Poems and Music in the Song and Tang Dynasties


The Tang (618-906) and Song (960-1279) dynasties were veryfundamental durations in explaining the revolutions that occurred inthe Chinese society. This period is however the least studied. Thesongs and poems that were written and performed in this period wereuseful in shaping both the belief system and the cultural practicesof the Chinese. The Tang and the Song dynasties are considered as thegolden ages of the classical literature of China, especially poetry.Poets like Li Bo, Du Fu, and Su Shi are some of the poets of thisduration who are well known in all of East Asia. These poets stillremain the revered models for the generations that followed. Therewas however a clear distinction between the literary orientations ofthe Tang and Song poets, suggesting the disparities between the Tangand the Song societies. China was open to the world during the Tangperiod and accepted new and foreign ideas. In the Song period,however, China was relatively a closed society that ended up becomingreflective and philosophical. In order to further understand thesedisparities and how they arrived, it is important to examine theadvancements of songs and poems from Tang dynasty to Song dynasty.

Tang Dynasty

This is the period between 618 and 906 A.D. The poets during thisperiod concerned themselves with border adventures, welcomed foreignelements, and celebrated natural feelings. Tang is considered to bethe most successful dynasty in the entire history of China. It wasable to expand its territory to Central Asia (Asian Education, 2015).Through the Silk Road, the dynasty was able to actively exchangemerchandises and culture with other societies. As a result of this,the people of Tang became open to the outside world. Within thiscontext, the poets and singers in Tang occupied themselves with thejoys of faraway exploits and the appeal of foreign things, sometimeseven forgetting about the issues of their everyday life (Chey, 2010).

The Song Dynasty

After the division in the Tang-Song transition period, the Songdynasty was weaker. The dynasty was threatened by the nomads at theirborders. It also lacked the political ambitions of the Tang andtherefore the people of the Song looked more inward (Asian Education,2015). They concerned themselves with the things of the world closeto them, discerning and scientifically analyzing them. The Song poetsand musicians were much into philosophical thinking in the basis oftheir habits of closely observing things. This they did byappreciating the details of their everyday lives more.

Apart from the difference in the content of the poems and songs,there were also some structural differences in the poems and songsused during Tang and Song dynasties (Asian Education, 2015).

The Chinese Poetry

Songs and poems in China are cannot be easily separated from eachother since they are closely intertwined. The Chinese poems arebasically lyrics. They strictly follow the number of words per lineand also the rhyming and intonation of the words (Theobald, 2000).

Tang Poetry

After the Zhou dynasty ended, the poetry of China continued in itsdevelopment over a long period of about 800 years. By the time of theTang dynasty, it had come to its full maturity. A compilation in ofthe poems during the reign of Kangxi in the Qing dynasty revealedthat there were almost 50,000 Tang poems composed by more than 2200authors (Chey, 2010). Classical Tang poetry reveals two distinctcategories, one with five words per line and the other with sevenwords per line. These categories are further classified into twopatterns. One pattern is restricted to four lines per poem while theother is restricted to eight lines. Strict rules also existed thatgoverned the rhyming and intonation of words (Benn, 2004). An exampleis a line with seven words that had to have the second, fourth andsixth words sharing a certain intonation (Theobald, 2000).

Since Chinese words are monosyllabic, their poems had to be made tosuit the words. When translated into other languages, the poems losemost of their beauty (Theobald, 2000). One example is the poem thatZhang Ji who was a Tang dynasty poet wrote when depressed fromfailing the imperial exam. As he was on his way home, he had to moorhis boat on the side of the Maple Bridge for the night. Because ofthe resulting insomnia, he wrote:

The free translation of the poem makes it loose much of its beauty:

The cackling of crows pierces the moonless night,

As frost fills the sky,

Sorrow deprives me of my sleep,

While I gaze at the fishing lamps

By the Maple Bridge,

Far away outside Gusu City,

The tolling of the Hanshan Temple bell reaches my boat,

In the still of the night. (Chey, 2010)

In an attempt to keep its style as it is being translated, this poemhas been translated by many intellectual and literary Chinese, butthe perfection is not possible to reach. As the authors struggled toconform to the requirements of rhyming, intonation and word count ina work, the poems from China are very short and sweet (Travel ChinaGuide, 2015). The intense economy of words often makes the meaningunclear. Considering the case of Zhang Ji’s poem, the words jiangand feng have been interpreted as either riverside maples orriverside village. In his meaning however, Ji was referring to twodifferent bridges, the Jiang (River) Bridge and the Feng (Maple)Bridge. The title of the poem is in fact Night Mooring at FengBridge (Chey, 2010).

Apart from the more inflexible forms, there were two more liberaltypes of poetry in the Tang dynasty namely the “old poetry” and“new musical house” (Chey, 2010). The genres were narrative innature and could be of any length. The lines also could have varyingword counts. As a result, the styles are flowing and refreshing.These had themes that were majorly about specific events or peopleand were often sad (Benn, 2004). Some criticized theanti-establishment like the famous Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi writtenabout one grey haired palace maid who was selected as one of the 3000royal concubines and entered the palace when she was 16. The lady wasstill dwelling in the secluded quarters when she was 60 and had nevercome face to face with the emperor (Chey, 2010).

The most outstanding poets in Tang dynasty were Li Bai and Du Fu. LiBai (The God of Poetry) was drunk most of the times but his workswere the best, with skillful and intoxicated states. As he tried tocatch the moon in a lake one night, he drowned. Du Fu (Saint ofPoetry) lived a life of poverty and kept shifting places as a resultof war. In contrast to Li’s poems, his were often sad (Theobald,2000).

The Song Poetry

In the Song dynasty, poetry was still intertwined with music(Cultural China, 2011). As the Tang dynasty approached its end,another type of poetry started to develop. The poem was called ci,also referred to as verse. This verse continued to mature during theFive Dynasties period and became ripe in the Song dynasty (Benn,2004). This form of poetry was very restrictive. In this form, a poemhad at least 150 patterns to specify its length, the number of wordseach phrase had, and the rhyming and intonation of the wordsrequired. Each of the patterns had colorful names. One had to firstchoose which pattern to use (Theobald, 2000). The ci providedthe blank spaces for the authors to fill in with words. It is arguedthat ci was the highest form of Chinese poetry. Song scholarswho gained popularity for their ci include Su Dongpo, ZhouBangyan, Li Yu, and Li Qingzhao (Chey, 2010).

During both the Tang and Song dynasties, the songs and poems wereintermingled and poems took prominence, drowning songs completely.However, during the Yuan dynasty, these poems progressed into “…puremusical lyrics” (Chey, 2010). During this period, many songs werecomposed for entertainment in theatres and “greenhouses” (Chey,2010).


Poems, intermixed with songs underwent great changes during the Tangand the Song dynasties. These changes were very fundamental indefining the direction of Chinese literature. Poetry was used inreligion, politics and other life’s avenues. The Song dynasty haddifferent poems from Tang period both in structure and in content.However, it can be said that poetry in the Song dynasty was only anadvancement of what had already started in the Tang dynasty.


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Asian Education. (2015). The Flourishing of Poetry in the Tang(618-906) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties. Retrieved from:http://education.asianart.org/explore-resources/background-information/flourishing-poetry-tang-618-906-and-song-960-1279-dynasties

Charles Benn. (2004). China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in theTang Dynasty. Oxford University Press.

Chey, O. S. (2010).&nbspChina Condensed: 5,000 Years of History &ampCulture. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) PtdLtd.

Cultural China. (2011). Poetry of the Song Dynasty. Retrieved from:http://www.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/html/en/39History526.html

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Li, Y. (2006).&nbspThe music of China`s ethnic minorities.Beijing: China Intercontinental Press.Bottomof Form

Travel China Guide. (2015). Chinese Poetry: Tang Poetry &amp Poets.Retrieved from:http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/literature/classical2.htm

Ulrich Theobald. (2000). Chinese History: Song Dynasty literature,thought and philosophy. China knowledge. Retrieved From:http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Song/song-literature.html