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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Born into a declining bureaucrat-scholar family when the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 c.e.) was in its death throes, young Tao Qian (TAH-oh CHEE-ahn) aspired to stabilize the political turbulence. However, he grew disillusioned after serving as an adviser to two warlords for about ten years and experiencing their separatism and constant warfare. Assigned a magistracy, he served for only about eighty days, then resigned to live in seclusion as a poet and farmer. He never returned to office and died in poverty.

While living in seclusion, he took the pseudonym Tao Qian (Tao the Hermit) and wrote poetry, often about the joys of nature, human harmony with farming, and pleasant man-nature interactions. Modern critics judge him to be one of the greatest pastoral poets. His famous pieces Guiqulai Ci (fifth century c.e.; Homeward Bound, 1983) and Gui Yuantian Ju (fifth century c.e.; Living on Native Land, 1983) describe his immeasurable joy at shaking off the yoke of officialdom, his unsullied desire to live a simple, honest life, and his appreciation of lovely rural scenery. His masterpiece Taohuayuan Ji (fifth century c.e.; Notes on the Land of Peach Blossoms, 1983) depicts a lost utopia that contrasts with the political unrest of his day. His more than 130 poems and prose writings have all survived.


Tao Qian’s creative writing, which explored multiple genres, including fu (verse with interspersed prose) and in particular lyric poetry, is held in high regard by modern scholars.

Further Reading:

Barnhart, Richard M. Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers in Chinese Paintings. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983. Treats of Peach Blossom Spring as a pastoral utopia in paintings.

Cotterell, Yong Yap, and Arthur Cotterell. The Early Civilization of China. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975. Chapter 6, “The Age of Disunity: The So-Called Six Dynasties,” gives a good general account of historical developments during Tao Qian’s time. This chapter also includes useful sections on the religion and art of the period.

Davis, A. R. T’ao Yüan-ming: His Works and Their Meaning. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. This thorough study consists of a volume of translation and commentary, and a second volume of commentary, notes, and a biography of the poet.

Field, Stephen L. “The Poetry of Tao Yuanming.” In Great Literature of the Eastern World, edited by Ian P. McGreal. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. A brief teaching guide with an analysis of Tao Qian’s three poems “A Returning to Live in the Country,” “Return Home!” and “Peach Blossom Found.”

Hightower, James Robert. “Allusion in the Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 31 (1971): 5-27. The received view of Tao Qian is that he only rarely made use of allusion as a literary technique, an interpretation which Hightower here argues is only partially accurate. This brief discussion is much more fully elaborated in the notes to Hightower’s translation of Tao Qian’s poetry.

Hightower, James Robert. “T’ao Ch’ien’s ‘Drinking Wine’ Poems.” In Wen-lin: Studies in the Chinese Humanities, edited by Chow Tse-tung. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. A fuller treatment of a subject also addressed in The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien . This article is more extensively documented and offers a fuller...

(The entire section is 808 words.)