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Depiction of China During The Tang Dynasty in Poetry

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The topic I chose for this essay, is the comparison of a poem to the society at the time. The first point of discussion is the importance of poetry in Chinese culture and society. In Chinese society, poetry was and still is important. During the Tang dynasty under the rule of Wuze Tian, in order to join the civil service applicants were required to write original poetry and answer questions in regard to Confucian classics. During the Tang Dynasty, poetry reached its peak. Due to this examination, more and more people became poets. Three of the leading Tang poets were Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. Wang Wei was influenced by Buddhist ideologies, Li Bai was influenced by the ideologies of Taoism and Du Fu was influenced by the humanistic ideologies of Confucianism.“ The poem I have chosen to analyze is called “The Recruiting officer of Shih-Hao” by the famous Tang poet Du Fu. 

This poem was written in 759AD during the turning point of the Tang Dynasty and after the battle at Yè Chéng where the Tang military suffered an incredible defeat. The reason I chose this poem is because of the strong message, Du Fu was giving. While Du Fu was staying in an inn in Shí Háo village, modern-day Henan province a soldier from the Tang imperial military arrived to recruit men due to the heavy losses suffered at Yè Chéng earlier that year. When the innkeeper heard of the officer’s arrival, he fled over a wall. The only people left from the family were the old woman, the daughter, and the infant boy. While crying, she told the officer of the news she received about her 2 sons who had died at Yè Chéng. She told him the only male left was the infant still nursing with his mother. Though she was old and weak, she said she could cook for the soldiers at the Hé Yáng military camp. When Du Fu went to sleep, all was quiet; when he left in the morning the only person left was the innkeeper. The emotions of the poem give a mental image of a time of war and disharmony where soldiers were conscripted into the military to protect the Tang Dynasty from the rebels during the An Lu Shan rebellion. 

In the poem, Du Fu describes the old woman as poor and with very little clothing. Du Fu was a poet during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), and a friend of Li Bai. Du Fu and Li Bai both attempted the civil service examination but were not successful. Du Fu lived in Chang An, which is now Xi’an. He was a realist, who was inspired by the humanist thoughts of Confucianism. The teachings of Confucius were the base of the civil service examinations. Confucius’ teachings revolved around three important values. Filial piety, which focuses on respect towards one’s parents, Humaneness which emphasizes kindness for others, and finally proper conduct which stresses the just way of carrying out certain tasks including governing. Du Fu’s style of poetry (jintishi) was more structured and restrictive than Li Bai’s (gushi) style, which was more fitting to the poet’s spirit. Du Fu wrote poems that reflected the hardship, common people endured. Du Fu felt as though he was a failure despite his ambitions for serving the country. He was affected by the misery of the civil war and was sympathetic towards the poor people during and after the war. He even lost a son to hunger. Du Fu’s objective with this poem was to reflect and describe the loss and the suffering the lower-class people went through. The woman in the poem had already had three sons sent to the border at Yeh, where two of them were killed. At the house, only two male family members remained; the young infant and the man who fled. 

he Tang Dynasty created a legal code, known as the “Tang Legal Code” which contained laws on criminal acts ranging from murder, theft, inheritance and ownership of property issues to bureaucratic matters. During the reign of emperor Taizhong, the Tang Penal Code contained a section called the “ten abominations” which were a compilation of the most sinister criminal offences. These were sometimes punishable by the death of someone’s family. During this period, the Tang Government also initiated a land reform plan where peasants were allowed to reclaim land and therefore mitigated any possibility of rebellion. However, with more land being reclaimed, peasants were paying more tax. “During the Tang Dynasty, China’s economy grew. This was due to the installment of the grand canal which linked north and south China together, as well as the expansion of maritime trade. Ports such as Guangzhou and Yangzhou developed into an economic hub where materials from mainland China and from foreign countries were shipped via the grand canal to cities within the northern part of China. During the Tang Dynasty, the capital Chang’An was the eastern end of the silk road where traders and merchants from different countries and religions lived together. 

In the Tang Dynasty the Emperor and his family were at the top, then came the aristocrats, the bureaucrats. Under them were the eunuchs whose roles were to serve the emperor as palace servants. Under the eunuchs were the ministers, then the peasants who were forced to work on land owned by the aristocrats. The lowest social class within the Tang hierarchy were the slaves. Specific laws were put in place to make sure that all social classes acted in manners which corresponded to their place within the hierarchy. During the Tang Dynasty, women were given far more rights than they had been given by previous dynasties. However, they were not given complete freedom. They still had to remain in the home, however, they were permitted to receive an education. Females in higher social classes were allowed to undertake the role of priestess, they were allowed to participate in religious ceremonies, and were also permitted to partake in philosophical debates with men. Some females during the Tang era were even able to ascend the hierarchy and attain the same sociopolitical status as their male counterparts. A great example of this is Wu Zetian the first official empress of China who ascended the throne due to government support and loyal subjects. In the Tang era, very few females were allowed these rights. Most priestesses came from rich and scholarly backgrounds. Some women within the lower classes of the Tang Dynasty were sold as slaves once their families had run out of money. This was a common thing to do during the Tang Dynasty, so the government put laws in place to regulate the amount of time a servant worked for a family. 

During the Tang Dynasty, people believed in three main philosophies; Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. These three ideologies had a strong effect in providing guidance for the Tang Dynasty’s social structure. These three ideologies had different meanings: Confucianism was analyzed by scholars and seeped through the whole of Chinese society. Confucianism asserted that worshipping one’s ancestors and abiding by the values in one’s current existence are important. Daoism was a theory that affirmed living in coexistence and peace altered people’s perspectives on daily life. Finally, Buddhism bestowed teachings upon people in order to allow them to concentrate on the present, and that if they carried out admirable tasks, it would affect their resurrection. Although Emperor Xuanzong was known as one of China’s greatest rulers for his development of the education system, the arts, and the civil service examination, the An Lushan rebellion which erupted towards the end of his reign in 755-763 was the turning point for the Tang Dynasty. During the early Tang era, emperor Taizong created a strong military. This was due to China’s strong economic state and due to the scientific advancements. Prior to the An Lu Shan rebellion the military used the Fubing system where soldiers had no commander. However, after the war the pardoned An Lu Shan rebels became regional commanders and the FuBing system changed to the Mubing system where soldiers were assigned to a commander. The appointment of the regional commanders led to the start of a time period called “the five dynasties”. In 751, the Tang army battled with the Arab armies at Talas in modern-day Kyrgyzstan and were subsequently defeated. The consequence of this defeat meant an end for the expansion of the Tang Dynasty into Central Asia. Furthermore, in 755 the Tang army along the borders were forced to pull their military back into China to aide with the defeat of the rebels during the An Lu Shan rebellion.  This turning point signified the end of the Tang “Golden Era” and constituted an interval period for the Tang Dynasty which lasted just over a decade. During this interval period, the remnants of the Tang Dynasty attempted to drive the Turkic soldiers from the rebellion and An Lushan out of China. 

Following the rebellion, the Tang dynasty never fully recovered. Before the an Lushan rebellion the tang dynasty allowed coexistence and tolerance for people of all religious beliefs, ideologies and ethnicities. In 635, a Christian delegation traveled to China to greet Emperor Taizong. Emperor Taizong had their scriptures translated into Chinese, and subsequently ordered the scriptures to be sent all over China. Following this rebellion, tolerance and confidence in non-Chinese people deteriorated. From the seventh century, Muslim traders from all over West Asia flocked to places such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Changzhou. The Tang Dynasty’s cosmopolitan nature aided in the establishment of Islam. In 742, the great mosque of Xi’an was built. In 845, the emperor of the Tang Dynasty ordered 2000 Buddhists, Christians, and Zoroastrians to stop “diluting Chinese values”. During the tenth century, Christianity and Buddhism had been eradicated. After the rebellion, people of Chinese origin had less confidence in non-Chinese people due to An Lu Shan and his military being of Turkic origin. Following the end of the rebellion, the Tang Dynasty used the ideology of morality from Confucianism in a narrow-minded way and attempted to purge non-Chinese people because of the lack of trust. The poem written by Du Fu corresponds to the turning point when the remaining loyal imperialist soldiers During the Tang Dynasty, education flourished and developed. In this period, a student was required to undertake a number of different materials. Students didn’t only study the texts of Confucius or the principles laid out by Confucius. They also studied the ideas and principles of Buddhism and Taoism. Tang scholars were also appealed by the arts. Many of these scholars became famous for their calligraphy writing. The emperor at the time Taizhong thought it would be beneficial to also include calligraphy as part of the education system as well as poetry writing. This demonstrated just how important the arts were for the Tang Dynasty. Under the Tang Dynasty’s revamp of the examination, it allowed the general population to apply and passed people based on skill. 

In conclusion, the Tang Dynasty was one of China’s most prosperous Dynasties for a time before the An Lu Shan rebellion. It was a time when the arts scene, education, economy, and religion prospered and flourished. It was a time when Du Fu wrote about the true suffering that poor peasants went through, and the suffering that families of conscripts went through; the number of people who had died at Yè Chéng. It is clear as to why Du Fu is regarded as one of the three famous Tang poets in China.   

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Depiction Of China During The Tang Dynasty In Poetry. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
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