China is a nation of poetry. It is not an exaggeration to say that poetry has been the most influential literary genre in China and that the Chinese have had a tendency to poetize prose, fiction, and drama. It is also not an exaggeration to say that Tang poetry is the pinnacle of Chinese poetic development.
There are many aspects to consider in discussing the florescence of Tang poetry. In quantity, the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) anthology Quan Tang shi (Complete Tang poems) contains the names of more than 2,200 Tang poets from all walks of life and many of the best poets in Chinese history emerged during this period. In terms of quality, scholars to this day still believe that Tang poetry offers the most brilliant and best pedagogic models for students of poetry. In terms of circulation, poetry was well integrated into the daily lives of the people during the Tang. After a good poem was written, people would make copies of it and recite it widely. The Tang period (618–907) is considered the golden age of Chinese poetry, a time when poetry played an important part in social life and some poetic forms reached an apex of development. This fluorescence was supported by the availability of poetic prototypes from earlier times, the promotion and patronage of poetry in court circles, the hiring of government officials skilled in composing poetry, the increase in the number of scholars of humble birth who contributed innovative ways of composing, and the economic prosperity of Tang society. These factors all contributed to the material riches that culminated in the flowering of Tang poetry.
The chronological development of Tang poetry can be divided into four periods: Early Tang (618–712), High Tang (713–765), Middle Tang (766–835), and Late Tang (836–907).
In the early Tang period, the “Four Paragons of the Early Tang” and other poets rejected the formal and topical constraints of “court-style” poetry of the previous Southern Dynasties era (420–589) in favor of creating poetry that dealt with broad social topics and major political issues. In the formal realm, Shen Quanqi (ca. 650–729) and Song Zhiwen (ca. 660–712) are credited with establishing “regulated verse,” a poetic form with more uniformity of syllables and lines. Zhang Ruoxu’s (ca. 660–720) “Chunjiang hua yue ye” (Moonlight over spring river) is an outstanding example of a seven-syllable regulated verse. Chen Zi’ang (661–702) actively championed the “style and structure of the Jian’an period writing” and established a newer, stronger, and more energetic poetic style. These earlier Tang poets experimented with new ways of creating poetry and cleared the way for the full flourishing of poetry during the High Tang.
High Tang is the climax not only of Tang poetry itself, but also of Chinese poetry as a whole. The “poet immortal” Li Bai (701–762), the “poet sage” Du Fu (712–770), the “versatile master of poetry” Wang Wei (659–759), and the “son of Heaven of poetry” Wang Changling (698–756), as well as many other poetic luminaries represent the outstanding poetry created during this period. High Tang poetry not only dealt with traditional themes like mountains-and-streams, fields-and-gardens, palace intrigue, and feelings of separation and loss, but also developed the two new genres of political poetry and frontier poetry. Political poems spoke out against entrenched power elites and sought liberation for unrecognized men of talent. Frontier poems, written by military men and civilians posted to the border towns of China, offered optimism and enthusiasm. In its open, direct, and free style, its strong vitality and creative joy, its telling of new experiences on the frontier, its rich use of natural imagery, and its mingling of sentiment with sensuality, frontier poetry contributed a new kind of lyrical beauty that made High Tang poetry the envy of later generations.
Middle Tang poetry contains the largest number of poems and lyrics. Since mid-Tang society was in serious crisis, poets and other members of the educated elite faced harsh realities and became politically active. Many of their poems were nuanced commentaries on the social and political life of the time. A group of poets represented by Bai Juyi (772–846) and Yuan Zhen (779–831) composed poems in the manner of official remonstrations to critique social abuses, and another group represented by Han Yu (768–824), Meng Jiao (751–814), and Li He (790–816) exposed social injustice by describing their own misfortunes. Some disaffected poets such as Liu Changqing (709–785) and Wei Yingwu (737–792) retreated to hermitages in mountains and lakes. Reformist poets like Liu Zongyuan (773–819) and Liu Yuxi (772–842) wrote elegant and illuminating works that constitute a unique stylistic stream in Middle Tang poetry.
In late Tang times, the political situation turned even darker. Late Tang poetry exhibits two kinds of changes: the first was an easing of political commentary in favor of pursuing poetic beauty for its own sake, and the second was embracing everyday life as a poetic genre in its own right. Poets became more self-absorbed and their works more focused on the simple joys and great sorrows of life. Two of the most prominent figures in Late Tang poetry are Li Shangyin (ca. 813–858) and Du Mu (803–852). People refer to them as “Younger Li-Du,” in contrast to Li Bai and Du Fu of the High Tang who are the “Elder Li-Du.”
Tang poetry is unsurpassed in its grandeur, free and natural grace, profound artistic conception, and elegance. The adoption of the “regulated” or uniform form, the clever use of language, the insistence on lyrical beauty, and the use of rich content have all contributed to the unique and exalted status that Tang poetry enjoys in the history of Chinese culture. Today, there are as many as ten different complete collections or anthologies of Tang poetry in circulation around the world. China’s neighbors, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam use some of them as textbooks, and the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s (1860–1911) Das Lied von der Erde (The song of the Earth) was largely inspired by Tang poetry.