Tao Qian

From New World Encyclopedia
Xìng 姓: Táo 陶
Míng 名: Qián 潛, or
Yuānmíng 淵明
Zì 字: Yuánliàng 元亮
Hào 號: Wǔliǔ Xiānsheng 五柳先生
(Five Willows)
Shì 謚: Jìngjié 靖節
Portrait of Tao Qian, by Chen Hongshou (1599-1652)
For the Han Dynasty's governor, see Tao Qian (Three Kingdoms).

Tao Qian (Chinese: 陶潛; pinyin: Táo Qián; Wade-Giles: T'ao Ch'ien (365 – 427), also known as Tao Yuanming (陶淵明), born in Xunyang Chaishang (九江; pinyin: Jiǔjiāng), formerly called Kiukiang, now Jiujiang in Jiangxi province. T'ao Yüan-ming , was one of the most influential pre-Tang Dynasty Chinese poets. Born into a noble and scholarly, but impoverished, family, Tao Qian served in several minor government posts during his twenties and thirties in order to support his family. At the age of forty-one, disgusted with court life, he retired and lived the remainder of his life in the countryside, farming and writing poetry. He wrote simple, expressive poetry that reflected a love for nature, a simple life, and drinking wine. His attitude towards life was that of a Daoist, but he incorporated Buddhist and Confucian elements in his writing.

Though his poetry was not appreciated during his lifetime, Tao Qian is now regarded as the greatest poet of his era and was a major influence on the poets of the Tang and Song Dynasties, including Lu Yu (1125 – 1210), who took Tao Qian as his model.

Poetry During the Six Dynasties and Sui dynasty: 220–618 C.E.

Early Chinese poetry grew from a rich tradition of folk songs and popular love ballads. The third-century poet Ts'ao Chih developed the five-syllable line, already used in folk songs, into a formal literary style. The greatest poet of this period was Tao Qian, who wrote in a number of genres but never lost the clarity and simplicity of expression that was characteristic of popular songs.


Tao Qian was born in 365 to a notable family which had descended into poverty; his great-grandfather was the famous Eastern Jin general and governor, Tao Kan, and his grandfather was a mayor. His mother came from a literary family. Tao’s father died while he was a child. Tao was educated in the Confucian classics and read the works of Lao Tzu and Zhiang Zi. As a youth, he loved the mountains, and instrumental music, and found himself torn between ambition and a desire to retreat into solitude.

At the age of twenty-nine, he was obliged to take a minor government post in order to support his aged parents. He served as a military adviser and a magistrate, but after ten years, his sister's death, as well as disgust at the corruption and infighting of the Jin court prompted his resignation. He was convinced that life was too short to compromise on his principles, saying, “I shall not break my back for five bushels of grain” (The term 'five bushels of grain' is often used to describe officialdom). He retired with his wife and children to a farming village in Jiangsu province near Lu Mountain, south of the Yangtze River, where he became mayor of Pengzé. Despite the hardships of agricultural life, including the loss of his house in a fire, and frequent shortages of food and fuel, Tao Qian was content, writing poetry, cultivating the chrysanthemums that became inseparably associated with his poetry, and drinking wine, also a common subject of his verse.

Returning to Live in the South

I sow my beans below the southern hills,
Though grasses flourish, the sprouting beans are scarce.
I rise at dawn to clear the wasteland up,
Beneath the moon I carry back my hoe.
The path is narrow, the trees and grass grown tall,
My clothes are dampened by the evening dew.
Yet dampened clothes are nothing to begrudge,
If only my desires can be fulfilled.[1]

Later he moved to Nán Cūn (South Village) near Jiujiang, where he associated with Buddhist farmers and is said to have befriended the Chan (Zen) monk Hui-yüan. He lived in retirement for the last twenty-two years of his life.


Tao Qian is equally famous for his prose "Preface to the Poem on the Peach Blossom Spring" and for his poems celebrating a return to nature and a love of wine. Approximately 130 of his works survive, 125 poems and some prose essays. Most of them depict an idyllic pastoral life of farming and drinking; because of this he was later termed the "Poet of the Fields." Tao Qian has been described as the first great poet of t'ien-yüan (“fields and gardens”), and praised as a paragon of simple country virtue. For later scholars, Tao Qian represented the ideal of an official who escaped "the world's net" for a life closer to spiritual values.[2] Though Tao Qian was essentially a Daoist, he incorporated Confucian and Buddhist elements in his poetry. He lived during a period of political and economic instability, and his work expresses the insecurity, anxiety and weariness of the time.[3]

Returning to Live in the South

When young, I'd not enjoyed the common pleasures,
My nature's basic love was for the hills.
Mistakenly I fell into the worldly net,
And thus remained for thirteen years.
A bird once caged must yearn for its old forest,
A fish in a pond will long to return to the lake.
So now I want to head to southern lands,
Returning to my fields and orchards there.
About ten acres of land is all I have,
Just eight or nine rooms there in my thatched hut.
There's shade from elms and willows behind the eaves,
Before the hall are gathered peaches and plums.
Beyond the dark and distance lies a village,
The smoke above reluctant to depart.
A dog is barking somewhere down the lane,
And chickens sit atop the mulberry tree.
The mundane world has no place in my home,
My modest rooms are for the most part vacant.
At last I feel released from my confinement,
I set myself to rights again.[4]

The poetry of his time was elaborate and stylized; Tao Qian’s poems were written in a simple and straightforward style, with a deceptively sparing use of words and a minimum of artifice. He used several verse forms, including the fu (a long poem incorporating passages of prose), reflecting a tendency to explore various genres of lyrical expression. He was a master of the five-word line. While his poems were not widely recognized during his lifetime, they became a major influence on the poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. The poet Lu Yu (1125 – 1210) took Tao Qian as his model, portraying the moods and scenes of the countryside in many of his nearly 10,000 poems.

Drinking Wine

I made my home amidst this human bustle,
Yet I hear no clamour from the carts and horses.
My friend, you ask me how this can be so?
A distant heart will tend towards like places.
From the eastern hedge, I pluck chrysanthemum flowers,
And idly look towards the southern hills.
The mountain air is beautiful day and night,
The birds fly back to roost with one another.
I know that this must have some deeper meaning,
I try to explain, but cannot find the words.[5]

from Twenty Poems on Drinking Wine:

Neither decline nor glory can last forever,
they are tied up with each other.
Shao Ping worked in the watermelon fields
wishing he were still the duke of Dongling.
Winter and summer come by turns.
The Way of life is also like that.
A wise man understands the essence,
he has no doubt about it.
Please give me a cup of wine fast—
I'll hold it merrily as the sun dies out.
It is said good deeds will be rewarded
but consider Yi and Su in the Western Mountains.
Good or evil, expect no reward,
Why should one spout such empty words?
Rong tied his clothes with a rope at ninety,
Suffering more hunger and cold than when young.
Yet there is integrity in poverty:
a hundred generations will know their names.
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping[6]

Drinking Wine #1

Pallor and vigor are without settlement.
This and that change as they go.
Was Lord Shao is his melon fields
As content as in Tung Ling?
Hot and cold wane in succession,
Peoples' Ways are all like this.
The "arrived person" cuts to the opportunity;
Headless generals take no more heed.
If, of a sudden, you've a cup of wine...
Well, day and night savor their struggle.
Translated by Jerry M. Spiller

Drinking Wine #4

Autumn flowers cast in ominous shade:
From the wet dew I pluck their blossoms,
Float them in this forgetful draught.
Distanced, I let worldly thoughts pass.
Just one drink and I'm a juggernaut!
My cup drains the pot; it pours itself.
Toward the sunset, a flock retreats,
...quickening to the grove in song.
Whistling proudly under the East railing,
Somehow, I've grasped this life anew.[7]


  1. Tao Qian, Returning to Live in the South, Chinese Poems. Retrieved February 22, 008.
  2. Tao Qian, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry Web Companion. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  3. Tao Qian, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry Web Companion. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  4. Tao Qian, Returning to Live in the South, Chinese Poems. Retrieved February 22, 008.
  5. Drinking Wine, Chinese Poems. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  6. Tao Qian, The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry Web Companion. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  7. Jerry M. Spiller, Drinking Wine #4.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, A. R., and Qian Tao. 1983. Tʻao Yüan-ming, AD 365-427, his works and their meaning. Cambridge studies in Chinese history, literature, and institutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521253470
  • Meng, Erdong, and Qian Tao. 1996. Tao Yuanming ji yi zhu. Zhongguo gu dai ming zhu jin yi cong shu. Changjun Shi: Jilin wen shi chu ban she. ISBN 7-80626-064-1
  • Pohl (translator). Der Pfirsichbluetenquell. 2002. Bochum University Press
  • Tʻao, Chʻien, and David Hinton. 1993. The selected poems of T'ao Ch'ien. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press. ISBN 1556590563
  • Tao, Qian. 1980. Gleanings from Tao Yuan-ming prose and poetry. Hong Kong: Commercial Press.
  • Tao, Qian, and James Robert Hightower. 1970. The poetry of Tʻao Chʻien. The Oxford library of East Asian literatures. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0198154402

External links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.


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