Qu Yuan (340—270 B.C.), whose real first name was Ping (Yuan was his courtesy name. He once called himself Zhengze with a courtesy name as Lingjun), is remembered as a patriotic poet in ancient China. He was born to an aristocratic family which belonged to the same clan of the King of the State of Chu. As a court minister, Qu Yuan attempted to persuade the king to promote the talented and to govern with laws and regulations in purpose of achieving “perfect ruling”. He also wished that the State of Chu could, through political reforms, become an sovereign and affluent power, capable of reunifying the war-torn China. However, the kings of Chu fell for the influence of some corrupt and jealous court officials who slandered Qu Yuan and banished him as a result. Upon hearing the news that the capital of Chu was captured by the State of Qin, Qu Yuan ended his life in frustration by leaping into the Miluo River. Qu Yuan’s unswerving spirit of fortitude and patriotism shined through his entire life and was embodied in his literary works. Li Sao, his key poetic work, is the first existing long lyric poem in the history of Chinese literature and a masterpiece of Romanticism. In this first-person narrative poem, he successfully created the image of a chaste and lofty gentleman by using himself as the prototype. Loaded with Romantic ideas, Li Sao was compiled into an anthology of poetry called Chu Ci (or Odes of Chu), which marks the fountainhead of the Romantic strain of Chinese literature. Li Sao was also made comparable with the major collection of Chinese poems, Shi Jing (The Book of Songs). Other works of Qu Yuan include Jiu Ge (Eleven Odes), a collection of surrealistic lyric poems adapted from ritual songs of the State of Chu. His Jiu Zhang (Nine Elegies) faithfully records his life in exile and expresses his intense political frustration and patriotic emotions. In Tian Wen (The Riddle), he bombards with 170 questions throughout the poem, presenting his extensive learning and inquisitive spirit. As one of the earliest great poets in Chinese literature, Qu Yuan marked a turning point from poetry as collective chanting to independent composition.
Li Bai (also known as Li Po, 701—762) was renowned as the greatest romantic poet in ancient China. His courtesy name was Taibai and was born in Suiye in Central Asia. His ancestral home was located at Chengji, Longxi (present-day Tianshui, Gansu Province), but when he was five, he moved with his father to Qinglian town, in Changming, Mianzhou (now Jiangyou, Sichuan Province). Except for the three years he served for the Hanli Academy and Prince Yong, he spent most of his life traveling extensively. His philosophy incorporated the features of Confucianism, Taoism as well as the virtues of chivalry. The Confucian notion of “making the whole world virtuous” was the foundation of his ambitions and optimism. One of the themes of his poetry is his political ambition of providing aid to the common people and bringing peace and stability to the country. In one of his poems, he assimilated himself to a soaring roc to express his lofty ambition and used historical allusions to suggest his own aspirations. When he was frustrated by the unfulfilment of his political ambitions, the Taoist loftiness and retreat in him prevailed and his poems affected a wild and free persona. On the other hand, he adored the bold and unconstrained mien of ancient errant knights, who would sacrifice their lives for righteousness and never brag about their exploits. Furthermore, he was an iconoclast against feudal principles and etiquettes. Seeking retirement from fame and fortune, the political standard he lived up to in his life, is nothing more than the embodiment of the spirits of Confucianism, Taoism and chivalry. Li Bai’s poetry, in general, is characterized by its unconventional spirit and highly personalized imagery. His employment of hyperboles, imageries and allusions is bold, creating exquisite pieces that fully utilize the elements of language. More than 900 poems of Li Bai survived and were compiled in the Anthology of Li Taibai. Thanks to the efforts of Li Bai, the “Poet Immortal”, the Chinese tradition of Romanticism reached another zenith from Qu Yuan.
Du Fu (712—770), whose courtesy name was Zimei, was born at Gong County, Henan. His ancestral home town was located in Xiangyang (now Xiangyang, Hubei Province). Revered as the “Poet Historian”, he composed poems which extensively and profoundly reflected the social conflicts and historical events of his time. His awareness of the devastation of the country and the suffering of the common people is the theme of most of his poems, which reached an unprecedented height in portraying real life and political issues. The realistic motif of Du Fu’s poems is presented by the following aspects: the timely depiction of historical events and major social conflicts and reproach to the ruling class for the calamity they brought to the country and the people; sympathy toward the suffering of the common people; deep concern about the fate of his country which was in constant unrest. Du Fu was an expert in epitomizing the typical elements of real life and infusing personal emotions and criticism into the portrayal of realities. His poems are notable for their range and depth, but they do not lack delicateness due to the poet’s careful observations. Du Fu was also good at mingling emotions with settings in his poems. “Gloom and density” is the most prominent feature of Du Fu’s poetry. This style is attributed to the hard time Du Fu was in, his drifting experiences, his melancholy personality and his worship of the grandeur and the grim. Du Fu inherited the spirit of “spontaneity over reality” tradition dating back from the folk lyrics of the Han Dynasty and pushed the realistic strain of ancient Chinese poetry to a new height. Du Fu’s style is complementary to that of Li Bai’s and they are often made comparable in significance in the history of Chinese poetry. Also revered as the “Poet Sage”, Du Fu left some 1 400 poems, which have been collected in the Anthology of Du Gongbu.
Zhu Xi (1130—1200), whose courtesy name was Zhonghui and literary name Hui’an, was born in Wuyuan, Huizhou (now part of Jiangxi Province) in the Southern Song Dynasty. As one of the most significant philosophers of the Neo-Confucian school in the Song and the Ming dynasties, he held that the universe has two aspects: the formless and the formed. The formless, or li, is a principle or a network of principles that is supreme natural law and that determines the patterns of all created things. This law combines with the material force or energy called qi to produce matter, or things having form. Li is never separable from qi: there is no li without qi and no qi without li. Based on this theory, Zhu Xi believed that “it is the interaction between li and qi that human beings are created.” In human beings, li (manifested as human nature) is essentially perfect, and defects, including vices, are introduced into the body and mind through impurities of qi. Thus in reality the human nature embodies the conflicts between “Heaven’s laws” and “human desires”, and they can never coexist. Therefore, to preserve Heaven’s laws and eliminate human desires becomes the core of Zhu Xi’s ethical thoughts. Zhu Xi’s concept of li actually echoes the Confucian ethical and moral principles. To preserve “Heaven’s laws” means to preserve the hierachical system and established moral values. To eliminate “human desires”, on the other hand, is to eliminate the cravings against the feudal hierachical system and moral values. In this way, Zhu Xi seemed to justify feudalism by channeling humanism into ethics and strengthened the traditional Confucian values. Zhu Xi’s idea of putting ethical principles over physical desires bears some features of rationalism, but it also has a negative side of suppressing individuality.