao Yuanming as an example, many traditional scholar-officials aspired to emulate his noble, unsullied character.
Tao Yuanming is highly acclaimed for his literary achievements. At a time when metaphysical poetry dominated, he wrote poetry closely connected with daily life. He brought the simplicity of Wei and Jin poetry to a higher, more sophisticated level and created the new genre of bucolic poetry. His “fields and gardens” poetry, which vividly depicts the joy and hardship of his farming experience, opened up new paths for romanticism in classical Chinese poetry. His poems on lyric and historical themes looked back to the poetic traditions of Ruan Ji (210–463) and Zuo Si (ca. 250–305), but also blazed new trails with his own special traits. His poems on traveling on official business described the toils of governmental service, the weariness of career officials, a longing for fields and gardens, and a determination to retire. His poems exchanged with other poets bring to life the image of a genial elderly man who writes in a mild manner, expressing his sincere feelings, writing about his daily experiences, and articulating meaningful ideas. His equally remarkable prose and fu (rhapsody), especially “Wuliu xiansheng zhuan” (Biography of Gentalman of the Five Willow Trees), “Taohuayuan ji” (The Peach Blossom Spring), and “Guiqu laixi ci” (Let Me Return), amply reflect his temperament and thought.
In 427, Tao Yuanming, having been ill, died in poverty. Friends and relatives buried him in a simple funeral, and they honored him with the posthumous title Jingjie Xiansheng (Master of High Integrity).