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Great Chinese Poets and Where to Find Them

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                 Source: Li Bai Foundation

Poetry is an ambiguous art form to many in contemporary society where commercial cinema and Internet pop-ups; graphic art and digital visuals inform much of our dizzying, day-to-day experience. Yet the desire to capture a moment, a feeling, a profound experience or philosophical insight in verse still resonates. Indeed the poetic concept has had wordsmith’s grappling with language since the earliest vestiges of the modern man, whom rose from the swamps, woods or desert and began to wonder what life was all about. Everything from epic journeys to dandelions has been evoked with rhyme, wordplay, symbolism and meter. 

Of all humankind’s great civilizations, the Chinese have arguably been the most arduous verse-makers. The Shijing, also known as the Book of Odes or the Classic of Poetry, is a compilation of 305 words compiled between the 11th and 7th century BC. The collection, dating from the Western Zhou period as well as the Shang Dynasty, ranges from adapted folk songs to eulogize and hymns dedicated to the state. It’s a unique document, an insight into the world where myth and history blend, yet a clear suggestion that China three thousand years hence was already a profoundly sophisticated and diverse society.

Fast-forwarding through the romantic Songs of Chu and the descriptive poems of the Western Han, we find the first of China’s great poetic epochs during the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty (618-917). This was a time of extraordinary creativity and productivity (indeed the Quan Tanshi compiled a thousand years later contains 50,000 Tang poems). It was during this period when poetry was integrated into every aspect of life, at least for the literati who came to dominate society. Even the imperial examinations measured one's poetic craft, a tradition that would continue into the early twentieth century for aspiring bureaucrats.

China’s second golden era, the flourishing Song Dynasty, which followed hot on the heels of the Tang, also proved an excellent time for the verse and many of China’s favorite and most quoted vignettes stem from this period. 

Poetry continued to develop in the Yuan, Ming and Qing though it seldom reached the heady heights attained around the turn of the first millennia AD. Today the scribes of old are intensely revered, familiar to anyone from Guangzhou cab drivers to Peking University scholars. The ascetics of poetry have informed the unique phrasing and nuance of the Chinese language, leaving an indelible imprint on the culture landscape of the Middle Kingdom.

As China’s tourist infrastructure has developed since market reforms in the early 1980s, more than few locales associated with great scribes of the past are now open for business. There are simply too many to name here, but here’s a few choice poets and their affiliated memorial sites to seek out:

Li Bai



Though he was born on the western frontier of Tang China, Li Bai (701–762) is generally associated with Sichuan where his father illicitly moved him when he was five years old. A memorial hall in Zhongbo Town, Jiangyou is a testament to the county being Li’s home during his formative years and is today a place of pilgrimage for classic literature fans. Aged 24 Li left Sichuan sailing down the Yangtze and up the Yellow River, visiting the prominent towns of the day and making famous friends. His life would more or less play out as what one might now be dubbed “Bohemian.” He traveled, drank wine, befriended other artists (notably Du Fu), became a Daoist, struggled to hold down a position in the court of Chang’an, and eventually got caught up in tumultuous rebellion lead by An Lushan. He survived imprisonment and a death sentence, only to travel and write again. He passed away in Dangtu, Anhui, where his tomb lures visitors to this day. Over his life he was a prolific poet, writing openly about such themes as drunkenness, loss, adversity to war, and the pure beauty of nature and everyday folk.        

Su Dongpo

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The Northern Song Dynasty statesmen and scribe, Su Shi – as he was also known – lived a rich enough life to fill several volumes of biographies. Born in 1037 in Meishan, Sichuan, Su would grow-up to become a government official in various prominent towns and cities of the Empire, most notably Hangzhou. Today the city boasts a Su Dongpo Memorial Hall as well as various sites around the famous West Lake that bare his name or verse. Even the local cuisine pays a nod to the old sage – Dongpo Pork is a favorite. During the various periods of officialdom, and exile, he experienced, Su inspired, and was inspired by several places throughout the empire. Nowadays the Dongpo Academy in Hainan, the Memorial Hall in Huizhou, and even a park in Changzhou in Jiangsu where Su died, lure pilgrims of the great scribe to pay homage to a man who was a master writer of his age.

Ai Qing

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Having skipped over Qu Yuan, Tao Yuanming, Meng Haorun and other greats from China’s past, scholarly readers are probably squirming. But in an effort to bring this overview within view, a twentieth-century poet seemed just. And who better than Ai Qing, father of prominent contemporary artist Ai Weiwei? Ai Qing was born in Zhejiang in 1910, right at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He lived through a turbulent time of warfare and unrest, issues often reflected in his poems. A leftist, he was arrested by the Kuomintang and held until 1935. After the revolution, he was the editor of Poetry Magazine but fell foul of the regime during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent into exile and hard labor in the far west. Rehabilitated in 1978, Ai Qing enjoyed belated recognition until his death in 1996. A memorial, made by his son stands in Jinhua, Zhejiang. Unlike most tawdry or traditional memorials, this is solemn stark place where one can contemplate the life, work, and contradictions of the great man.      

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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