Three Tang Dynasty Poets (Penguin Little Black Classics)

Just before I left to spend three weeks visiting friends and students in China, I decided to sit down and read the collection of Tang Dynasty poetry from Penguin Little Black Classics. I was really glad I did this before I went, not just because I learnt a lot about Chinese literature and history from the collection, but also because my Chinese friends were so excited to hear that I knew who these poets were. The fact that a series of books published in the UK would include a collection of poems from China brought many of my friends a lot of joy.

The first poet featured in the collection is Wang Wei (Chinese name: Wang Youcheng). From the poems included in the collection, it seems that many of his poems are nostalgic for a previous age in which humanity and nature lived a little closer together. I wonder what he would make of the contemporary world we live in? The first poem, in particular, expresses a longing for a China from history as he details a community which is untouched by the world Wang Wei sees around him. The common thread throughout the whole collection of his poems is a sense of an idyllic rural world and a desire for the isolation encapsulated within these scenes.

The poet my Chinese friends were most familiar with was Li Po (Chinese name: Li Bai), and I saw a few quotes I recognised up and around various sites I saw across China. Li Po’s poetry seems more people-focussed and less formal than the other two poets in the collection. Certainly, many of his poems were much more personal than the others, with many written specifically for his family. Of the three, I definitely came away with a clearer sense of who Li Po was as a person. There was a common theme of journeying away from home throughout his poetry: a result, perhaps, of his own travels away from his family. The other side of this theme, was of course thoughts about home, and specifically what it is that makes a place home. These were the poems I connected to the most throughout the whole collection, probably because they were more personal in nature.

The final poet in the collection is Tu Fu (Chinese name: Du Fu), and there are fewer poems by him than the others. He was probably also the poet I connected to the least out of all three, with his poems generally being much more formal and much less personal. Similarly to Li Po, there is a strong theme of journeying throughout his poems, but also much more about the historical period in which he was living. I may not have connected as well with his poetry, but I definitely learnt more about life in Tang Dynasty China from Tu Fu than from Li Po.

Ultimately, this collection is a nice, informative insight into the world of Tang Dynasty China. As I mentioned in the introduction of this review, I feel like I came away with a slightly better picture of the literature of China and what life was like during the Tang Dynasty. As someone who had very little knowledge of this historical period, it was quite hard to engage emotionally with the poetry at first, and I think I definitely benefitted from having friends to talk to who could fill me in on more of the historical context. As with many of the Penguin Little Black Classics, I would definitely recommend this, even if you are just a little interested: none of them take very long to read and this one, in particular, is helpful in developing understanding of literature from a culture very different to the UK.

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