Tao Yuanming

For the Han Dynasty governor, see Tao Qian (Three Kingdoms).
This is a Chinese name; the family name is Tao.
Portrait of Tao Yuanming by Chen Hongshou
Xìng 姓:Táo 陶
Míng 名:Qián 潛, or
Yuānmíng 淵明
Zì 字:Yuánliàng 元亮, or
Yuānmíng 淵明
Hào 號:Wǔliǔ Xiānsheng 五柳先生
(Five Willows)
Shì 謚:Jìngjié 靖節
Tao Yuanming

"Tao Yuanming" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese 陶淵明
Simplified Chinese 陶渊明
Alternative Chinese name
Chinese 陶潛
Literal meaning (original name)

Tao Yuanming (365–427), also known as Tao Qian or T'ao Ch'ien, was a Chinese poet who lived in the middle of the Six Dynasties period (c. 220 - 589 CE). By any name, Tao is often regarded as the greatest poet during the centuries of Six dynasties poetry between the Han and Tang dynasties. He is also the foremost of the "recluse" poets,[1] or the poets who seem to have written their greatest work while in reclusion (but not necessarily seclusion, as if in solitary confinement), and away from the hustle and bustle of official business and high society, and in whose poems the theme of countryside solitude particularly resonates. In Tao's case he is particularly regarded as a Fields and Gardens poetry poet: that is a nature poet, but a poet of the more domestic sort of nature, such as, famously, the chrysanthemums which grew along the east hedge of his place, as opposed to the poets who found their inspiration from nature somewhere out in the rugged and remote regions of vast and untamed wilderness.


In the middle of his life, Tao changed his name (keeping his family name) from Tao Yuanming (traditional Chinese: 陶淵明; simplified Chinese: 陶渊明; pinyin: Táo Yuānmíng; Wade–Giles: T'ao Yüan-ming) to Tao Qian (simplified Chinese: 陶潜; traditional Chinese: 陶潛; pinyin: Táo Qián; Wade–Giles: T'ao Ch'ien). "Master of the Five Willows", which he used when quite young, seems to be a soubriquet of his own invention.[2] There is a surviving autobiographical essay from his youth in which Tao Yuanming uses "Five Willows" to allude to himself. After this, Tao refers to himself in his earlier writings as "Yuanming"; however; it is thought that with the demise of the Eastern Jin dynasty in 420, that he began to refer to himself as "Qian", meaning "hiding", as a signification of his final withdrawal into the quiet life in the country and his decision to avoid any further participation in the political scene.[3] Tao Qian could also be translated "Recluse Tao".[4] However, this in no way implies an eremitic lifestyle or extreme asceticism; rather a comfortable dwelling, with family, friends, neighbors, musical instruments, wine, a nice library, and the beautiful scenery of a mountain farm were Tao Qian's compensation for giving up on the lifestyle of Tao Yuanming, government servant.[5]


Tao Yuanming was born during the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420), which was a time of military uncertainty and political infighting. However, he would live into the times of the succeeding Liu Song Dynasty, one of the southern kingdoms.


Tao Yuanming's great-grandfather was the eminent Eastern Jin general and governor, Tao Kan (259-334), and his grandfather and father also both served as government officials.[3] However, the family circumstances into which Tao Yuanming was born were only those of moderate poverty and lack of much political influence.[3]

Birth and childhood

Tao Yuanming was born in the year 365, in Chaisang[3] (柴桑) (modern Jiujiang, Jiangxi), an area of great natural beauty. The name of his ancestral village, Chaisang, literally means "Mulberry-Bramble".[6] Nearby sights included Mount Lu, Poyang Lake (then known as P'eng-li), as well as a good selection of nature's features located in the immediate vicinity of Chaisang.[3]


Tao Yuanming ended up serving more than ten years in government service, personally involved with the sordid political scene of the times.[1] He served in both civil and military capacities, which included making several trips down the Yangzi to the capital Jiankang,[3] then a thriving metropolis, and the center of power during the Six Dynasties. The ruins of the old Jiangkang walls can still be found in the modern municipal region of Nanjing. During this period of service in a series of minor posts, Tao Yuanming's poems begin to indicate that he was becoming torn between ambition and a desire to retreat into solitude.


Tao Yuanming had five sons.[7][8]


In the Spring of 405, Tao Yuanming was serving in the army, as aide-de-camp to the local commanding officer.[3] The death of his sister together with his disgust at the corruption and infighting of the Jin Court prompted him to resign, factors which had led to his become convinced that life was too short to compromise on his principles. As he himself put it "為五斗米折腰": he would not "bow like a servant in return for five bushels of grain", a saying which has entered common usage meaning "swallowing one's pride in exchange for a meager existence" (the 'Five bushels of grain' being the specified salary of certain low-rank officials). For his last 22 years, he lived in retirement.


Tao Qian died in 427 CE, at the age of sixty-three.[9]


Approximately 130 of his works survive: mostly poems or essays which depict an idyllic pastoral life of farming and drinking.


Tao Yuanming Seated Under a Willow. Tani Bunchō, Japan, 1812

Because his poems depict a life of farming and of drinking his home made wine, he would later be termed "Poet of the Fields". In Tao Yuanming's poems can be found superlative examples of the theme which urges its audience to drop out of official life, move to the country, and take up a cultivated life of wine, poetry, and avoiding people with whom friendship would be unsuitable, but in Tao's case this went along with actually engaging in farming. Tao's poetry also shows an inclination to fulfillment of duty, such as feeding his family. Tao's simple and plain style of expression, reflecting his back-to-basics lifestyle, first became better known as he achieved local fame as a hermit.[10] This was followed gradually by recognition in major anthologies. By the Tang Dynasty, Tao was elevated to greatness as a poet's poet, revered by Li Bai and Du Fu.

Han poetry, Jian'an poetry, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, and the other earlier Six dynasties poetry foreshadowed some of Tao's particular symbolism and the general "returning home to the country" theme, and also somewhat separately show precursory in evolving of poetic form, based on the yuefu style which traces its origin to the Han dynasty Music Bureau. An example given of the thematic evolution of one of Tao's poetic themes is Zhang Heng's Return to the Field, written in the Classical Chinese poetry form known as the fu, or "rhapsody" style, but Tao's own poetry (including his own "Return to the Field" poem) tends to be known for its use of the more purely poetic shi which developed as a regular line length form from the literary yuefu of the Jian'an and foreshadows the verse forms favored in Tang poetry, such as gushi, or "old-style verse". Tao's poems, prose and their combination of form and theme into his own style broke new ground and became a fondly relied upon historical landmark. Much subsequent Chinese painting and literature would require no more than the mention or image of chrysanthemums by the eastern fence to call to mind Tao Yuanming's life and poetry. Later, his poetry and the particular motifs which Tao Yuanming exemplified would prove to importantly influence the innovations of Beat poetry and the 1960s poetry of the United States and Europe. Both in the 20th century and subsequently, Tao Yuanming has come to occupy a position as one of the select group of great world poets.


The following is an extract from one of his poems ("Written on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month of the Year yi-yu"), A.D. 409:

The myriad transformations
unravel one another
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever.[11]

Another of Tao's poems is titled "I built my hut in a zone of human habitation", as translated by Arthur Waley, in A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1919):

I BUILT my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day:
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

Another, from the same source is "Returning to the Fields" (alternatively translated by others as "Return to the Field"):

WHEN I was young, I was out of tune with the herd:
My only love was for the hills and mountains.
Unwitting I fell into the Web of the World's dust
And was not free until my thirtieth year.
The migrant bird longs for the old wood:
The fish in the tank thinks of its native pool.
I had rescued from wildness a patch of the Southern Moor
And, still rustic, I returned to field and garden.
My ground covers no more than ten acres:
My thatched cottage has eight or nine rooms.
Elms and willows cluster by the eaves:
Peach trees and plum trees grow before the hall.
Hazy, hazy the distant hamlets of men.
Steady the smoke of the half-deserted village,
A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes,
A cock crows at the top of the mulberry tree.
At gate and courtyard—no murmur of the World's dust:
In the empty rooms—leisure and deep stillness.
Long I lived checked by the bars of a cage:
Now I have turned again to Nature and Freedom.

Tao's poems greatly influenced the ensuing poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. A great admirer of Tao, Du Fu wrote a poem Oh, Such a Shame of life in the countryside:

Only by wine one's heart is lit,
only a poem calms a soul that's torn.
You'd understand me, Tao Qian.
I wish a little sooner I was born!

Peach Blossom Spring

Aside from his poems, Tao is also known for his short, influential, and intriguing prose depiction of a land hidden from the outside world called "Peach Blossom Spring" (桃花源記). The name Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源 Tao Hua Yuan) has since become the standard Chinese term for 'utopia'.


Tao Yuanming is usually regarded as a Taoist. Indeed, according to Zhu Ziqing's account, his work contains 49 allusions to the Zhuangzi and 21 to the Liezi. However, as pointed out by D.Holzman, the Confucian overtones of his work should not be underestimated as well: while the mentioned books occupy the 1st and 3d places in the rate of the allusions, the 2d place is taken by the Lunyu (37 occurrences).[12]

Critical appraisal

Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 (468-518) described Yuanming's literary style as "spare and limpid, with scarcely a surplus word."[13] In 詩品 (Poetry Gradings), Zhong Rong wrote:

[Yuanming's] sincerity is true and traditional, his verbalized inspirations supple and relaxed. When one reads his works, the fine character of the poet himself comes to mind. Ordinary men admire his unadorned directness. But such lines of his as "With happy face I pour the spring-brewed wine," and "The sun sets, no clouds are in the sky," are pure and refined in the beauty of their air. These are far from being merely the words of a farmer. He is the father of recluse poetry past and present.[13]

Su Shi (1037–1101), one of the major poets of the Song era, said that the only poet he was particularly fond of was Yuanming, who "deeply impressed [him] by what he was as a man." Su Shi exalted Yuanming's "unadorned and yet beautiful, spare and yet ample" poems, and even asserted that "neither Cao Zhi, Liu Zhen, Bao Zhao, Xie Lingyun, Li Bai, nor Du Fu achieves his stature".[14]

Huang Tingjian (1045–1105), one of the Four Masters of the Song Dynasty and a younger friend of Su Shi, said, "“When you’ve just come of age, reading these poems seems like gnawing on withered wood. But reading them after long experience in the world, it seems the decisions of your life were all made in ignorance.” [15]

Lin Yutang (1895–1976) considered Yuanming the perfect example of "the true lover of life". He praised the harmony and simplicity in Yuanming's life as well as in his style, and claimed that he "represents the most perfectly harmonious and well-rounded character in the entire Chinese literary tradition."[16]

In Great lives from history (1988), Frank Northen Magill highlights the "candid beauty" of Yuanming's poetry, stating that the "freshness of his images, his homespun but Heaven-aspiring morality, and his steadfast love of rural life shine through the deceptively humble words in which they are expressed, and as a consequence he has long been regarded one of China's most accomplished and accessible poets."[17] He also discusses what makes Yuanming unique as a poet, and why his works were perhaps overlooked by his contemporaries:

It is this fundamental love of simplicity that distinguishes T'ao Ch'ien's verses from the works of court poets of his time, who utilized obscure allusions and complicated stylistic devices to fashion verses that appealed only to the highly educated. T'ao Ch'ien, by way of contrast, seldom made any literary allusions whatsoever, and he wrote for the widest possible audience. As a consequence, he was slighted by his era's critics and only fully appreciated by later generations of readers.[18]

Tao Yuanming has inspired not only generations of poets, but also painters and other artists.




See also


  1. 1 2 Davis, vii
  2. Chang, 24-25
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Chang, 22
  4. Hinton, 111
  5. Hinton, 111-112
  6. Hinton, 110
  7. Chang, 25
  8. "Blessed I am with five sons" — Tao Yuanming, as quoted in 陶潛, 譚時霖 The complete works of Tao Yuanming (1992), p. 34
  9. T'ao Ch'ien on life and death: the concept of tzu-jan in his poetry by Wing-ming Chan (1981), p. 193
  10. Cai 2008, 122
  11. Translated by William Acker. Anthology of Chinese Literature, Vol. I (1965), p. 188-9
  12. Holzman,79 and passim.
  13. 1 2 Zhong Rong, The Poets Graded, translated by J. Timothy Wixted, as quoted in John Minford, Joseph S. M. Lau Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations (2000)
  14. Su Shi, quoted by his brother Su Ziyou (1039-1112), as translated by J. Timothy Wixted; Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations (2000), p. 491
  15. Tao, Qian, and David Hinton. The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch'ien. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon (1993), p. 6
  16. Lin Yutang, in The Importance Of Living (1937), p. 116
  17. Frank Northen Magill, in Great lives from history: Ancient and medieval series, Vol. 5 (1988), p. 2073
  18. Ibid., p. 2071


Wikiquote has quotations related to: Tao Yuanming
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tao Qian.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/15/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.