Six Dynasties poetry

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Master Jingjie (the posthumous name for Tao Yuanming). Text at top is from the Ci style poem 歸去來兮. By Wang Zhongyu, Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

Six Dynasties poetry refers to those types or styles of poetry particularly associated with the Six Dynasties era of China (220 CE – 589 CE). This poetry reflects one of the poetry world's more important flowerings, as well as being a unique period in Classical Chinese poetry; which, over this time period, developed a poetry with special emphasis on romantic love, gender roles, and human relationships. The Six Dynasties era covers three somewhat overlapping main periods: the Three Kingdoms (220–280), Jin dynasty (265–420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589). Sometimes neither the lives of the poets nor the trends in their poetry fit neatly into these period dates, however major developments of poetry during the Six Dynasties include formalizing the distinction between the Jian'an era regular yuefu and the shi style poetry, further development of the fu, theoretical work on technique, and the preservation of both Six Dynasties and earlier poetry by collecting and publishing many of the pieces which survive today into various anthologies consisting all or in part of poetry.


The Six Dynasties poetic period formed an important link between the folk-ballad (yuefu) style prominent in the poetry of the Han dynasty and the revival and experimentation with the older forms during the Tang dynasty.

Jian'an and early Three Kingdoms[edit]

The development of Chinese poetry does not correspond precisely with the conventional dating of Chinese history by dynasty, despite certain correspondences between the political and poetic trends, with the period of actual transition between dynasties is especially problematic. This is indeed the case in discussing the important poets in the late Han and early Six Dynasties period, including the famous general Cao Cao (155-220), who may be reckoned in this period, although actually beginning his career in the Later/Eastern Han era. That is, the final years at the End of the Han Dynasty and during which the Cao family was rising, or risen, to prominence were known as the Jian'an era (196-220): the following period is known as the Three Kingdoms era, due to the three kingdoms which succeeded the Han Dynasty, and proceeded to vie with one another for succession to the Han empire.

The Cao family from 184 to 220 was involved in the chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of China. In 220, Cao Pi founded the Wei, or Cao Wei dynasty (220 CE - 265 CE). with its capital at Luoyang, in northern China. Its name came from 213, when Cao Cao's feudal holdings were given the name Wei; historians often add the prefix Cao (曹, from Cao Cao's family name) to distinguish it from the other states in Chinese history also known as Wei. Twenty-four of Cao Cao's poems survive.[1] Cao Cao and his son and successor to power, Cao Pi, were both noted as patrons of literature.[2] Altogether the Cao family, especially Cao Cao's third son, Cao Zhi, in association with other poets helped to form the Jian'an style.[3] Cao Zhi is also noted for his association with the dramatically composed and life saving poem known as "The Quatrain of Seven Steps". Cao Pi wrote an essay Seven Scholars of Jian'an which was influential in the development of the Jian'an school of poetry. One of the poets patronized by Cao Cao and considered to be one of the "Seven Scholars of Jian'an" was Xu Gan (170 - 217).[4] Another poet in this group was Wang Can (177–217).

End of Cao Wei and founding of Jin[edit]

The middle part of the Three Kingdoms period, from 220 and 263, was marked by a more politically and militarily stable arrangement between three rival states, Wei, Shu, and Wu.  The later part of this period was marked by the collapse of the tripartite situation. First, in 263, there was the conquest of Shu by Wei. In the meantime the Cao family had been steadily losing power to the Sima family and their supporters, in a series of various intrigues and in-fighting. The Cao family finally lost all control of Wei to the Sima family and their supporters, in 265. The Sima called their new dynasty the Jin dynasty. The Sima clan was initially subordinate to the Wei dynasty, but through various intrigues and other means the Sima family and their supporters had continued to gain power at he expense of the Cao family and their supporters. In 265, Sima Yan (later Emperor Wu) forced emperor Cao Huan of Wei to abdicate the throne to him, ending Wei and starting the Jin Dynasty (as Emperor Wu). Political it was a perilous time, especially for Wei loyalists, who viewed the rise of the Sima clan as usurpers.

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove[edit]

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (with boy attendant), in a Kano school Japanese painting of the Edo period

As is traditionally depicted, the group wished to escape the intrigues, corruption and stifling atmosphere of court life during the tail end of the politically fraught Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history and into the early period of the newly established Jin dynasty. The other members, Liu Ling (221 - 300), Ruan Ji (210–263), Ruan Xian (fl. 3rd century), Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong (234–305) and Shan Tao (205–283) gathered in a bamboo grove near the house of Xi Kang (aka Ji Kang) (223–262), in Shanyang (now in Henan province) where they enjoyed, and praised in their works, the simple, rustic life. This was contrasted with the politics of court. The Seven Sages stressed the enjoyment of ale, personal freedom, spontaneity and a celebration of nature.

Other early Jin poets[edit]

Counted as a Jin dynasty poet and official, Zhang Hua[5] (232-300), was actually born before the creation of the Jin dynasty, however he flourished poetically during it, and died during it (as a result of the War of the Eight Princes).

Eastern Jin dynasty[edit]

The Jin dynasty (265–420) briefly unified the Chinese empire, in 280, but from 291 to 306 a multi-sided civil war known as the War of the Eight Princes raged through northern China, devastating that part of the country. For the first thirteen years this was a deadly violent and all-out struggle for power among at least eight princes and various dukes of Jin. Then in 304 CE the leader of the formerly independent ethnic nation of the Northern Xiongnu under its newly declared Grand Chanyu Liu Yuan (later Prince Han Zhao) declared independence, backed up with a large army which he fielded. Various other non-Chinese groups became involved, in what is known as the Wu Hu uprising, and by 316 the last Jin prince left standing, now as emperor, ruled an empire reduced to its former southern area. Thus, the history of the Jin dynasty can be divided in two parts, the first being Western Jin (265–316) and the second Eastern Jin (317–420).

The Orchid Pavilion Gathering[edit]

The Orchid Pavilion Gathering (353 CE) of 42 literati included Xie An and Sun Chuo at the Orchid Pavilion near Shaoxing, Zhejiang, during the Spring Purification Festival to compose poems and enjoy the wine. The gentlemen had engaged in a drinking contest: wine cups were floated down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks; whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup was required to empty it and write a poem. In the end, twenty-six of the participants composed thirty-seven poems. The "Preface (Lantingji Xu" to the poems is also famous.

Midnight Songs poetry[edit]

Also significant is the Midnight Songs poetry also known as Ziye, or "Lady Midnight" style, supposedly originating with an eponymously named fourth-century professional singer of the Eastern Jin dynasty.[6]

Tao Yuanming[edit]

Detail from handscroll 'Scenes from the Life of Tao Yuanming', by Chen Hongshou, 1650, Honolulu Academy of Arts

Tao Yuanming,[7] also known as Tao Qian,[8] lived from 365–427. He was associated with the Fields and Gardens poetry genre, and has been especially noted for portraying immediate experience in an own natural voice style.[9]

Xie Lingyun[edit]

Xie Lingyun (385–433) was considered a progenitor and major exponent of nature or landscape poetry focusing on the "mountain and streams", as opposed to Tao Yuanming and the "field and garden" type of Chinese landscape poetry. His poetry is allusive and complex, and uses a lot of imagery of hills and nature.

Sixteen Kingdoms poetry[edit]

Su Hui with a palindrome

The Sixteen Kingdoms were a collection of numerous short-lived sovereign states in northern China and its neighboring areas (304-439), founded after the Jin Dynasty lost the northern part of their territory and were confined to their former southern territory, thus chronologically overlapping the end of the Jin Dynasty and the actual establishment of the full Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420 to 589). One noted poet of this ere, somewhere in the fourth century, was Su Hui, a poet of the Former Qin state (351-394), which unified northern China, in 376. Typically, for female poets of this time and place in history, almost all of her literary works are lost.[10] Her sole surviving piece is of the huiren shi (palindrome poem) genre.

Northern and Southern dynasties poets[edit]

The Southern dynasties (náncháo) comprise the Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang Dynasty and Chen Dynasty, this period follows the end of the Jin Dynasty. The Northern Dynasties (běicháo) included Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534), Eastern Wei Dynasty (534–550 ), Western Wei Dynasty (535–557), Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577), Northern Zhou Dynasty(557–581 AD). Considered together, they are known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420 to 589). This division between north and south involved various considerations: many of these being of a political and military nature, together with the natural geological barriers which run east-west, especially the Yangzi River and the combination of the Huai River and the Qin Mountains (Qín Lǐng). Yu Xin is one of the few poets who can be associated with both the south and the north during this period.


The Yongming (Yung-ming) period was from 483-493.[11] Yongming was an era name of Emperor Wu of Southern Qi. Several poets were associated with it.

Wang Jung (468 - 494) was one of the most important of the Yongming poets. He became quite involved in political affairs. Eventually this involvement resulted in his early death.[12]

Fan Yun (451 - 503) was another of the Yongming poets,

Su Xiaoxiao (蘇小小, died c. 501), also known as Su Xiaojun, or "Little Su", was a famous courtesan and poet from Qiantang city (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China) in the Southern Qi Dynasty (479–502).

Liang dynasty and the jade terrace[edit]

The Liang Dynasty (502-557), also known as the Southern Liang Dynasty, was the third of the Southern dynasties. Founded by the Xiao family, its first emperor was Liang Wu Di. In 531, his son Xiao Gang (later Emperor Jianwen of Liang) became Crown Prince, in which position Xiao Gang both practiced poetry and became a patron of poets. Of this poetic activity, especially important is the anthology New Songs from the Jade Terrace, compiled by Xu Ling (507-83), under the patronage of Crown Prince Xiao Gang (Later known as Emperor Jianwen).[13] The "Jade Terrace" is at least in part a reference to the luxurious palace apartments to which upper-class women were often relegated, one of the main conventional images being that of a beautiful concubine languishing away in lonely confinement, bereft of love. The New Songs from the Jade Terrace has been popularly translated into English.


The Six Dynasties period ended when China was reunified by the Sui Dynasty. In terms of poetic development both the Sui Dynasty (589-618) early Tang poetry were both heavily indebted to the Six Dynasty poetry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Davis, vi
  2. ^ Davis, vi
  3. ^ 建安風骨
  4. ^ Davis, vi, who uses the alternative transliteration of Xu Gan's name as Hsü Kan and translates the name of the literary group as 'the Seven Masters of the Chien-an period', and gives the years as 196-219.
  5. ^ traditional Chinese: 張華; simplified Chinese: 张华; pinyin: Zhāng Huà
  6. ^ Watson, 60
  7. ^ traditional Chinese: 陶淵明; simplified Chinese: 陶渊明; pinyin: Táo Yuānmíng; Wade–Giles : T'ao Yüan-ming
  8. ^ simplified Chinese: 陶潜; traditional Chinese: 陶潛; pinyin: Táo Qián; Wade–Giles: T'ao Ch'ien
  9. ^ Hinton, 110-112
  10. ^ Hinton, 105-109
  11. ^ Davis, viii
  12. ^ Davis, vii - viii
  13. ^ Watson, 92, and following


  • Chang, H. C. (1977). Chinese Literature 2: Nature Poetry. (New York: Columbia University Press). ISBN 0-231-04288-4
  • Davis, A. R. (Albert Richard), Editor and Introduction, The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. (Baltimore: Penguin Books (1970).
  • Frankel, Hans H. (1978). The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) ISBN 0-300-02242-5
  • Hinton, David (2008). Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-10536-7 / ISBN 978-0-374-10536-5.
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres . Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1946-2
  • Watson, Burton (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03464-4

External links[edit]

  • Lan Ting Xu (bilingual text of Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion with hypertext dictionary access)