Introduction to Chinese Poetry

Burton Watson [tooltip content= “The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1984)”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Poetry has been many things to the Chinese over the long centuries of their history – a hymn to ancestral spirits, a celebration of the beauties of nature, an expression of friendship or a pleasant accompaniment to a social gathering, a medium for airing political criticisms, for venting grief, for advancing a courtship. It has been composed by emperors and their ladies-in-waiting, by monks and generals, city dwellers and farm folk, but above all by the scholar-officials, men who had received a thorough education in the classics of the language and who, often after passing the civil service examinations, were assigned posts in the complex bureaucracy that governed the vast nation. Whatever level of society it may have sprung from, poetry is woven into the life and history of the Chinese people, and perhaps no other facet of their traditional culture possesses such universal appeal.

Two things about the Chinese poetic tradition are immediately striking – its great antiquity and its remarkable continuity. The earliest works . . . are taken from an anthology compiled around 600 B.C., and may well date back several centuries earlier. Moreover, they draw upon an oral tradition whose origins are probably as old as the Chinese people themselves. Though there are few works from the centuries immediately following this early anthology, for the period from around 300 B.C. down to the present century, the stream of poetic output is virtually unbroken. The discovery in the first century A.D. of a method of making paper, and the invention of printing about seven centuries later, greatly aided the dissemination and preservation of literary works, with the result that, the Chinese being among the world’s most indefatigable compilers and transmitters of texts, the volume of poetry handed down from the past is truly staggering.

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