Tao Qian


Tao Qian
(T’ao Ch’ien, T’ao Yüan-ming)
(365–427)
   Born in the turbulent period of the late Qin (Chin) dynasty, Tao Qian became the most important writer of his age. He gave up a career in the imperial bureaucracy to live a simple rural life, and has been admired ever since for choosing a life of poverty over one that demanded he sacrifice his principles as well as his own contentment. T’ao Chian was born in Xinyang (Hsinyang) in what is now (Jiangxi Kiangsi) province, to a poor family of provincial bureaucrats, and seemed destined to follow that career path himself. But political turmoil had followed in the wake of barbarian invasions that forced the imperial court to move south to Nanjing. Tao Qian spent 10 years in various official posts, none of which he kept long. For a time, he was part of the retinue of one of the powerful noblemen who had usurped the political authority of the emperor. In his last post, he was magistrate of P’eng-tse, not far from his home, but even this post he kept for a mere two months before he left public service altogether and retired to the simple life of a farming community for the last 22 years of his life.
   There had been a tradition in Chinese poetry, not unlike European poetry of the Renaissance, that idealized and even sentimentalized the pastoral life. But when Tao Qian writes of that life, it is from the point of view of someone actually living it. It would be misleading to think of Tao Qian’s retreat to a rural community as mere escapism. There were a number of motives behind it. One was certainly the internal struggle that weighed a desire for wealth and power against a life of peace and integrity. Another was a Taoist love of nature and commitment to a “natural” kind of life. At a time when Confucianism was in decline and the new Buddhist religion was on the rise alongside the more traditional Taoism, Tao Qian based his personal philosophy largely on Taoist principles. For Tao Qian happiness could be found only in following one’s inherent nature, and one satisfied that nature not by accumulating wealth or property, but in a private world, performing simple labor and having no more than is necessary to meet basic needs: Life is brief and must be lived happily— that is, naturally—or it is wasted.
   Tao Qian is the author of one of the most influential short texts in Chinese prose literature, The Peach Blossom Spring, in which a fisherman, after following a trail of peach blossoms in the water, is led to an idyllic rural community of peace and happiness. Though he enjoys the village, the fisherman prepares to return to the outside. The inhabitants of the village, appalled at what they hear about the turbulence and violence of the fisherman’s world, tell him there is no reason to mention their existence to anyone else. But after the fisherman returns to his own city, he tells the magistrate about the village. But no one is ever able to find the way back to that utopian community. The tale has been compared to Tao Qian’s own life and his poetry: His poems, like the fisherman, tell of the possibility of contentment in the simple life, but the likely audience of those poems—that is, the literate populace, mainly members of the government bureaucracy— are unlikely ever to find such contentment. Tao Qian is best known as a poet, and his most famous poem is called The Return, most likely written at the time of his abandonment of official life and return to his rural village. In this long poem, he bluntly states: “The world and I shall have nothing more to do with one another”(Hightower 1970, “The Return,” l. 35). He goes on to elaborate on why such a break was necessary: So little time are we granted human form in the world!
   Let us then follow the inclinations of the heart:
   Where would we go that we are so agitated?
   I have no desire for riches
   And no expectation of Heaven.
   Rather on some fine morning to walk alone
   Now planting my staff to take up a hoe,
   (Hightower 1970, “The Return,” ll. 49–55)
   Bibliography
   ■ Davis, A. R. Tao Yüan-ming: His Works and Their Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
   ■ Kwong, Charles Yim-tze. Tao Qian and the Chinese Poetic Tradition: The Quest for Cultural Identity. Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies,University of Michigan, 1994.
   ■ Hightower, James Robert, trans. The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1970.
   ■ Hinton, David. The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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