The Art and Poetry of the Tang Dynasty

Stone tells us, “Of the approximately 2,200 Tang poets, many were women, including China’s only female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian, but the works of female poets overall were not popular until the mid-to-late Tang Period (mid-700s A.D. to 907 A.D.), several generations after Empress Wu’s reign. At this time, women enjoyed more freedom than women of the following dynasties, especially those who were educated and of the upper class.”

One of Wu Zetian’s poems was about an imperial visit to a park.

Tomorrow morning I will make an outing to Shanglin Park,
With urgent haste I inform the spring:
Flowers must open their petals overnight,
Don’t wait for the morning wind to blow!

Song Zhi-wen, another Tang Dynasty poet, was found guilty of accepting bribes. In one of his poems he revealed that he had good reason to fear returning home from exile because when he did, he was executed.

Crossing the Han River
Song Zhi-wen (656 – 712 A.D.)

No news, no letters – all winter, all spring —
Beyond the mountains.
With every homeward step more timid still
I dare not even inquire of passerby.

Another example of Tang Dynasty poetry is The View in Spring by Du Fu (712 – 770 A.D.).

A kingdom smashed, its hills and rivers still here,
Spring in the city, plants and trees grow deep.
Moved by the moment, flowers splash with tears,
Alarmed at parting, birds startle the heart.
War’s beacon fires have gone on three months,
Letters from home are worth thousands in gold.
Fingers run through white hair until it thins,
Cap-pins will almost no longer hold.

(Owen, Stephen, trans. An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996, p. 420. )

The next poem is one of many that Yuan Zhen (779 – 831 A.D.) wrote for his dead wife, who he married when he was poor. She did not live long enough to share his fame and fortune.

In former years, we chatted carelessly of death and what it means
to die.
Since then, it’s passed before my very eyes.
I’ve given almost all your clothes away
But cannot bear to move your sewing things.
Remembering your past attachments, I’ve been kind to maids you
I’ve met your soul in dreams and ordered sutras sung.
Certainly, I know this sorrow comes to all
But to poor and lowly couples, everything life brings is sad.

The art of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) explored new possibilities in materials and styles. For instance, Tang Tri-colored Pottery thrived in the Tang Dynasty over 1300 years ago. Its glaze mainly features the three colors of yellow, green and white, but “tri-color” does not only refer to these three colors but many others.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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