China’s Golden Age

Poems of the Late T’ang

translated from the Chinese and with an introduction by A.C. Graham
New York Review Books, 173 pp., $14.95 (paper)


Women in the courts of the T’ang Dynasty, between 618 and 907, painted their eyebrows green; the standard of beauty was to have brows as delicately curved as the antennae of moths. Foreheads were powdered yellow with massicot, a lead oxide, for yellow was the color of vitality. Plumpness, as in many societies where the masses are hungry, was the ideal and useful, men claimed, in winter: in the poorly heated palaces, a prince or minister could huddle his heftiest concubines around him to protect him from drafts.

There are at least twenty-four hairstyles mentioned in T’ang poetry, some a foot high, held together by lapis lazuli hairpins clattering with pearls, with silk flowers and birds of gold perched on the top. As the empire was crumbling, the most popular styles had names such as “Deserting the Family” and “Uprooting the Grove.” Yang Kuei-fei, the emperor Hsüan Tsung’s beautiful courtesan whose machinations set off a civil war, kept a tiny jade fish in her mouth.

The empire, expanding and contracting with conquests and defeats, at its height stretched east to the China Sea, south to Annam, and west along the Silk Road as far as Samarkand. The Grand Canal, a massive feat of construction 1,200 miles long, linked north and south, and a network of highways and waterways connected 1,859 cities, twenty-two of them with populations of at least half a million. The capital, Ch’ang-an (present-day Xi’an in central China), was the largest city in the world, some thirty square miles, laid out in a grid pattern with wide avenues lined with fruit trees and patrolled by unforgiving policemen, the Gold Bird Guards. Nearly two million inhabitants were apportioned into 108 walled wards, including two vast markets with hundreds of lanes, strictly organized according to goods and services; parks with artificial lakes and mountains and imported birds and game; and an extensive Pleasure Quarters of banquet halls and brothels.

Every aspect of life was codified and enforced by imperial edict: the length of tunics, the price of each item in the market, the colors that may be worn by ministers of certain ranks, the number of blows with a thin rod that a speeding coachman should receive. There were prohibitions against eating a white sheep that had a black head or a dish of pheasants with walnuts. Censuses of every village were taken to ensure an exact collection of taxes and to fill the ranks of compulsory labor and conscription. The country was converted to a cash economy and the foundation of imperial wealth became its tax on salt, a commodity everyone needed. Under the T’ang, the system of strict examinations on the classics as a requirement for entering the civil service became universal; one census listed 130,000 students. Although this hardly resulted in a meritocracy, it meant that some young men who did not come from well-connected families could rise to powerful positions in the government, and an increasing number of talented—or, at least, educated—people entered the bureaucracy.

The T’ang became rich on trade, promoted by a new merchant class along the Silk Road (where Sogdian was the lingua franca) or on the sea routes that led to the port of Canton (where the sailors spoke Persian). Coral from the Mediterranean or Ceylon; golden peaches from Samarkand; cardamom from Tonkin; “thousand-year” jujubes from Tabaristan; ostrich-egg cups from Bukhara; various peppers from Burma; feathers from the white egrets, peacocks, and kingfishers of Annam (one princess had a dress made entirely from feathers); pistachios from Persia; furs of sable, ermine, miniver, steppe foxes, and martens…. The list of T’ang imports is endless, and T’ang coins have been found as far west as the coast of Somalia.

The masses, who rarely saw these treasures, told tales of strange objects with magical powers, brought from abroad: a single bean that was sufficient food for weeks; a certain wheat that made the body so light that one could fly; a crystal pillow that gave the sleeper visions of strange lands; a piece of rhinoceros horn that could heat a palace; hairpins that turned into dragons; pots that cooked without fire; the translucent stone that emitted a cool breeze; the plant that was always surrounded by darkness.

All things foreign were the rage. Aristocrats learned to sit in chairs, the “barbarian beds.” Dandies preferred to speak Turkish, and set up blue felt nomadic tents in their urban courtyards, where they dressed like khans and ate chunks of lamb that they cut off with swords. Courtesans sang songs with titles like “Watching the Moon in Brahman Land,” playing melodies on foreign instruments adapted from Indian, Turkish, Korean, and Persian tunes. Entertainment was provided by dancers from Tashkent or the Sogdian “twirling girls” who performed balancing on giant balls. Saffron-flavored wine, made from grapes imported from Turkey, was served in agate cups, poured in the Pleasure Quarters by blue-eyed geishas. “When I drink this,” said the emperor Mu Tsung, “I am instantly conscious of harmony suffusing my four limbs—it is the true Princeling of Grand Tranquility”—the latter being an honorific for Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage.

It was a time of inordinate leisure. Mandarins were given fifty-eight days off during the year to celebrate twenty-eight holidays. There were holidays for viewing the moon and for attempts to outshine it. (One emperor erected a lantern tree two hundred feet tall with 50,000 oil cups lit by a thousand palace women costumed in brocade.) Periodically the emperor would declare a three-day carnival in the streets, with floats five stories high carrying acrobats swinging on poles, musicians, and singers. In the palace, the bureaucratic office known as the Service of Radiant Emolument was in charge of imperial banquets; the cooking alone was handled by a staff of two thousand, preparing such rare dishes as steamed bear claw, Bactrian camel hump, jellyfish with cinnamon, proboscis monkey soup with five flavors, barbequed elephant trunk, and, in summer, melons that were kept cool in jade urns of ice brought down from the mountains. The aristocracy wanted it all to last forever; they drank strange elixirs concocted by Indian charlatans and Taoist alchemists that would promote longevity or even ensure immortality. It is said that five of the T’ang emperors died from these potions.

In Ch’ang-an there were churches and temples, synagogues and mosques for Nestorian Christians, Manichaeans, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Jews. But by far the most popular of the imported religions was Buddhism, which had been brought from India some centuries before and was actively promoted in the T’ang by the notoriously ruthless Empress Wu, the only woman emperor in Chinese history and perhaps second only to Elizabeth I as the most powerful woman who ever lived. (Her Buddhism was more calculating than spiritual, for Confucianism would never have permitted a woman on the throne.) Chinese pilgrims spent years on the long journey to India to visit the sacred places and gather scrolls, and hundreds of scholar monks were installed in the imperial palace to translate and interpret the texts—one catalog lists translations of 2,487 different works. Poets and intellectuals preferred the asceticism and the enlightenment through nature in the Ch’an school, which became Zen in Japan. The masses venerated the Buddha Amitabha and the compassionate bodhisattva Kwan-yin, hoping to be reborn in the paradise of the Pure Land on the way to nirvana.

The vast wealth accumulated by the temples and monasteries, channeled into enterprises like mills and oil presses, moneylending and the opening of agricultural lands, further expanded the economic boom. It is a measure of Buddhism’s reach that when, toward the end of the dynasty, the emperor Wu Tsung turned against the religion as an economic rival to the state, 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 shrines were destroyed, and a quarter of a million monks and nuns were defrocked. Buddhism in China never recovered.

The T’ang invented printing, for Buddhists believed that one gathered karmic merit by the ceaseless repetition or reproduction of the sacred texts. (A single monastery in Ch’ang-an had a thousand copies of the Lotus Sutra.) The imperial library had some 200,000 books and scrolls, classified and labeled under four categories: Classics, Histories, Philosophers, and Collections. Individual scholars had private libraries with tens of thousands of books.

The T’ang invented toilet paper, which was viewed with disgust by foreign visitors. They invented gold plating, true porcelain, and the magnetic needle; they excelled, as might be expected, at cartography. During the T’ang, the Chinese acquired their taste for tea, which quickly—and typically—became so refined that one connoisseur wrote a treatise on the sixteen ways of boiling water and their particular effects on brewing the leaves.

And yet there were also forty-two recorded famines, and wars with the Tibetans, the Uighur Turks, the Khitan of Manchuria, the southern nation of Nan-Chao (now in Yunnan province), the Koreans, and the Annamese. Emperors rose by assassinating their siblings, children, parents, uncles, cousins, and were assassinated themselves in turn. Eunuchs staged attempted coups, killing thousands of officials. In the civil war known as the An Lu-shan Rebellion (755–763), tens of millions died. The poet Tu Fu writes of fields overrun with nettles, for there were no men left to work the land; of fifteen-year-olds sent off to war who returned as old men, if they returned at all; of white bones bleached in the sun on the far western borders, where the lamentations of the living mingle with the eerie whimperings of ghosts.


Magnificent examples of T’ang (and some earlier) art were on display this spring at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence—one Renaissance paying tribute to another—in an exhibition called “China: At the Court of the Emperors.” The installation, created by the fashion designer Romeo Gigli, placed the dramatically lit pieces on red clay–colored simulacra of dunes, as though the objects had just been unearthed. With the Chinese penchant for classification, one could categorize most of the works as Horses, Beauties, Buddhas, and Exotics (with some inevitable overlap, such as Beauties on Horses).

The T’ang emperors, descended from nomads, were horse-crazy. They began the dynasty with five thousand horses; at its height they had a million, mainly imported from the West. Only aristocrats and the military were permitted to ride, and men and women alike played the Persian game of polo. The emperor Hsüan Tsung was particularly proud of his hundred dancing horses who, decked in embroidery with jewels in their manes, performed every year on his birthday next to the Tower of Zealous Administration, along with trained elephants and rhinoceroses, orchestras, acrobats, and a legion of elaborately dressed showgirls pounding on “thunder drums.”

In the Strozzi there was a whole room of ceramic horses, most of them fired with the tricolored glaze (yellow, green, and ochre) that the T’ang invented. Ceramic musicians played drums on horseback; Central Asian grooms in tall conical—to us, comical—hats led horses by bridles that are now lost; a dancing horse raised a hoof. And Beauties rode, dressed in men’s clothes or in what must have been Nomad Chic, with wide-brimmed or cascading hats and riding boots. (It was later, during the Sung Dynasty, that foot-binding was introduced and languorous inactivity became the feminine erotic ideal; the T’ang aristocratic male apparently preferred equestrian and acrobatic women.)

Among the horseless Beauties were court ladies with Churchillesque jowls and pinched rosebud mouths and the lower-class, slender and graceful dancers, with waving sleeves that extended far beyond their hands. One of the most beautiful objects in the show was simply identified as a “dancer,” but seemed to be some sort of otherworldly being, thin as a mantis, wearing a strange dress that evoked both beetles and old science-fiction movies (see illustration).


Dancer, T’ang dynasty, late seventh–early eighth century

A foot tall, her fists were clenched in front of her, with both index fingers mysteriously pointing upward. Her hair had been shaped into two enormous wheels, which the catalog unhelpfully states were “poetically described”—it does not say by whom—as “double-ring-shaped, gazing at the immortals.”

The category of Exotics included both people and objects. There were foreign men with beards and bulging round eyes, strange hats and leopard-skin trousers. The liveliest piece was a haughty camel-driver on a kneeling camel with an identically arrogant expression (see illustration).

Camel Driver

Camel Driver on Crouching Camel, T’ang dynasty, circa 742

During the T’ang, animation came to sculpture, and many of the nonreligious figures seemed like snapshots, motion momentarily arrested. (Particularly beautiful, though not an Exotic, was a kowtowing official dissolving into a puddle of his robes.) It is a curiosity that, at the same historical moment, the Moche in Peru were also vividly portraying ordinary life in ceramics.

Exotic objects included a plate with the figure of Dionysus and another made of Islamic blue glass; a ewer with six, probably Indian, faces; a Roman-style amphora with handles of Chinese dragons drinking from the lip; a candleholder in the arms of what may have been an African slave, crouched on top of an elephant. In a silver “box of the seven countries,” Mongolia is represented as a fat man sitting on a rug, Tibet is two shepherds chasing a yak, India is mendicant monks. In a circular ceramic tomb guardian, a man turns into a quadruped that turns into a serpent that turns into a woman; the man is a foreigner, the woman Chinese. It is, in its way, a metaphor for the metamorphoses of the whole era.

Although there are murals in the tombs—a few fragments were included in the exhibition, including a wonderful portrait of a woman playing with a goose—and in the famous Tunhuang Caves, almost no T’ang paintings or drawings on paper or silk survive. Remarkably, however, much is known about the artists and their work from contemporary and later writings. That is, there is an extensive art history without the art.

For the first time, artists were considered as belonging to schools, rather than as isolated individual talents; occasionally contests were held where representatives competed to depict an identical scene. There were painters who specialized in women or horses, of course, but also in hawks, flowers, insects, and wild animals. Foreign emissaries had their portraits painted to create a kind of catalog of the peoples of the world, and there were painters whose forte was imaginary scenes in foreign lands, including one series, alas now lost, on life in the Kingdom of Prom, which was known elsewhere as Rome.

As in any era, there were businessmen-artists, obsequious to the wealthy, and bohemian eccentrics. One of the latter was Mo Wang, known as Ink Wang, who painted only when he was drunk. After countless cups of wine, he would throw ink on a piece of silk and then, in the words of a T’ang critic,

He would kick at it, smear it with his hands, sweep his brush about or scrub with it, here with pale ink, there with dark. Then he would follow the configurations thus achieved, to make mountains or rocks, or clouds or water.

The T’ang invented a genre that would remain popular for centuries: a landscape where the artist inserts a portrait of himself admiring the scene, the painting or drawing accompanied or surrounded by a first-person text, often lengthy, written by the artist himself. Chinese art historians call this “scholarly painting,” but in the West, the current combinations of the visual and the textual are “postmodern.”


The T’ang was, above all, a time of poetry. It is universally considered China’s golden age, unmatched since, perhaps because golden ages of poetry nearly always occur when the nation becomes international, when new things and new ideas flood in. And, until quite recently, this was never quite the case again in China, absorbed in its own vastness.

Since Ezra Pound’s 1915 Cathay, T’ang poetry has been an inextricable element of Anglo-American modernism—although not in the other Western languages—and hugely popular among general readers. Many of its greatest poets have become familiar: Li Po through Pound, Po Chü-i through Arthur Waley, Tu Fu through Kenneth Rexroth, Han Shan through Gary Snyder, and these and others through Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu’s 1929 The Jade Mountain (a translation of the classic 300 Poets from the T’ang anthology) and a shelf of books by the great Sinologists Burton Watson and, lately, David Hinton. It was the kind of poetry that, in English, poets wanted: a poetry about everything, from stomachaches to the collapse of the empire; a poetry of precise observation and concrete images of everyday life and of nature, where the transcendent or the sublime and a range of human emotions were expressed by not being expressed at all, where they were shown and not told.

Moreover, it was a poetry of the individual at home in the city, or in exile or reclusion in the wilderness, where war and the burdens of history were always on the horizon. For the moderns, China a thousand years ago seemed like today. And equally attractive to a poetics promoting concision and compression, the T’ang poets seemed able to cover a lot of ground and to say it all with very few words. Here is Tu Fu, as translated by Kenneth Rexroth, in a poem that, in Chinese, has eight lines:


A clear night in harvest time.
In the courtyard at headquarters
The wu-tung trees grow cold.
In the city by the river
I wake alone by a guttering
Candle. All night long bugle
Calls disturb my thoughts. The splendor
Of the moonlight floods the sky.
Who bothers to look at it?
Whirlwinds of dust, I cannot write.
The frontier pass is unguarded.
It is dangerous to travel.
Ten years wandering, sick at heart.
I perch here like a bird on a
Twig, thankful for a moment’s peace.

The publication of A.C. Graham’s anthology Poems of the Late T’ang as a Penguin paperback in 1965 was an event; most of the poets I knew avidly read it.1 Some 50,000 poems by 2,200 T’ang poets survive, but English-language readers, after a half-century of extraordinary translations, had assumed they were more or less familiar with the turf. But this was another kind of Chinese poetry, one without cups of wine in the moonlight, or nostalgia for old friends:

The wind in the wu-t’ung startles the heart, a lusty man despairs;
Spinners in the fading lamplight cry chill silk.
Who will study a bamboo book still green
And forbid the grubs to bore their powdery holes?
This night’s thoughts will surely stretch my guts straight:
Cold in the rain a sweet phantom comes to console the writer.
By the autumn tombs a ghost chants the poem of Pao Chao.
My angry blood for a thousand years will be emeralds under the earth!

Not only was the imagery bizarre, but the translation was utterly unlike the relaxed American speech of Rexroth or Snyder or Watson, which had become—and largely remains—the standard idiom for Chinese poetry in English translation, a stripping away of rhetorical flourishes as a way of suggesting the extreme compression of the classical Chinese. This, however, was something else: “spinners in the fading lamplight cry chill silk” seemed more like Hart Crane than William Carlos Williams.

The poet was Li Ho, who did not fit any of the traditional categories assumed for Chinese poets. He was neither a Confucian civil servant restoring meaning to language nor a Taoist adept out in nature, neither a libertine nor a Buddhist monk. He was a Crazy Poet—the Chinese refer to him as the “ghostly genius”—who rode his donkey all day and wrote scattered lines that he tossed into a bag. At night, he emptied out the bag and put the lines together as poems, which he threw into another bag and forgot. His mother complained that “this boy will spit his heart out,” which he did at age twenty-six. Here he imagines himself being welcomed into the land of the dead:

The Southern hills, how mournful!
A ghostly rain sprinkles the empty grass.
In Ch’ang-an, on an autumn midnight,
How many men grow old before the wind?
Dim, dim, the path in the twilight,
Branches curl on the black oaks by the road.
The trees cast upright shadows and the moon at the zenith
Covers the hills with a white dawn.
Darkened torches welcome a new kinsman:
In the most secret tomb these fireflies swarm.

The book opens with the last poems of Tu Fu, in old age and in exile (“There’s always a place kept for an old horse/Though it can take no more to the long road”) as the hinge between High T’ang and Late T’ang. Graham then presents six poets of what was called the New Style, a poetry, he writes, “which explores the Chinese language to the limit of its resources.” A poetry of often strange images and dense, sometimes impenetrable allusions, only one of its prosodic complexities can be approached in English translation: the parallelism of many of its couplets, where nearly every word had a complement or opposite in the accompanying line.

Among the poets—all of them quite different and clearly demarcated in Graham’s translation—is Meng Chiao, who gave up his life as a Ch’an Buddhist recluse to become an impoverished poet in the eastern capital, Lo-yang. (He wrote, in a poem not included here: “A poet only suffers writing poems./Better to spend your life learning how to fly.”) The selection includes an excerpt from Meng Chiao’s hallucinatory long poem, “Sadness of the Gorges”—the same gorges that are now under water, flooded by dams—of which these couplets are typical:

The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon
Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.
Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins
And the twisted skeletons hang tilted upright.

His perceived “coldness” and violent imagery were too much for many later Chinese poets. The great Sung poet Su Tung-p’o wrote of his work (in Burton Watson’s translation), “My first impression is of eating little fishes—/what you get’s not worth the trouble,” and said it was better to “lay aside the book/and drink my cup of jade-white wine.” It was some centuries until changing taste would discover him again.

Han Yü, a militant Confucianist who held various important official posts and helped lead the campaign against Buddhism, had a predilection for the grotesque in both its realistic and fantastic manifestations, whether a description of a state execution or of demons feeding on vomit. Graham includes excerpts from “The South Mountains,” a poem of 204 lines ending in identical rhymes, with forty-six similes, all beginning with “like,” packed into sixty of them. The mountains, Han Yü writes, are:

Scattered like loose titles
Or running together like converging spokes,
Off keel like rocking boats
Or in full stride like horses at the gallop;
Back to back as though offended,
Face to face as though lending a hand,

and so on. As far as I know, this combination of trance-inducing repetitive rhyme and hypersimilitude would not be attempted again for another 1,100 years, until the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro’s modernist extravaganza Altazor.

Tu Mu, although a downwardly mobile bureaucrat, is the most cheerful of the lot. “There is more joy in him,” writes Graham, “than in any T’ang poet later than Li Po.” Wine-drinker, observer of nature, nostalgist, he is the closest, in the book, to the traditional image of the Chinese poet, though he saw himself as occupying a middle ground between what he called the “intricate beauty” of Li Ho and the “familiar and commonplace” of earlier T’ang poets, such as Po Chü-i:

By river and lakes at odds with life I journeyed, wine my freight:
Slim waists of Ch’u broke my heart, light bodies danced into my palm.
Ten years late I wake at last out of my Yang-chou dream
With nothing but the name of a drifter in the blue houses.

The leading figure of the late T’ang is undoubtedly Li Shang-yin, a Taoist who worked as a proofreader in the Imperial Library. It is said that he is second only to Tu Fu in the number of critical commentaries on his work; his thickly stacked allusions have kept the exegetes busy for centuries. Stephen Owen, in a recent encyclopedic survey of the period, writes that Li Shang-yin’s poetry “gestures toward concealed meaning while simultaneously keeping the [meaning] hidden.”4

He is both the most sensual and scholarly poet of the T’ang. On one side, in Graham’s words, the “silken, flower-decked, phoenix-infested imagery…glittering with pearls and jades, heavily scented with cassia or incense, dripping with the tears of wax candles,” with women “at the centre of this sumptuousness.” On the other, “abrupt transitions in which an allusion provides the unmentioned bridge, delicate variations on commonplace references, oblique glimpses of historical events, direct presentation of a scene before his eyes in which one senses elusive parallels with a scene in history or poetry.” We, of course, are completely clueless in this labyrinth of references; annotation may explain a little but ultimately doesn’t help. What remains is a kind of presence: like most great poetry, Li Shang-yin’s is always on the verge of being understood and is never quite understood:


The brocade curtains have just rolled back. Behold the Queen of Wei.
Still he piles up the embroidered quilts, Prince O in Yüeh.
Drooping hands disturb, tip over, pendants of carved jade:
Snapping waists compete in the dance, fluttering saffron skirts.
Shih Ch’ung’s candles—but who would clip them?
Hsün Yü’s braziers, where no incense fumes.
I who was given in a dream the brush of many colors
Wish to write on petals a message to the clouds of morning.

A Sung Dynasty critic, attempting to find a Confucian social function for this poetry, wrote: “People of the age see only that his poems delight in talking about women and do not see that they were a mirror of and warning for his age.” They may not have been a warning, but they were certainly a mirror, much like the T’ang mirror that was on display in the Palazzo Strozzi: bronze with mother-of-pearl, turquoise, and malachite inlay set in lacquer, with an eight-petaled lotus depicted at the center (see illustration).


Mirror with Flower and Bird Design, T’ang dynasty, 736

From each petal another lotus sprouted, creating the illusion of a dome; around the flowers, pairs of Mandarin ducks flew, the Chinese symbol for lovers. Li Shang-yin was both the epitome and the culmination of an era of refined excess and the exotic.

A few decades after his death, in the last years of the dynasty, warlords ravished the country. One of them, Huang Ch’ao, a salt merchant who had failed the civil service exams, captured Ch’ang-an in 881. A satiric poem was posted on the wall of a government building, criticizing the new regime. (As, 1,100 years later, the Democracy Movement would begin with the poems that Bei Dao and other young poets glued to the walls in their capital, Beijing.) Huang Ch’ao issued orders that everyone capable of writing such a poem be put to death. Three thousand were killed.


China’s Golden Age’ December 18, 2008

  1. 1

    Graham (1919–1991) was a revered Scottish professor of Chinese philosophy, who spent his adult life at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, with occasional visiting positions at other universities. His Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court, 1989) is a classic in the field. We never met, but in the 1970s we had some correspondence as I, an avid youth, urged him to translate more poetry. But he was devoting years to a new translation of the philosopher Chuang Tzu, which was finally published in 1986. However fine, it never struck me as all that different from, or particularly better than, the classic version by Burton Watson. Although he wrote poems himself, Poems of the Late T’ang was his only significant poetry translation.

  2. 2

    The poem is beautifully translated in full by David Hinton in The Late Poems of Meng Chiao (Princeton University Press, 1996).

  3. 3

    The blue houses are brothels. The first book-length translation of Tu Mu (spelled Du Mu), by David Young and Jiann I. Lin, has recently been published: Out on the Autumn River (Rager Media, 2007).

  4. 4

    Stephen Owen, The Late Tang (Harvard University Asia Center, 2006).