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December 12, 2010

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陈子昂 Chen zi'ang (AD 661-702) - Tang poetry's pioneer

CHEN Zi'ang was an innovative poet in the early years of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). He brought into being a new poetry style branded as "Tang poetry," which later attracted a large following in the history of Chinese poetry.

Chen was the son of a rich landlord in Sichuan in southwest China. But when he was young, Chen was not a diligent student. Instead of reading and reciting all the classics, he spent most of his time playing. As a result, he did not sit for the Imperial Examination and obtain his Jinshi (or Presented Scholar) degree until he was 24.

According to the legend, it was his encounter with a beggar that changed his life completely.

One day, when young Chen was wandering in the streets of the county town, he saw a beggar who looked unusual. He came forward and asked the beggar: "You look quite young and physically sound, why are you begging in the street?"

The beggar answered, "Sir, I was not born a beggar. I came from a very rich family, but one night a big fire burned down all our properties and turned all our wealth into ashes. So, now I'm a destitute man."

"But, you are still young. Can't you find a job?" asked Chen.

"To tell you the truth, when I had money to squander, I didn't think of learning any skills. I spent all my time playing around and indulged myself in hedonism. Now, I find out that I'm good for nothing. Begging is the only way for me to survive."

Chen was shocked by the beggar's story. That night, he could not sleep. He thought of the meanings of a person's life and determined to change his lifestyle and begin to pursue some noble goals.

After arriving in the capital, he first lived in oblivion. To gain some attention, he designed an expensive scheme.

One day, he paid an exorbitant price for a guqin, an ancient Chinese zither, in the market and bragged to curious onlookers that he was a guqin virtuoso and invited them to a party the next day when he would play the new instrument.

At the party, instead of performing guqin, Chen smashed the expensive musical instrument into pieces and proclaimed that he was actually a writer and poet. He handed out copies of his poetry, including Ganyu (Reflection on Experiences), a collection of 38 poems.

Chen was dissatisfied with the poetry style at the time, so he created a new style which was later deemed as characteristically "Tang." Chen chose a lapidary and prosaic style and advocated the principle of poetry reflecting real life.

So, when he served as an advisor to the Empress Wu Zetian, Chen often commented on politics and criticized the widespread corruption. As a result, he was frequently persecuted and was sent to prison on several occasions.

One of Chen's most popular poems, entitled Song of Ascending Youzhou Tower, expresses his all-encompassing solitude. Even today, many educated Chinese speakers can recite these lines:

I do not see ancients before me,

Neither any one yet to come.

Thinking of the everlasting heaven and earth,

Alone and sad, tears streaming down my face.


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