Tao Qian (Tao Chien, Tao Yuanming)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tao Qian (Tao Chien, Tao Yuanming)

Tao Qian (Tao Chien, Tao Yuanming)

(A.D. 365-427) Chinese poet and essayist A classical scholar and liberal Daoist (Taoist) philosopher, Tao Qian (Tao Chien) explored in verse his views on life's unremitting struggle. Virtually unknown in his day, he was born Tao Yuanming of noble lineage during the Eastern Jin dynasty in Jiangxi, southeastern China. According to his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Biography of the Gentleman of Five Willows (date unknown), after 13 years of city life, he wearied of court corruption and jockeying for power. Contributing to his discontent was sorrow at the death of his brother Zhang's wife in Wuchang at a young age. In winter 400, Tao gave up a civil service post to live simply in a ramshackle thatched hut and support his wife and five sons by farming. He chortled, “I'll take this farmland life anytime, anytime” (Tao 2000, 10).

Like the Greek agrarian poet Hesiod, Tao found his work taxing and unremunerative. Lacking an ox, he pulled his own plow while his wife guided it down the furrows. After his home burned, poverty drove him back to bureaucracy in the capital. He briefly served in the army and took a magistracy in the town of Peng-tse 30 miles to the northeast before returning six years later to his rural roots in the village of Chai-sang, six miles southwest of Jiujiang. The ode “Returning to My Old Home” pictures his first glimpse of terraced fields and plots where houses vanished after neighbors died. Literary historians deduce that the poet's love of independence and seclusion led to alcoholism and a disavowal of his youthful Confucianism. Leaning his walking stick on the brushwood gate, he retreated into reading, reciting poems, and plucking the koto and took Dionysian delight in sipping wine and being himself.

Like the Roman poets HORACE, JUVENAL, and VIRGIL, in retirement from public life, Tao Qian rejoiced in solitary walks in the hills in sight of flocks of birds and South Mountain. He anticipated death as inevitable. At “home day-in day-out, taking things easy” (22), he grew chrysanthemums, vegetables, millet, herbs, bamboo, and shade trees and contemplated old age in an area where villagers “make mornings and evenings pure joy” (48). He put little faith in emperors and advancement and declared, “Getting rich isn't what I want” (18). He grieved that he was born too late to attain the high moral tone of “thousand-year-old books” written by “timeless exemplars” (28).

Tao's publications survive as evidence of a structured life relieved on occasion by wine drinking with friends and enjoyment of song and small talk. He composed a utopian essay in prose, “Tao Hua Yuan Ji” (“Peach Blossom Spring,” ca. 420). Revealed to a fisherman through a cleft in the mountains, the Shangri-la of Peach Blossom Spring represents rural happiness based on work and modest rewards. To avoid war, the people settled the remote haven two centuries earlier after 221 B.c. during the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. Fortunately for their peace of mind, no followers of the fisherman’s trail located the valley.

Historians interpret Tao’s hermitism as overt scorn of the ruling class. His ascetic philosophy found strength in the timelessness of earth and heaven and in cycles that never end. Of the dangers of empires, he groused, “Ch’in’s First Emperor ravaged the sense/heaven gives things, and wise people fled” (Tao 2000, 71). The poet scorns that “Great men want the four seas” (74). In contrast to greed and power, he describes the detached Daoist lifestyle as worry-free, a reference to his ragged robe and bare rooms overlooking a shady country lane. Like the Greek warrior-poet Archilochus, Tao acknowledged the finality of mortal life with equanimity: “There’s no doubt about it, death’s death” (39). He discredited the permanence of Daoism and noted that the human legacy must be good works founded on love. To foolish time wasters, he urged an embrace of nature’s abundance and of the precious moments that quickly fade into “the empty sorrows of distance” (80). Tao’s lyrical writings later influenced poets of the Tang dynasty (608-907), who took comfort in his relaxed but earnest anti-imperial verse.


Tao Qian. The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien. Translated by David Hinton. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2000.

Zongqi, Cai, ed. Chinese Aesthetics: The Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.