POETRY—MISCELLANEOUS LITERATURE - Minor dynasties (A.D. 200-600)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

Minor dynasties (A.D. 200-600)

THE centuries which elapsed between A.D. 200 and 600 were not favourable to the development and growth of a national literature. During a great part of the time the empire was torn by civil wars; there was not much leisure for book-learning, and few patrons to encourage it. Still the work was carried on, and many great names have come down to us.

The dark years between A.D. 196 and 221, which witnessed the downfall of the House of Han, were illumined by the names of seven writers, now jointly known as the Seven Scholars of the Chien-An period. They were all poets. There was HSÜ KAN, who fell under the influence of Buddhism and translated into Chinese the Pranyamûla shâstra tikâ of Nâgârdjuna. The following lines are by him:—

"O floating clouds that swim in heaven above,

Bear on your wings these words to him I love… .

Alas! you float along nor heed my pain,

And leave me here to love and long in vain!

I see other dear ones to their homes return,

And for his coming shall not I too yearn?

Since my lord left—ah me, unhappy day!—

My mirror's dust has not been brushed away;

My heart, like running water, knows no peace,

But bleeds and bleeds forever without cease"

There was K'UNG JUNG, a descendant of Confucius in the twentieth degree, and a most precocious child. At ten years of age he went with his father to Lo-yang, where Li Ying, the Dragon statesman, was at the height of his political reputation. Unable from the press of visitors to gain admission, he told the doorkeeper to inform Li Ying that he was a connection, and thus succeeded in getting in. When Li Ying asked him what the connection was, he replied, "My ancestor Confucius and your ancestor Lao Tzŭ were friends engaged in the quest for truth, so that you and I may be said to be of the same family." Li Ying was astonished, but Ch'ên Wei said, "Cleverness in youth does not mean brilliancy in later life," upon which K'ung Jung remarked, "You, sir, must evidently have been very clever as a boy." Entering official life, he rose to be Governor of Po-hai in Shantung; but he incurred the displeasure of the great Ts'ao Ts'ao, and was put to death with all his family. He was an open-hearted man, and fond of good company. "If my halls are full of guests," he would say, "and my bottles full of wine, I am happy."

The following is a specimen of his poetry:—

"The wanderer reaches home with joy

From absence of a year and more:

His eye seeks a beloved boy—

His wife lies weeping on the floor.

"They whisper he is gone. The glooms

Of evening fall; beyond the gate

A lonely grave in outline looms

To greet the sire who came too late.

"Forth to the little mound he flings,

Where wild-flowers bloom on every side… .

His bones are in the Yellow Springs,

His flesh like dust is scattered wide.

"'O child, who never knew thy sire,

For ever now to be unknown,

Ere long thy wandering ghost shall tire

Of flitting friendless and alone.

"'O son, man's greatest earthly boon,

With thee I bury hopes and fears.'

He bowed his head in grief, and soon

His breast was wet with rolling tears.

"Life's dread uncertainty he knows,

But oh for this untimely close!"

There was WANG TS'AN (A.D. 177-217), a learned man who wrote an Ars Poetica, not, however, in verse. A youth of great promise, he excelled as a poet, although the times were most unfavourable to success. It has been alleged, with more or less truth, that all Chinese poetry is pitched in the key of melancholy; that the favourite themes of Chinese poets are the transitory character of life with its partings and other ills, and the inevitable approach of death, with substitution of the unknown for the known. Wang Ts'an had good cause for his lamentations. He was forced by political disturbances to leave his home at the capital and seek safety in flight. There, as he tells us,

"Wolves and tigers work their own sweet will."

On the way he finds

"Naught but bleached bones covering the plain ahead"

and he comes across a famine-stricken woman who had thrown among the bushes a child she was unable to feed. Arriving at the Great River, the setting sun brings his feelings to a head:—

"Streaks of light still cling to the hill-tops,

While a deeper shade falls upon the steep slopes;

The fox makes his way to his burrow,

Birds fly back to their homes in the wood,

Clear sound the ripples of the rushing waves,

Along the banks the gibbons scream and cry,

My sleeves are fluttered by the whistling gale,

The lapels of my robe are drenched with dew.

The livelong night I cannot close my eyes.

I arise and seize my guitar,

Which, ever in sympathy with man's changing moods,

Now sounds responsive to my grief."

But music cannot make him forget his kith and kin—

"Most of them, alas! are prisoners, And weeping will be my portion to the end. With all the joyous spots in the empire, Why must I remain in this place?

Ah, like the grub in smartweed, I am growing insensible to bitterness."

By the last line he means to hint "how much a long communion tends to make us what we are."

There was YING YANG, who, when his own political career was cut short, wrote a poem with a title which may be interpreted as "Regret that a Bucephalus should stand idle."

There was Liu CHÈNG, who was put to death for daring to cast an eye upon one of the favourites of the great general Ts'ao Ts'ao, virtual founder of the House of Wei. CH'ÊN LIN and YÜAN YÜ complete the tale.

To these seven names an eighth and a ninth are added by courtesy: those of TS'AO TS'AO above mentioned, and of his third son, Ts'ao Chih, the poet. The former played a remarkable part in Chinese history. His father had been adopted as son by the chief eunuch of the palace, and he himself was a wild young man much given to coursing and hawking. He managed, however, to graduate at the age of twenty, and, after distinguishing himself in a campaign against insurgents, raised a volunteer force to purge the country of various powerful chieftains who threatened the integrity of the empire. By degrees the supreme power passed into his hands, and he caused the weak Emperor to raise his daughter to the rank of Empress. He is popularly regarded as the type of a bold bad Minister and of a cunning unscrupulous rebel. His large armies are proverbial, and at one time he is said to have had so many as a million of men under arms. As an instance of the discipline which prevailed in his camp, it is said that he once condemned himself to death for having allowed his horse to shy into a field of grain, in accordance with his own severe regulations against any injury to standing crops. However, in lieu of losing his head, he was persuaded to satisfy his sense of justice by cutting off his hair. The following lines are from a song by him, written in an abrupt metre of four words to the line:—

"Here is mine, let us sing;

For man's life is short,

Like the morning dew,

Its best days gone by.

But though we would rejoice,

Sorrows are hard to forget,

What will make us forget them?

Wine, and only wine"

After Ts'ao Ts'ao's death came the epoch of the Three Kingdoms, the romantic story of which is told in the famous novel to be mentioned later on. Ts'ao Ts'ao's eldest son became the first Emperor of one of these, the Wei Kingdom, and TS'AO CHIH, the poet, occupied an awkward position at court, an object of suspicion and dislike. At ten years of age he already excelled in composition, so much so that his father thought he must be a plagiarist; but he settled the question by producing off-hand poems on any given theme. "If all the talent of the world," said a contemporary poet,were represented by ten, Ts'ao Chih would have eight, I should have one, and the rest of mankind one between them." There is a story that on one occasion, at the bidding of his elder brother, probably with mischievous intent, he composed an impromptu stanza while walking only seven steps. It has been remembered more for its point than its poetry:—

"A fine dish of beans had been placed in the pot

With a view to a good mess of pottage all hot.

The beanstalks, aflame, a fierce heat were begetting,

The beans in the pot were all fuming and fretting.

Yet the beans and the stalks were not born to be foes;

Oh, why should these hurry to finish off those?"

The following extract from a poem of his contains a very well-known maxim, constantly in use at the present day:—

"The superior man takes precautions,

And avoids giving cause for suspicion.

He will not pull up his shoes in a melon-field,

Nor under a plum-tree straighten his hat.

Brothers- and sisters-in-law may not join hands,

Elders and youngers may not walk abreast;

By toil and humility the handle is grasped;

Moderate your brilliancy, and difficulties disappear

During the third century A.D. another and more mercurial set of poets, also seven in number, formed themselves into a club, and became widely famous as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Among these was Liu LING, a hard drinker, who declared that to a drunken man "the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river." He wished to be always accompanied by a servant with wine, followed by another with a spade, so that he might be buried where he fell. On one occasion, yielding to the entreaties of his wife, he promised to "swear off," and bade her prepare the usual sacrifices of wine and meat. When all was ready, he prayed, saying, "O God, who didst give to Liu Ling a reputation through wine, he being able to consume a gallon at a sitting and requiring a quart to sober him again, listen not to the words of his wife, for she speaketh not truth." Thereupon he drank up the sacrificial wine, and was soon as drunk as ever. His bias was towards the Tao of Lao Tzŭ, and he was actually plucked for his degree in consequence of an essay extolling the heterodox doctrine of Inaction. The following skit exhibits this Taoist strain to a marked degree:—

"An old gentleman, a friend of mine (that is, himself), regards eternity as but a single day, and whole centuries as but an instant of time. The sun and moon are the windows of his house; the cardinal points are the boundaries of his domain. He wanders unrestrained and free; he dwells within no walls. The canopy of heaven is his roof; his resting-place is the lap of earth. He follows his fancy in all things. He is never for a moment without a wine-flask in one hand, a goblet in the other. His only thought is wine: he knows of naught beyond.

"Two respectable philanthropists, hearing of my friend's weakness, proceeded to tax him on the subject; and with many gestures of disapprobation, fierce scowls, and gnashing of teeth, preached him quite a sermon on the rules of propriety, and sent his faults buzzing round his head like a swarm of bees.

"When they began, the old gentleman filled himself another bumper; and sitting down, quietly stroked his beard and sipped his wine by turns, until at length he lapsed into a semi-inebriate state of placid enjoyment, varied by intervals of absolute unconsciousness or of partial return to mental lucidity. His ears were beyond the reach of thunder; he could not have seen a mountain. Heat and cold existed for him no more. He knew not even the workings of his own mind. To him, the affairs of this world appeared but as so much duckweed on a river; while the two philanthropists at his side looked like two wasps trying to convert a caterpillar" (into a wasp, as the Chinese believe is done).

Another was HSI K'ANG, a handsome young man, seven feet seven inches in height, who was married—a doubtful boon—into the Imperial family. His favourite study was alchemistic research, and he passed his days sitting under a willow-tree in his courtyard and experimenting in the transmutation of metals, varying his toil with music and poetry, and practising the art of breathing with a view to securing immortality. Happening, however, to offend by his want of ceremony one of the Imperial princes, who was also a student of alchemy, he was denounced to the Emperor as a dangerous person and a traitor, and condemned to death. Three thousand disciples offered each one to take the place of their beloved master, but their request was not granted. He met his fate with fortitude, calmly watching the shadows thrown by the sun and playing upon his lute.

The third was HSIANG HSIU, who also tried his hand at alchemy, and whose commentary on Chuang Tzŭ was stolen, as has been already stated, by Kuo Hsiang.

The fourth was YÜAN HSIEN, a wild harum-scarum fellow, but a performer on the guitar and a great authority on the theory of music. He and his uncle, both poverty-stricken, lived on one side of the road, while a wealthier branch of the family lived on the other side. On the seventh of the seventh moon the latter put out all their grand fur robes and fine clothes to air, as is customary on that day; whereupon Yüan Hsien on his side forked up a pair of the short breeches, called calf-nose drawers, worn by the common coolies, explaining to a friend that he was a victim to the tyranny of custom.

The fifth was YÜAN CHI, another musician, whose harpsichords became the "Strads" of China. He entered the army and rose to a high command, and then exchanged his post for one where he had heard there was a better cook. He was a model of filial piety, and when his mother died he wept so violently that he brought up several pints of blood. Yet when Chi Hsi went to condole with him, he showed only the whites of his eyes (that is, paid no attention to him); while Chi Hsi's brother, who carried along with him a jar of wine and a guitar, was welcomed with the pupils. His best-known work is a political and allegorical poem in thirty-eight stanzas averaging about twelve lines to each. The allusions in this are so skilfully veiled as to be quite unrecognisable without a commentary, such concealment being absolutely necessary for the protection of the author in the troublous times during which he wrote.

The sixth was WANG JUNG, who could look at the sun without being dazzled, and lastly there was SHAN T'AO, a follower of Taoist teachings, who was spoken of as "uncut jade" and as "gold ore."

Later on, in the fourth century, comes FU MI, of whom nothing is known beyond his verses, of which the following is a specimen:—

"Thy chariot artel horses

have gone, and I fret

And long for the lover

I ne'er can forget.

O wanderer, bound

in far countries to dwell,

Would I were thy shadow!—

I'd follow thee well;

And though clouds and though darkness

my presence should hide,

In the bright light of day

I would stand by thy side!"

We now reach a name which is still familiar to all students of poetry in the Middle Kingdom. T'AO CHIEN (A.D. 365-427), or T'ao Yüan-ming as he was called in early life, after a youth of poverty obtained an appointment as magistrate. But he was unfitted by nature for official life; all he wanted, to quote his own prayer, was "length of years and depth of wine." He only held the post for eighty-three days, objecting to receive a superior officer with the usual ceremonial on the ground that "he could not crook the hinges of his back for five pecks of rice a day," such being the regulation pay of a magistrate. He then retired into private life and occupied himself with poetry, music, and the culture of flowers, especially chrysanthemums, which are inseparably associated with his name. In the latter pursuit he was seconded by his wife, who worked in the back garden while he worked in the front. His retirement from office is the subject of the following piece, of the poetical-prose class, which, in point of style, is considered one of the masterpieces of the language:—

"Homewards I bend my steps. My fields, my gardens, are choked with weeds: should I not go? My soul has led a bondsman's life: why should I remain to pine? But I will waste no grief upon the past; I will devote my energies to the future. I have not wandered far astray. I feel that I am on the right track once again.

"Lightly, lightly, speeds my boat along, my garments fluttering to the gentle breeze. I inquire my route as I go. I grudge the slowness of the dawning day. From afar I descry my old home, and joyfully press onwards in my haste. The servants rush forth to meet me; my children cluster at the gate. The place is a wilderness; but there is the old pine-tree and my chrysanthemums. I take the little ones by the hand, and pass in. Wine is brought in full jars, and I pour out in brimming cups. I gaze out at my favourite branches. I loll against the window in my new-found freedom. I look at the sweet children on my knee.

"And now I take my pleasure in my garden. There is a gate, but it is rarely opened. I lean on my staff as I wander about or sit clown to rest. I raise my head and contemplate the lovely scene. Clouds rise, unwilling, from the bottom of the hills; the weary bird seeks its nest again. Shadows vanish, but still I linger around my lonely pine. Home once more! I'll have no friendships to distract me hence. The times are out of joint for me; and what have I to seek from men? In the pure enjoyment of the family circle I will pass my days, cheering my idle hours with lute and book. My husbandmen will tell me when spring-time is nigh, and when there will be work in the furrowed fields. Thither I shall repair by cart or by boat, through the deep gorge, over the dizzy cliff, trees bursting merrily into leaf, the streamlet swelling from its tiny source. Glad is this renewal of life in due season; but for me, I rejoice that my journey is over. Ah, how short a. time it is that we are here! Why then not set our hearts at rest, ceasing to trouble whether we remain or go? What boots it to wear out the soul with anxious thoughts? I want not wealth; I want not power; heaven is beyond my hopes. Then let me stroll through the bright hours as they pass, in my garden among my flowers; or I will mount the hill and sing my song, or weave my verse beside the limpid brook. Thus will I work out my allotted span, content with the appointments of Fate, my spirit free from care."

The "Peach-blossom Fountain" of Tao Ch'ien is a well-known and charming allegory, a form of literature much cultivated by Chinese writers. It tells how a fisherman lost his way among the creeks of a river, and came upon a dense and lovely grove of peach-trees in full bloom, through which he pushed his boat, anxious to see how far the grove extended.

"He found that the peach-trees ended where the water began, at the foot of a hill; and there he espied what seemed to be a cave with light issuing from it. So he made fast his boat, and crept in through a narrow entrance, which shortly ushered him into a new world of level country, of fine houses, of rich fields, of fine pools, and of luxuriance of mulberry and bamboo. Highways of traffic ran north and south; sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs were heard around; the dress of the people who passed along or were at work in the fields was of a strange cut; while young and old alike appeared to be contented and happy."

He is told that the ancestors of these people had taken refuge there some five centuries before to escape the troublous days of the "First Emperor," and that there they had remained, cut off completely from the rest of the human race. On his returning home the story is noised abroad, and the Governor sends out men to find this strange region, but the fisherman is never able to find it again. The gods had permitted the poet to go back for a brief span to the peach-blossom days of his youth.

One critic speaks of T'ao Ch'ien as "drunk with the fumes of spring." Another says, "His heart was fixed upon loyalty and duty, while his body was content with leisure and repose. His emotions were real, his scenery was real, his facts were real, and his thoughts were real. His workmanship was so exceedingly fine as to appear natural; his adze and chisel (labor limae) left no traces behind."

Much of his poetry is political, and bristles with allusions to events which are now forgotten, mixed up with thoughts and phrases which are greatly admired by his countrymen. Thus, when he describes meeting with an old friend in a far-off land, such a passage as this would be heavily scored by editor or critic with marks of commendation:—

"Ere words be spoke, the heart is drunk;

What need to call for wine? "

The following is one of his occasional poems:—

"A scholar lives on yonder hill,

His clothes are rarely whole to view,

Nine times a month he eats his fill,

Once in ten years his hat is new.

A wretched lot!—and yet the while

He ever wears a sunny smile.

Longing to know what like was he,

At dawn my steps a path unclosed

Where dark firs left the passage free

And on the eaves the white clouds dozed.

But he, as spying my intent,

Seized his guitar and swept the strings;

Up flew a crane towards heaven bent,

And now a startled pheasant springs… .

Oh, let me rest with thee until

The winter winds again blow chill!"

PAO CHAO was an official and a poet who perished, A.D. 466, in a rebellion. Some of his poetry has been preserved:—

"What do these halls of jasper mean,

and shining floor,

Where tapestries of satin screen

window and door?

A lady on a lonely scat,


Fair flowers which seem to smell as sweet

as buds in spring.

Swallows flit past, a zephyr shakes

the plum-blooms down;

She draws the blind, a goblet takes

her thoughts to drown.

And now she sits in tears, or hums,

nursing her grief

That in her life joy rarely comes

to bring relief…

Oh, for the humble turtle's flight,

my mate and I;

Not the lone crane far out of sight

beyond the sky!"

The original name of a striking character who, in A.D. 502, placed himself upon the throne as first Emperor of the Liang dynasty, was HSIAO YEN. He was a devout Buddhist, living upon priestly fare and taking only one meal a day; and on two occasions, in 527 and 529, he actually adopted the priestly garb. He also wrote a Buddhist ritual in ten books. Interpreting the Buddhist commandment "Thou shalt not kill" in its strictest sense, he caused the sacrificial victims to be made of dough. The following short poem is from his pen:—

"Trees grow, not alike,

by the mound and the moat;

Birds sing in the forest

with varying note;

Of the fish in the river

some dive and some float.

The mountains rise high

and the waters sink low,

But the why and the wherefore

we never can know"

Another well-known poet who lived into the seventh century is HSIEH TAO-HÊNG. He offended Yang Ti, the second Emperor of the Sui dynasty, by writing better verses than his Majesty, and an excuse was found for putting him to death. One of the most admired couplets in the language is associated with his name though not actually by him, its author being unknown. To amuse a party of friends Hsieh Tao-hêng had written impromptu,

"A week in the spring to the exile appears

Like an absence from home of a couple of years."

A "southerner" who was present sneered at the shallowness of the conceit, and immediately wrote down the following:—

"If home, with the wild geese of autumn,

we're going,

Our hearts will be off ere the spring flowers

are blowing."

An official of the Sui dynasty was Fu I (A.D. 554-639), who became Historiographer under the first Emperor of the T'ang dynasty. He had a strong leaning towards Taoism, and edited the Tao-Tê-Ching. At the same time he presented a memorial asking that the Buddhist religion might be abolished; and when Hsiao Yü, a descendant of Hsiao Yen (above), questioned him on the subject, he said, "You were not born in a hollow mulberry-tree; yet you respect a religion which does not recognise the tie between father and son!" He urged that at any rate priests and nuns should be compelled to marry and bring up families, and not escape from contributing their share to the revenue, adding that Hsiao Yü by defending their doctrines showed himself no better than they were. At this Hsiao Yü held up his hands, and declared that hell was made for such men as Fu I. The result was that severe restrictions were placed for a short time upon the teachers of Buddhism. The Emperor T'ai Tsung once got hold of a Tartar priest who could "charm people into unconsciousness, and then charm them back to life again," and spoke of his powers to Fu I. The latter said confidently, "He will not be able to charm me;" and when put to the test, the priest completely failed. He was the originator of epitaphs, and wrote his own, as follows:—

"Fu I loved the green hills and the white clouds …

Alas! he died of drink"

WANG CHI of the sixth and seventh centuries A.D., was a wild and unconventional spirit, with a fatal fondness for wine, which caused his dismissal from office. His capacity for liquor was boundless, and he was known as the Five-bottle Scholar. In his lucid intervals he wrote much beautiful prose and verse, which may still be read with pleasure. The following is from an account of his visit to Drunk-Land, the story of which is told with all due gravity and in a style modelled upon that which is found in ordinary accounts of strange outlandish nations:—

"This country is many thousand miles from the Middle Kingdom. It is a vast, boundless plain, without mountains or undulations of any kind. The climate is equable, there being neither night, nor day, nor cold, nor heat. The manners and customs are everywhere the same.

"There are no villages nor congregations of persons. The inhabitants are ethereal in disposition, and know neither love, hate, joy, nor anger. They inhale the breeze and sip the dew, eating none of the five cereals. Calm in repose, slow of gait, they mingle with birds, beasts, fishes, and scaly creatures, ignorant of boats, chariots, weapons, or implements in general.

"The Yellow Emperor went on a visit to the capital of Drunk-Land, and when he came back, he was quite out of conceit with the empire, the government of which seemed to him but paltry trifling with knotted cords.

"Yüan Chi, T'ao Ch'ien,1 and some others, about ten in all, made a trip together to Drunk-Land, and sank, never to rise again. They were buried where they fell, and now in the Middle Kingdom they are dubbed Spirits of Wine.

"Alas, I could not bear that the pure and peaceful domain of Drunk-Land should come to be regarded as a preserve of the ancients. So I went there myself."

The period closes with the name of the Emperor known as Yang Ti, already mentioned in connection with the poet Hsieh Tao-hêng. The murderer, first of his elder brother and then of his father, he mounted the throne in A.D. 605, and gave himself up to extravagance and debauchery. The trees in his park were supplied in winter with silken leaves and flowers, and birds were almost exterminated to provide a sufficient supply of down for his cushions. After reigning for thirteen years this unlikely patron of literature fell a victim to assassination. Yet in spite of his otherwise disreputable character, Yang Ti prided himself upon his literary attainments. He set one hundred scholars to work editing a collection of classical, medical, and other treatises; and it was under his reign, in A.D. 606, that the examination for the second or "master of arts" degree was instituted.


1 Here the poet makes a mistake. These two were not contemporaries.