Tao Qian Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese poet{$I[g]China;Tao Qian} Tao Qian’s insistence on directness and simplicity in both form and content, although largely unappreciated during his lifetime, was in subsequent generations recognized as a major contribution to the development of Chinese poetry.

Early Life

Tao Qian (dow chyehn) was born on his parents’ farm near the city of Xinyang (Hsin-yang) in what is now the province of Henan. His family had once been prominent among the local gentry, but by Tao Qian’s time their property had shrunk to a few acres. In an autobiographical sketch written for his sons, he described himself as a bookish youth, fond of quiet and never happier than when observing the changing of the seasons. He received a conventional education in the Confucian classics and, on completing his studies, was awarded a minor position in the civil service.

It did not take him long, however, to become bored with this post, and he resigned to return to the life of a small farmer. He married and soon found himself with several young children to support; the unremitting toil of farming soon took its toll on his health. In 395 c.e., when he was thirty, his first wife died, and for a short time he was employed as a general’s secretary. Once again, he found that he could not abide the life of an official, and he was soon back tilling his meager farm.

After remarrying and having more children, thus putting additional pressure on his already straitened circumstances, Tao Qian made one final attempt at occupying the sort of position for which his education had prepared him. In 405 c.e., an uncle with influence at court arranged for him to be appointed magistrate at Pengze (P’eng-tse), not far from his home. Before long, however, he had to resign, because “my instinct is all for freedom and will not brook discipline or restraint.” For the remainder of his life, he would eke out a subsistence living on his farm and refuse all further offers of government employment, while exercising the poetic gifts that would not be widely acknowledged until well after his death.

Life’s Work

China was racked by dynastic warfare during much of Tao Qian’s life, and some commentators have suggested that his reluctance to assume official positions was caused by an awareness of the punishments that awaited those who supported the losing side. It is far more probable, however, that it was his profound dislike of being at a superior’s beck and call that made it impossible for him to take on the kinds of responsibilities society expected of him. His independent attitude was incomprehensible to most of his peers, and as a result it was commonly assumed that Tao Qian must be some sort of hermit or recluse.

This he was not, although it is true that he studiously avoided anything that carried with it formal duties or organizational affiliations. He was at one point on the verge of accepting an invitation to join the Lotus Society, an exclusive group of Buddhist intellectuals and literary men, but at the last moment he declined when he realized that no matter how convivial its members might be, it was still an organization with rules and regulations. Tao Qian was not antisocial—he was reputed to have been well liked by his neighbors, and he knew quite a few of his fellow poets—but he definitely was an advocate of the simple life, which for him meant staying close to home and nature and ignoring almost everything else.

It is this fundamental love of simplicity that distinguishes Tao Qian’s verses from the works of court poets of his time, who utilized obscure allusions and complicated stylistic devices to fashion verses that appealed only to the highly educated. Tao Qian, by way of contrast, seldom made any literary allusions whatsoever, and he wrote for the widest possible audience. As a consequence, he was slighted by his era’s critics and fully appreciated only by later generations of readers. It was more than a century after his death before a complete edition of his works appeared. The first writers to champion his reputation seriously were the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907 c.e.) poets Meng Haoran (Meng Hao-jan; 689-740 c.e.) and Wang Wei (701-761 c.e.), who ensured that his name would not be forgotten by honoring him as a spiritual predecessor of what would become one of the most brilliant periods in Chinese literary history.

The charms of Tao Qian’s poetry are subtle. The fifth poem in his series of poems on drinking wine is perhaps as good an example as any of how simple words and thoughts can yield complex emotions:

I built my cottage among the habitations of men,
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses.
You ask: “Sir, how can this be done?”
“A heart that is distant creates its own solitude.”
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern...

(The entire section is 2021 words.)


(World Poets and Poetry)

Biographies in the Chinese dynastic histories are principally concerned with their subject’s official career and influence on national politics. Since Tao Qian’s service career was minimal, and grudging at that, little contemporaneous record was kept, and the few remarks about him were included in the section on hermits, rather than in the “literati” category. His various sobriquets, too, reflect his preference for eremitic life. Later efforts to construct, or contrive, a respectable account befitting the life of a universally beloved poet relied largely on anecdote and on Tao Qian’s autobiographical self-evaluations, such as “Biography of Mr. Five Willows” (a nom de plume describing his rustic environment). By his own account, Tao Qian was a quiet, unassuming man. He enjoyed scholarship but took no pleasure in pedantic obscurities. He would have his readers believe that he was a great drunkard, and indeed the greater part of the official record consists of stories illustrating his love of tippling, noting, for example, his insistence on cultivating brewing grain rather than food, however destitute his family. Even the memoir bringing him into friendly association with the then-ascendant court poet Yan Yazhi focuses on wine, relating how Tao Qian had deposited a large sum of money given him by Yen in a local wine shop.

Tao Qian lived during the decline of the Eastern Jin regime (317-420) of the Sima clan on a small farm south of the Yangzi River. His forebears had once been eminent officials, but the family had fallen on hard times, and Tao Qian lacked the all-important connections at court that would have secured for him, at the outset, an entrée into higher echelons of the administration. He was assigned various minor provincial posts, but he became disgusted with the pervasive corruption of the regime and with the petty drudgery of local officers and resigned rather than “crook his back for a five-peck salary.” Thus, for most of his life he was a sort of gentleman farmer, living in relative poverty but wryly content with his wife and children, wine, chrysanthemums, friends, stringless lute, and poetry.