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Li Bai (701-762) was a contemporary of Wang Wei who enjoyed favor from the imperial court for a brief period, but was soon dismissed for his unconventional behavior. Afterwards, he left home for a period of wandering. During the An Lushan rebellion, Li Bai sided with the rebels and was consequently arrested for treason; he was later pardoned, and died soon after. Li Bai’s poems were fantastical and frequently celebrated the joy of drinking. Common themes in his poems include friendship, solitude, the passage of time, and the joys of nature.

Wang Wei (701-761) was born during the height of the Tang dynasty, during which the capital, Chang’an, was wealthy, secure, and truly cosmopolitan. Born into one of the most distinguished families of the time period, he received a prestigious degree in the civil service examination and soon rose to a high position in office. Following the political upheaval of the An Lushan rebellion and the deaths of his wife and mother, Wang Wei became disillusioned toward the end of his life, turning to Buddhism and composing poems inspired by the local landscape.

Throughout Chinese history, water has served as a potent metaphor for a wide array of different meanings, particularly in the depiction of natural scenery as an expression of the author’s internal psychological state. As early as 11th to 7th century B.C.E., Chinese poets have used water as a medium for emotional self-expression and a symbol for desirable characteristics in The Classic Poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, the water motif has been frequently employed by some of the most famous poets, including Li Bai, Wang Wei, and Du Fu, and has been imparted with philosophical, emotional, and political meanings. 

Tang Dynasty portrait of Wang Wei
Handscroll with ink on paper,  National Palace Museum, Taipei. 

Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210), a Southern Song Dynasty Portrait of Li Bai

Du Fu (712-770) is considered by many literary critics to be the greatest Chinese poet of all time. Although he failed the civil service examination twice, he gained imperial favor through his writing. During the An Lushan rebellion, he found himself behind rebel lines when Chang’an was occupied, and experienced great personal hardship. His poetry celebrated the beauty of nature and lamented the passage of time, but later became critical of war and expressed compassion for humanity. He was an expert of all the poetic genres of his day, but was a master of lüshi, or “regulated verse,” in particular.

Portrait of Du Fu Hanging Scroll by ZHU Wenxin, Qing Dynasty, Wuxi Museum

Emotional expression through the depiction of water has been a central theme in many Tang Dynasty poems. In particular, water has been used as a metaphor for expressing feelings of loneliness, through which poets explore ideas such as social marginalization, the inevitability of fate, and the existence of the concept of self. In such cases, poets endow the water metaphor with a range of different philosophical meanings related to Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism and use it as a means to discuss the value and purpose of life. It has also been used by poets to describe the nostalgia following separation from family and friends, parting with one’s hometown, and the gradual passage of time. Finally, water has often served as a symbol representing poets’ political attitudes through which they explore thoughts about social mobility and ambition, political upheaval, and the differentiation between individual and societal values. Here, we analyze some of the works of three of the most famous Tang dynasty poets, Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, and their use of water as a metaphor to explore their political, cultural, and social contexts.

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