In keeping with the country’s social norms, the poetry of imperial
China was exceptionally refined, musical and rule-governed. Proficiency
in the art was expected of the educated classes, moreover — to know the
better poems, and to compose their own offerings as occasion suggested.
Indeed, with its stress on ritual and custom, the literary past
permeated China so thoroughly that many commentators have seen poetry
as akin to religion, an attitude of mind or spirit that cleansed man’s
soul, gave an awareness of the mystery and beauty of the universe, and
evoked a feeling of tenderness and compassion for one’s fellow-men and
the humbler creatures of life.
That poetry was much narrower in emotional range, themes and styles
than its Indian and European counterparts, but it nevertheless combined
images used variously with aural harmonies and fluid, often allusively
The many popular translations of the great Tang poets may give the
impression that they were all sages tippling at their wine and seeing
off friends on long, heart-breaking journeys. In fact, Chinese poems
are a good deal more varied, and are commonly grouped under these
themes: love and courtship, the beautiful woman, the abandoned woman,
eulogy and admonition, hardship and injustice, the wandering man,
landscape, farming and reclusion, an imagined journey to the Celestial
World, shamanist and Buddhist depiction of things, and remembrances.
The translations can be downloaded from here as a free ebook.