Nirmal DASS

Wen Tingyun, a Tang dynasty lyric poet whose themes were unconventional for his time—and whose verses and songs were often critical of court officials.

Wen Tingyun was a lyric poet during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) whose innovations had a wide-ranging influence on Chinese poetry, especially during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

As with most things concerning the life of the poet Wen Tingyun, it is difficult to say exactly where he was born. Some scholars say he was a native of Taiyuan, in Shanxi. Others state that he was likely born in the Yangzi area. But there is little doubt that he was among the first to master the ci form, verses set to specific and well-known tunes and melodies. His poems are often concerned with themes unconventional for their time, such as anger, sexuality, and hatred. He also excelled in singing and playing the flute.

Wen was born into a family of minor court officials. He sought to become a scholar-official but to little avail, as he could never pass the civil service examinations. Many accounts attribute this failure to his self-indulgent life. One requirement of a scholar-official was high moral integrity; another, literary talent. Perhaps embittered, he began to criticize many of the court officials in his verses and songs. Even those who sought to help him were subject to his attacks.

After failing the examinations Wen set about to find a rich patron. But his attempts proved fruitless since there were not many powerful people whom he had not offended. Around 839 he was likely married and then had two children, a son named Wen Xian and a daughter. No further details about his family life are known. For the next ten years, he sought again and again to achieve a position at court, failing each time.

In 855 Wen was finally given a post far from the capital. Perhaps this was an effort to remove him from the inner circle of the court in a kindly fashion. Despite his slanderous and unpopular actions, and perhaps because of them, he was a highly recognized public figure, and his poems and songs were widely read.

In 863 he had made his way back to the capital of Yangzhou, where he had hopes of being granted a more worthwhile position. But that was not to be, and he continued in his old ways. Before long, he was severely beaten by a soldier because he had violated a curfew. He lodged a complaint, but the soldier’s actions were upheld.

This incident infuriated Wen further, and he continued to attack in verse the various officials he deemed responsible for his humiliation. The result was that he was exiled once again. He would never return to Yangzhou. It is likely that he died in exile sometime after 866.

In Chinese literary tradition, Wen’s poetry has been neglected because of his moral failings. Many are the anecdotes that relate his exploits in brothels. But such an approach is unfair to Wen’s rather prodigious talent. Although his verses appear deceptively simple, their primary concern is the exploration of those emotions that hover around the individual in his or her interaction with the world, and with those who love him or her. Thus Wen seeks to find a balance between pleasure and the emotional cost of winning such enjoyment. This allows him to delve into those very things that mark and underscore life: love, suffering, pain, but also hope for better things to come.

The Poetry of Wen Tingyun


Blue tail-feathers and markings of gold
on a pair of mandarin ducks,

And tiny ripples of water stirring the blue
of a pond in spring;

Beside the pond there stands a crabapple

Its branches filled with pink after the

Her figured sleeve covers a dimpled smile

As a flying butterfly lights on the mistlike

Her window gives on all this loveliness—

And news so seldom comes from the
Jade Pass!

Source: Minford, J., & Lau, J. S. M.. (2000). An anthology of translations: Classical Chinese literature, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1119.

Further Reading

Chang Kang-i Sun. (1980). The evolution of Chinese Tz’u poetry: From late T’ang to northern Sung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1965). Poems of the late T’ang. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Mou Huaichuan. (2003). Rediscovering Wen Tingyun: A historical key to a poetic labyrinth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Rouzer, P. F. (1993). Writing another’s dream. The poetry of Wen Tingyun. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wagner, M. L. (1984). The lotus boat: The origins of Chinese Tz’u poetry in Tang popular culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). WEN Tingyun. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2437–2438. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

WEN Tingyun (W?n Tíngyùn ???)|W?n Tíngyùn ??? (WEN Tingyun)

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