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  • By Adam Sedia

Wang Bo’s “Farewell:” An Exemplar of Classical Chinese Poetry and a Lesson for Today


China’s uninterrupted literary tradition of three millennia is truly one of the world’s cultural wonders. Among its long history, the period of the Tang (唐) Dynasty (618-907) is considered one of China’s golden ages, a time of peace, prosperity, and political unity during which the arts flourished. Poetry flourished in particular during that age, and Tang Poetry is still considered “the golden age of Chinese poetry.” The Quan Tangshi (“Complete Tang Poems”), a 1705 anthology of Tang Poetry, contains 48,900 poems by more than 2,200 poets – conveying a sense of the ubiquity of the art at the time.

Two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai (701-762) and his friend Du Fu (712-770), define the “High Tang” style. Other noted poets of the age include Chen Zi’ang (661-702), who abandoned the florid court style in favor of “authentic” poetry that included political and social commentary; Zhang Xu (658-747), also famous as a calligrapher; Wang Wei (699-759), also famous as a painter and whose poetry has been called “a painting within a poem;” Bai Juyi (772-846), known for “speaking truth to power;” Li He (790-816), known as the “Chinese Mallarmé;” Li Shangyin (813-858), known for his abstract, dense, allusive style; and even the emperors Taizong (598-649) and Xuanzong (685-762).

Wang Bo (王勃) (650-676), ranks among the “Four Paragons of the Early Tang.” During his short life he wrote some of the classics of the age, and one of his poems in particular serves as the subject of this essay both as an exemplar of classical Chinese style and for how it encapsulates the importance of poetry in traditional Chinese society.

The original text and transliteration of the poem (into modern standard Mandarin) are:


杜少府之任蜀州

城闕輔三秦,風煙望五津。 與君離別意,同是宦遊人。 海內存知己,天涯若比隣。 無爲在岐路,兒女共霑巾

Dù Shǎo Fǔ Zhī Rèn Shǔ Zhōu

Chéng què fǔ sān qín, Fēng yān wàng wǔ jīn

Yǔ jūn lí bié yì, Tóng shì huàn yóu rén

Hǎi nèi cún zhī jǐ, Tiān yá ruò bì lín

Wú wéi zài qí lù, Ér nǚ gòng zhān jīn


Before exploring the meaning of the poem, it is important to note the prosody of the original. Contrary to the image of it presented by the Imagists, who first popularized it in the West, classical Chinese poetry actually follows all the strictures of classical Western poetry. First, it has meter. Note the division of the poem into eight verses of five syllables each – a uniformity displayed especially clearly in the original Chinese, where each syllable equates to a single character. In fact, this poem is a fine example of the lǚshī form, which consists of eight lines of five to seven characters.

The poem also rhymes: it begins with a couplet (qín / jīn) and alternates rhymes in the next six verses (yì / jǐ / lù; rén / lín / jīn – with “lù” and “rén” as half-rhymes). It should also be emphasized that what Wang Bo would have recited sounded nothing like the modern standard Mandarin rendition given above. Even though Wang Bo wrote in largely the same characters as present-day Chinese, like all languages Chinese evolved over time. Fourteen centuries ago the poets of the Tang Dynasty spoke Middle Chinese, which underwent drastic changes to evolve into modern Mandarin Chinese (and less drastic changes into modern Cantonese). Even taking this difference into account, however, the rhyme scheme remains. In fact, the rhyme becomes even clearer in reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation: /d͡ziɪn/ /t͡siɪn/ for the initial couplet, and /ʔɨH/ /kɨX/ /luoH/ and /ȵiɪn/ /liɪn/ /kˠiɪn/ for the remaining lines. [1]

Now with an understanding of the structure of the poem, we can address its meaning and significance. A long-standing and respected translation of the American Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), a poet in his own right, is given here:

Farewell to Vice-prefect Du Setting out for his Official Post in Shu

By this wall that surrounds the three Qin districts, Through a mist that makes five rivers one, We bid each other a sad farewell, We two officials going opposite ways....

And yet, while China holds our friendship, And heaven remains our neighbourhood, Why should you linger at the fork of the road, Wiping your eyes like a heart-broken child?

Wang skillfully introduces the poem with a backdrop that reflects the sadness of the departure: a wall reflecting the separation and division that the two friends undergo and a mist as the “weeping of the skies” to reflect to the weeping of the departing friends. Yet halfway through, the poem undergoes a sonnet-like “turn,” in which the sadness of the departure transforms into a cause for joy. Though separated, the two remain in their nation and among their people, carrying out their functions separately. Their friendship has not ended with their separation, but rather serves a higher purpose: a sympathy and cooperation of action based on their shared ideals.

Yet the topic seems odd for a poem: two government bureaucrats parting because one has been reassigned to another province. It seems uncharacteristic of government officials, with the nature of their work focused on adherence to rules, focus on detail, and technicalities, that they would immortalize such a moment in such fine poetry. Yet an understanding of the traditional Chinese bureaucracy reveals why such a connection to poetry was not counterintuitive, but natural.

The Chinese imperial examination (科舉, kējǔ: “subject recommendation”) was the world’s first civil service examination, founded on the concept that government positions should be filled by merit as determined by a written examination, rather than birth. Written examinations for certain government positions, especially clerical ones, had been in use since the reign of Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty (r. 180-157 BC), but the standard written examination for entry into imperial service was formally introduced in 607, during the Sui Dynasty, and would remain in continuous use until its formal abolition in 1905. But this represented only a formal rather than an actual abolition: aspects of the imperial examination remain to this day in the civil service examinations in both mainland China and Taiwan.

Central to the imperial examination was knowledge of the Confucian classics, particularly the books known as the Thirteen Classics. One of these Thirteen Classics was the Shijing or Classic of Poetry (詩經 Shījīng). The Shijing itself is among the oldest surviving poetry collections, consisting of 305 songs dating between the 11th and 7th centuries BC, and traditionally said to have been compiled by Confucius (551-479 BC).

In the imperial examination, the Shijing carried an orthodox Confucian interpretation explaining how each poem responded to moral and social conditions of the age. Examinees were expected to know and recite each orthodox interpretation to demonstrate their fitness for office. An analogous textual treatment can be seen in the Bible’s Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon), which on the surface is an erotic love poem but carried an orthodox interpretation as describing Christ’s love for the Church. [2]


But the examination required not just a knowledge of the classics of poetry, but poetic composition, as well. Starting in the Tang Dynasty (618-905), the examination contained a poetry section requiring the examinee to compose a shi (verse) poem in the five-character, 12-line form and a fu (rhapsody) composition of 300 to 400 characters. Interestingly, the testing of poetry was the subject of continued controversy. On one hand, pragmatists like the chancellor Wang Anshi (1021-1086) considered poetry irrelevant to the functions of a bureaucratic office. On the other hand, the statesman Su Shi (1037-1101), Wang’s contemporary and a poet himself, argued that the poetry requirement had not obstructed selection of the great ministers of the past, that the study and practice of poetry encouraged careful writing, and that the grading of poetry was more objective than for the prose essays, due to the strict and detailed rules for writing verse according to the formal requirements. [3]


This controversy was reflected in the examination’s contents. The poetry section was briefly abolished for examination year 833–34, then in the 1060s Wang Anshi removed the poetry sections once more. In the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), poetry was abolished again, which would remain in effect until its final revival in 1756 by the Qing dynasty. [4]


Despite the lingering controversy of the role of poetry in the imperial examination (which echoes the longstanding debate in the west over the role of poetry), during the Tang dynasty poetry would have been central to the formation as bureaucrats of both Wang Bo and his friend the vice-prefect. It was their knowledge of and familiarity with the interpretation of the poems of the Shijing that allowed them to hold their privileged government positions. Thus, poetry was natural to their station in life, and poetic thought necessary to, rather than in conflict with, their role as imperial bureaucrats.

Contrast this with the modern civil service system, in the West and elsewhere, where training and examination is almost wholly technocratic. Emphasis is on process and procedure; expertise is preferred as deep but as narrow as possible; and the means are always directed towards the end of compliance with the letter of the law rather than any overarching moral question. The idea of the modern bureaucracy originates in what is termed the Age of Enlightenment – what Edmund Burke called the age of “sophisters, economists, and calculators” – which was dominated by a view of God as a “Great Clockmaker,” and in which all human questions could be reduced to a matter of mathematical principles without any consideration of overarching moral or abstract questions.

And as a consequence of this contrast perhaps we can see in Tang China a much more humane society than the present world dominated by Western-style bureaucracies. Knowledge of poetry is knowledge of humanity, and the creation of poetry – or any art – is the ultimate human act, a combination of literary skill, aesthetic taste, and moral judgment. A government whose agents are trained as poets are bound to act with consciousness of the humanity of those they affect. A government of “sophisters, economists, and calculators” sees the operation of government as a machine, and human cogs who do not fit into its operation are either to be “mended” through forced compliance or, worst of all, discarded. That was the mindset that constructed the great totalitarian horrors of the last century and is very much alive today, both through official repression and social “cancellation.”

Only a return to poetic thinking can combat the mechanical coldness of the totalitarian mindset.


[1] Middle Chinese reconstructions are after Baxter, William H. A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Mouton de Gruyter, 1992.

[2] See, Owen, Stephen. Foreword. The Bood of Songs (Shijing): The Ancient Chinese Classic of Poetry. Tr. Arthur Waley. Ed. Joseph R. Allen. Grove Press, 1996. pp. xv-xxiv.

[3] See, Murck, Alfreda. Poetry and Painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent. Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2000. pp. 51-52.

[4] See, Yu, Jianfu. “The Influence and Enlightenment of Confucian Cultural Education on Modern European Civilization.” Frontiers of Education in China. 4(1): 10-26. 2009.


Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.

11 Comments


stewart.burke
Oct 06, 2023

Adam remarked upon the association of Imagist poets with translations of Tang poetry and other similar classical Chinese forms. For me, in this sense the Imagists were akin to someone bringing a meal to a thematic feast that does not quite fit: one is thankful and rueful at the same time.

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winestone.poet
Sep 29, 2023

This article is incredibly interesting and informative, as are the other articles I have read by Adam Sedia. This has offered me an excellent introduction to the poets of China, as I am not overly familiar with their work. I also agree wholeheartedly with the article’s conclusions, and I applaud Adam for speaking out against the totalitarian mindset that is so pervasive in our culture now.


While I mean no disrespect towards Adam by any stretch of the imagination, I do have some doubts regarding the following statement: “A government whose agents are trained as poets are bound to act with consciousness of the humanity of those they affect.” On paper, this should be true; it is certainly not an…


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winestone.poet
Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for your input, sir. I appreciate it. Regarding the Psalms, many of them were indeed written prior to David’s ascent to the throne. However, there are many others bearing inscriptions that indicate they were written well after David became king. The contextual evidence points to David having composed the Psalms throughout his life.


Be that as it may, the point I was trying to make is that good artistic taste and poetic abilities are not necessarily synonymous with moral methods of governing. While I could certainly be wrong, I felt that was what Adam was implying in the particular statement of his that I quoted earlier. Whether or not the individuals in question are known as great poets…


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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Sep 24, 2023

This essay was very informative and a joy to read because I'm very interested in Chinese poetry - particularly the poems of Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Bo - all of whom you mention in the opening three paragraphs.


You then go on to talk about the importance of poetry in traditional Chinese society and why a thorough knowledge of 'poetic thought' was a requirement for 'imperial bureaucrats' because poetry enabled them to understand the moral and social conditions of the age and thus to create 'a more humane society'.


There is much to be learned here from all of this, and like John I agree totally with your concluding comment about the necessity of 'poetic thinking' in combatting…


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winestone.poet
Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

That was deeply insightful, sir. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

- Shannon

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jm6783685
jm6783685
Sep 24, 2023

Very enlightening! And, needless to say, almost, I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion.

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