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Yuan Shao’s The Tang: A Poetic People

On the river, vainly I encounter a Yuan Shao’s sconce. Snowy ridge—alone I watch sun setting in the west; Swordgate—still hindering men coming from the north. (from Du Fu’s Autumn Is Done Translated by David McCraw) Readers of Tang Dynasty poetry have learned about social and political structures of the time because it was heavily integrated into society. Poetry was incorporated in nearly all aspects of everyday life during the rule of Emperor Xuangzong.

Although other means provide information on the Tang Dynasty, the most prominent way to learn about it is through poetry. Tang poetry was incorporated into society as an active participant as well as a detailed observer. Poetry played an active role in people’s lives: as a means of communication, as a part of social activities, and politics. Poetry was also used to record passive observations of people, nature, etc. Studying active participation and thoughtful observations is the optimal way to learn about society and political structure.

It is no surprise that poetry teaches about the Tang Dynasty because the original purpose of poetry was to record historical events in a way that would preserve order. So when it was refined by the Tang and it was developed into a recreational activity, it kept its roots in record keeping. The detail in poetry gives the reader a snapshot of an event and conveys the mood of the event. Poetry demonstrates both society and political structures during the Tang. Poetry acted as an observer of people in the Tang Dynasty when it recorded their actions from afar without interacting with the people.

Poetry recorded observations of people on a deep level along with context pertaining to what was going on during the time the poem was written. Poetry effectively captures a moment and expands upon it to display observations and deeper meaning. Li Bo’s poem Yuefu shiji, which talks about a beautiful girl of fifteen named Luofu, serves as an example of what poetry can teach. It includes lots of details: she is wearing a yellow skirt and a purple tunic, she is picking mulberries and putting them in a green basket, and being courted by men.

In just the first twelve lines of this poem the clothing and pastime of a teenage girl living in the Tang Dynasty is seen and in the next forty lines information such as how her husband progressed jobwise through society and information about the army can be seen. Solely from one poem observing one girl, many pieces of information can be observed because Li Bo captured her in a moment of time and looked so deeply at it that small details are visible. There are many poems that take this thoughtful observance of a moment of time such as Li Bo did.

The detailed observations teach other things about society as well. For example, poetry taught about types of makeup and popular application techniques. Poetry shows us that makeup was a major aspect of the beauty routine and it gives information pertaining to other beauty practices. Poetry acted as an observer recording events of the Tang Dynasty so it teaches a lot about it. In addition to observing people, poetry was an active participant in society because it was used to convey person-to-person messages and to record events from a participant’s viewpoint in order for others to see.

Tang poetry had a myriad of social uses such as art, event remembrance, and social discourse. People enjoyed poetry and it was seen as so beautiful that for special events people would hire calligraphers to paint a few lines of verse on the walls to beautify the room. This shows the level of appreciation the populace had for poetry because poetry was wanted on the walls and not seen as defacing them. Appreciation for poetry is one of the reasons so much detailed poetry exists from the Tang Dynasty.

At events people would write poetry in order to commemorate the event and sometimes have competitions to see whose poetry was the best. Even the most famous poets participated. One great example is Tonight We Feast by Li Bo, which includes references to alcoholic beverages, friendly conversation, and specific foods. This poem teaches readers about the fine details of feasts and shows a social dynamic of mutual respect in friendship because they had good conversion with others at dinner.

It also shows details of events like foods (sheep and oxen) as well as the cost of wine (ten in gold). This is another example of one poem teaching about many aspects of the Tang Dynasty. Poetry this detailed was written at almost every event, so it gives a clear and accurate picture of diet, relationships, and certain aspects of the economic structure. Some events were even structured around poetry, such as planned drinking games. In the drinking games people would sit on a riverbank and grab floating cups of alcohol and once they grabbed one they would write a poem.

Poems written at drinking games ranged from recording the event to observing aspects of nature. This poetry shows information about the games as well as what the surroundings of the poet were like. After events or in any situation where gratitude was shown, more poetry was written as a social discourse to say farewell to friends and thank them for hosting the event or coming to the event. In A Rustic Fellow Sends Crimson Cherries by Du Fu (written to give thanks to a peasant who brought him some cherries), historians can learn many facts about the Dynasty.

For example, the poem talks about growing cherries in western Shu and putting them in a bamboo basket. This poem teaches that cherries were grown in western Shu which gives context to cherry farming tools. It also shows that cherries were widely eaten because even the peasant thanking Du Fu can afford to have a basket of cherries. This shows information about the empire and is an example of what poetry teaches about ancient China. All types of social poetry teach about life in the Tang dynasty because they contain many details pertaining to other parts of the Dynasty.

The Tang also actively used poetry in the king’s court and other political affairs. Court poetry was used to convey laws and messages to nearly illiterate commoners. Because the laws were supposed to be accessible to commoners, they were written to be understandable in poetry. This means that the laws are easier to translate and simpler to accurately understand which makes which makes court poetry the best item to view when studying political structure; there is less room for error.

Also, having all of the laws recorded means that an accurate political structure can be seen because there are laws on many aspects of the political structure like information pertaining to the king and succession and who controlled what land. In addition to being used to communicate laws, court poetry was also used to provide opinions on the moral situation of the empire. It was used to convey laws and comment on the empire because it was able to reach more people. Poetry also teaches about political events such as the Uighur invasion.

One poem that historians could use is Du Fu’s The Generals, where he shares his thoughts along with current events during the Uighur invasion of 765CE. In this poem, thoughts pertaining to an event are recorded along with actual information related to a military event. This helps show the political structure because it shows how the Tang handled war and what their mentality was toward it. Poetry like this shows a political structure because of the depth each poem goes into to explain these systems and information about them. This poem goes into detail about the event and the writer’s personal thoughts on it.

Poetry is the only way to learn his personal thoughts because he is long dead. In addition to recording existing systems and showing thought towards them, poetry opened up an avenue for change. This was possible because poetry became influential in politics to the point where poets were basically statesmen. In this capacity poetry was contributing to people’s lives because it allowed a change politics. This meant that people could share political opinions and inspire change through poetry because people respected the poets and the poetry they were producing.

Poetry teaches a lot about the political structure because opinions and change were recorded in poetry, poetry teaches laws, and opinions on leadership. Poetry was so heavily used in politics that it shows the political structure of the Tang Dynasty as well as opinions of individuals on choices the Emperor made. The reason so much can be learned from poetry is because it is detailed and substantive. The substantiality is only reaffirmed by the fact that when Tang poems were compiled during the Ming period there were about 48,900 poems.

Even though on their own, poems give a good snapshot of parts of the Dynasty; when tens of thousands are brought together they can accurately depict the political and social structures of the Dynasty. They show everything from a girl picking mulberries to thoughts on a war from thousands of diverse perspectives. The best way to learn about the political and social structures of the Tang dynasty is through poetry because it encompasses thousands of perspectives and shows all aspects of the dynasty. Tang poetry teaches us about what life was like in the Tang dynasty and how the political structure worked in the Dynasty.

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