Since the beginning of time, man has sought to explain the world around him. This is called philosophy, a Greek word which means “love of wisdom.” However, over the millennia it has come to mean much more. The philosophies of the ancient Chinese people, whether they explain nature or present ways to live a just life, became so complex that simple prose could not suitably express their meaning. Yet paradoxically, the simpler, less exact form of poetry does put forth the ideas. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the literature pertaining to the two major schools of ancient Chinese thought; Taoism and Confucianism. Poets such as Tu Fu and Po Ch-i expressed the ideas of Taoism and Confucianism, respectively, while their fellow poet Tao Chien expressed both, through their poetry.
Confucianism is based on the ideas of Confucius, the man who gave the school of thought its name. The main goal of Confucianists was to return a gentlemanly society to China. The core of Confucianism concerned social structure. Confucius taught that a man should respect and obey those of higher rank than himself, whether they be the father of a family, or the emperor of a nation. But even with absolute obedience, Confucianists believed that men should practice restraint and benevolence in those inferior to them. At the same time, those in high status were expected to lead virtuous lives, and to set examples for those that followed them. Confucianists believed that the moral code of man was set down by heaven, and if those in positions of authority did not set good examples, then they would deposed by the forces of heaven.
One of the first great Chinese poets to write of Confucianism was Tao Chien. Tao Chiens poem Substance, Shadow, and Spirit shows a comparison between Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and the views on life and death of each. A clear example of Confucian beliefs can be taken from this poem. He states, “Let us strive and labor while yet we may / To do some deed that men will praise.” This clearly demonstrates the fact that Confucianists do not believe in reincarnation. Also, in his Poem on Returning to Dwell in the Country, Tao Chien writes, “In the same world men lead different lives; / Some at the court, some in the marketplace.” These lines illustrate that for every man there is a place in an organized Confucian society.
Taoism, along with Confucianism, is one of the most ancient ideas in Chinese philosophy. The first known Taoist master was the ancient figure Lao Tzu. Perplexed by Chinese politics in his day, Lao Tzu planned to leave Chinese society for the wilderness of western China. But, before he could do this, he was stopped by a man who asked him to write down all of his ideas and beliefs. The result was the Tao Te Ching, or the Book of the Virtue of the Way. The book set forth the basic ideas of Taoism; that is, following the Tao, or the Way. The main goal of Taoists was to live in harmony with the natural world around them, and to rid themselves of materialistic desires. The primary concern for Taoists like Lao Tzu was to understand the way of the world, and to use that knowledge for self-preservation.
One of the greatest poets in Chinese history to demonstrate Taoism in his poetry was Tu Fu. One example can be found in the poem that he Sent to Li Po as a Gift. At the end of the poem, he closes his message to Li Po this way, “Your days pass in emptiness, / Your nature is a spreading fire, / It is swift and strenuous. / But what does all this bravery amount to?” This shows a Taoist idea that man should not put too much effort into life, and should simply follow where fate leads. Tu Fu is telling his friend that he lives in simplicity, yet he lives in excess of those simple things; something that Taoist should not do. Loneliness is another poem where Tu Fu shows his Taoist beliefs. The eighth line reads, “The processes of nature resemble the business of men.” This shows that the Way of nature is ever present all through the universe, even in the business of man. This even goes back to Lao Tzu, who felt that one could use Taoism to rule a just and ordered government.
Centuries after Tao Chien wrote his poems on Confucianism, Po Ch-i added his take on the ancient philosophy. Unlike other Chinese poets, Po Ch-i was very realistic, and very direct; writing not about landscapes and mountain peaks, but about the normal experiences of life. For instance, Sick Leave, demonstrates Confucianism in that the speaker shows utter dedication to his position; enough to work himself to illness. The speaker, even after becoming sick from overwork, regrets that he cannot be working. Last Poem shows examples of Confucianist relationships. For instance, the speakers grandchildren read him a book; a task they do out of respect and love for their grandfather. Also, his servants show their respect to their master by heating his soup. Finally, the speaker shows his regard for the relationships with his friends by frantically replying to their letters.
Besides being open minded to the ideas of Confucianism and Buddhism, Tao Chien was also an ardent Taoist. His Taoist poetry about attaining tranquillity and serenity are at great contrast with the world around him, which was full of chaos and turmoil. In the final section of the poem Substance, Shadow, and Spirit he discusses the Taoist view, which is that one should not worry about death, but should “go where Fate leads Drift on the Stream of Infinite Flux” and “make as little fuss as you can,” when death finally comes. His Poem on Returning to Dwell in the County also shows Taoist ideas on simplicity, and following the way of nature. Passages such as “Long I have loved to stroll among the hills and marshes, / And take my pleasure roaming the woods and fields,” demonstrate the Taoist love for nature.
Poets such as Po Ch-i presented the ideas of in a form that better impacted the common man, and carried their ideas crystal clear to the intellectuals. His fellow poets, Tao Chien and Tu Fu presented images of nature so intense, that the reader could gain a sense of calm from reading their poems. These poems have passed the test of time, and have not weathered the slightest. The followers of these schools were gifted enough to state their beliefs in poetry so vivid that they still enlighten lovers of wisdom today.