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The Flourishing of Poetry in the Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties

Poem concerning the “Pavilion with Various Views” (Duojing lou)

Poem concerning the “Pavilion with Various Views” (Duojing lou), in semicursive script (xingshu). Attributed to Mi Fu, 1051–1107. Northern Song dynasty (960–1126). Album, ink on paper. Gift of the Yeh Family Collection, 2004.31.

The Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) dynasties were the golden ages of Chinese classical literature in general, and poetry in particular. Poets of these periods, including Li Bo, Du Fu, and Su Shi, are well known throughout East Asia and are still regarded as revered models for later generations of poets. However, Tang and Song poets clearly had different literary orientations, reflecting differences between Tang and Song societies. During the Tang period, China was open to the outside world and embraced the new and exotic, whereas Song China was a comparatively closed society that became introspective and philosophical. Tang poets were concerned with frontier adventures, embraced foreign elements, and celebrated spontaneous feelings. By contrast, Song poets tended to write about the more domestic moments of daily life, social duty, and the contemplation of philosophy in their poems.

So why was there a flourishing of literature during the Tang and Song dynasties? The answer to this question lies primarily in the fact that civil service exams instituted during the Tang and Song demanded significant literary skills. Poetry was considered the most refined and elevated means of expression, and was believed to be relevant to many professional arenas, including diplomacy, communication, reasoning, and philosophy. Civil service exams were used to identify capable people for government service and were the most important avenue for people from different social backgrounds to achieve political ambitions and gain prestige. Although the practice of the exams originated in the sixth century, it was not widely established until the Tang and significantly expanded during the Song. During the Tang, exam candidates were tested on poetry composition. This meant that if a person in the Tang wanted to achieve his social ambition or simply live a better life, he needed to be able to write poems. Even though by the middle of the Song, the exam requirement for poetry was replaced by essays, essays demanded no less literary skill. During the Song, along with the increase in the national literacy rate, the government increased exam enrollment among people of all classes. This development in turn prompted more people to acquire literary skills. Besides the great significance and widespread pursuit of the civil service exams, the invention and development of printing in the Tang and Song made the circulation of poems easier than before, and facilitated the study of poetry. All this contributed to the flourishing of poetry during the Tang and Song dynasties.

And why do Tang and Song poems reflect different perspectives? The answer to this lies in the contrasting cultural orientations and experiences of life during the two eras. By most measures, the Tang was the most successful dynasty in Chinese history. It expanded its territory into Central Asia, and by means of the Silk Road actively exchanged commodities and culture with other civilizations. Consequently, the people of the Tang were very open to the outside world. Reflecting this cultural atmosphere, Tang poets were preoccupied by the excitement of faraway adventures and the fascination of exotic things, sometimes overlooking the details of their immediate everyday lives. At the same time, an overall feeling of national confidence was reflected in the poets’ confidence in their own senses. Poets celebrated spontaneous feelings.

By contrast to the Tang, the Song was a weak dynasty. Threatened by nomads on their borders and lacking the political ambitions of the Tang, the people of the Song looked inward. They observed the world close to them with discerning, scientific eyes. With a stronger appreciation for the details of their daily lives, the Song poets engaged in philosophical thinking based on their habits of close observation. Ongoing political strife during the Song also encouraged a stronger sense of political involvement among the educated people than was found in the Tang. All these factors contributed to the distinctive character of Song and Tang poetry.