Chen Ziang helped to instill in early Tang dynasty poetry the need for meaningful content. The past as perfect and the present as flawed were important themes in his poetry.
The influence that Chen Ziang exerted in the development of early Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) poetry is remarkable because he took it from the fashionable concern for ornate style and imbued it with the need for meaningful content. Being a scholar-official, he served the royal court in various capacities while exerting great influence with his writing, both poetry and prose. His entire life was spent serving Empress Wu, the first and only emperor in name of China.
Chen drew his inspiration from the past and looked to the aesthetics of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) to inform and guide his own literary production. Thus, his idea of change was peculiar in that it involved not the invention of new modes of artistic endeavor but rather the restoration of what had existed before and what he felt had slowly been eroded and squandered by the pursuit of an excessively ornamental style in his own day. During the Wei and Han periods he found writing to be concerned with its proper subject: content. He wished to see literature involved not as a means of entertainment but rather as a didactic tool to better the individual and society. Chen’s desire to establish once again ancient modes of literary expression stemmed from his own Confucian ideas that favored simplicity over vain linguistic bedazzlements, shortcomings that he ascribed to courtly decadence. Thus, he promoted the recovering of ancient wisdom that may become a guide for the present. Such an outlook made Chen into an important literary theorist whose concepts would, in time, come to be highly influential on the writers of the later Tang period who adopted his ideal of simplicity and economy of expression over impressive yet meaningless ornamentation.
Some scholars feel that Chen used his poetry to write cryptic attacks on the rule of Empress Wu, especially his noted collection of thirty-eight poems known as the Ganyu. However, it is difficult to imagine that Chen would cast his words in such an arcane fashion because that would defeat his own aesthetic of gaining a mode of expression entirely free of artificial contrivances. Rather, it is more fruitful to view Chen as a thinker concerned with intellectual reforms that would in turn influence the way society functioned and governed itself, which would also be in keeping with his Confucian ideals, which advocated a concern for the here-and-now rather than the hereafter.
The past as perfect and the present as flawed became important themes in the prose and poetry of Chen. Because he cast the past as idealized history, the imitation of which will liberate the present, he sought examples that would serve this end. And yet his approach was never heavy-handed because he also recognized that his aesthetic may well have been futile in that the past forever remains elusive and cannot be fully recovered. In a famous poem, “Song on Ascending the Tower at Yu-chou,” Chen describes this dilemma by stating that the past lies before him in that the ancients are his guides, and the future is behind him in that it consists of people yet unborn and therefore unknown. Yet, he is able to see neither the ancients nor the generations yet to come. This realization leads him to a curious existential sadness.
Chen supposedly died in prison, where he had been sent because of his open criticisms of the government. However, his death is a source of contention, and the truth of his last days is unclear.
Source: Dass, Nirmal. (2009). CHEN Ziang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 314–315. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
CHEN Ziang (Chén Z?’áng ???)|Chén Z?’áng ??? (CHEN Ziang)