A Fresh Dawn with New Poetic Styles: From the 19 Old Poems to Tao Yuanming

A Fresh Dawn with New Poetic Styles:  <em>From the 19 Old Poems to Tao Yuanming</em>

Ben Wang’s Special Course, Spring 2021


10 sessions (20 hours)
April 13 – June 15
Tuesday, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Tuition: $500 members / $540 non-members
(plus a $30 non-refundable registration fee)
*This class is taught in English.

The Nineteen Poems in Antiquated Style: Composed by anonymous poets during the Eastern/Latter Han dynasty (25-221 A.D.), the poems (along with the Ballad) brought in a new dawn in poetry and exerted immense influence on the start and popularity of the pentasyllabic poetry. These poems depict profound, but deceptively and seemingly simple and light, views of ordinary people through vivid and poignant images of the winding country lanes and flowing rivers, the shining moon and flying birds, telling subtly the poets’ preference of an inspired aloneness to a forlorn loneliness.

The poems uniquely contain a delicacy and poise widely imitated in the following centuries. The poems posed clearly as a break from the songs sung before, such as those in Book of Songs and Songs of the South, making a shift to fully display a new poetic vista. These nineteen songs mark the beginning of a poetic tradition, much treasured as some of China’s most lovely poetic works accessible to a large number of readers, aficionados of poetry and literature.

Cao Cao (155-220): One of the most colorful and controversial statesmen, militarists, and poets in the history of China, Cao Cao served as Grand Councilor and military Commander-in-Chief for Emperor Xian of the Han dynasty (25-220), who was, perversely, all but a puppet of Cao Cao. Urging his son Cao Pei (187-226) to found the Wei Kingdom of the Three Kingdoms Period (221-229), Cao was bestowed posthumously the title of King Wu (Military Glory) of the Wei. Cao Cao has been largely criticized by many Chinese Confucian historians as a traitorous vassal.

As a poet, however, Cao Cao’s work has been unanimously acclaimed for their grandeur and bravura, often marked by a touch of wistfulness reflecting the passage of time and the inevitable darkness that await in life in the end. His poems functioned most significantly as a literary cornerstone that bridged the quatrosyllabic poems of antiquity and the later pentasyllabic poems.  The following are selected lines from one of his finest and most representative quatrosyllabic poems, sung on the night before a fatal battle at the Red Cliff in 208 A.D.

Tao Yuanming (372-427): Also known as Tao Qian, Tao Yuanming, a native of Nanyang County of the Jiangxi province, is China’s greatest poet after Qu Yuan (343-278 BC) and before Li Bai (701-763). It’s no exaggeration to state that all poets after Tao Yuanming were more or less inspired by him in both spirit and style.

A peaceful, gentle, philosophical and pensive mood pervades Tao Yuanming’s poems: works that extol the joy and rewards of forsaking worldly desires and returning to Nature to lead an existence of simplicity and austerity with carefreeness and joie-de-vivre that fill the heart and mind of a poet who is liberated from materialism or any vain pursuit of pleasures of the flesh. (His outlook on life and poetry made him walk out on his official post to return to his native, humble country-home to be away from the Red Dust that was a cesspool of avarice, corruption and vanity.) Enlightened by the quintessence of the Dao and Buddhist views and teaching, Tao Yuanming’s life and works stress the significance of a spiritual serenity found in a Zen-inspired poet. (By BW)



Ben Wang: Senior Lecturer in Language and Humanities at China Institute, Co-Chair of Renwen Society of China Institute, retired Instructor of Chinese at the United Nations Language Program.  A published writer on classical Chinese poetry and others, Ben Wang is an award winning translator both from Chinese into English and vice versa; He taught Chinese and translation at Columbia University, New York University, Pace University and City University of New York between 1969 and 1991.

Ben Wang teaches and lectures on the Chinese language, calligraphy, and classical Chinese literature, including the Book of Songs, the Songs of the South; Han, Tang and Song poetry; Yuan and Ming poetic dramas; Story of the Stone of the Qing; classical Kunqu Drama and Beijing Opera; Literati Painting. Ben Wang’s lectures on and translations of Kunqu dramas have been reviewed and acclaimed three times in the New York Times by the Times’ music and drama critic James Oestreich as “magnificent,” “captivating,” and “colorful.”

Since 1989, Ben Wang has lectured (extensively on the above-mentioned subjects)at Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard, Williams, U.C. Berkeley, New York University, Bates, Colby, Hamilton, Middlebury, Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. Mary’s College in California, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, ABC Nightline, the BBC, among other academic and cultural institutions.

Latest publications in English:

  1. Forlorn in the Rain: Translation and Annotation of Selected Classical Chinese Poetry and Others; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: Oct. 2018
  1. A series of 4 books on the Forbidden City in Beijing, China:
    1. We All Live in the Forbidden City
    2. This Is the Greatest Place!
    3. Bowls of Happiness
    4. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?

    (Published by China Institute and Released by Tuttle Publishing; 2014, 2015, the series has garnered 9 US book awards, as of September 2016.)

  1. Laughter and Tears: Libretti from Highlight Scenes of 26 Classical Poetic Kunqu Dramas; Published by Foreign Languages Publishing Bureau, Beijing, China: 2009.

(January 2019)

6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
Instructor: Ben Wang