Statesman Tao Qian Becomes Farmer and Daoist Poet

The most famous pre-Tang Chinese poet, Tao Qian, gave up official government work in favor of an impoverished life as a farmer and poet during the Eastern Jin Dynasty.

Summary of Event

In 365 c.e., Tao Qian (Tao Yuanming; T’ao Yüan-ming) was born in Xinyang (Hsin-yang) in what is now Henan Province. Although some of his ancestors held high government posts, his family had become impoverished minor aristocrats by the time he was born. Nevertheless, from childhood, Tao Qian was well read and classically educated, with an interest in poetry. Tao Qian

Following the Confucian tradition of service and duty to the sovereign, family, and country, in 393 c.e., Tao Qian started a career in government. He also needed to provide financial support for his family and an elderly parent. He soon resigned, and his first wife died. He remarried and by 402 had four sons with his second wife. For a decade, he worked in various local government positions such as district magistrate and secretary to generals. In the winter of 401, his mother died, and Tao resigned from an official government post. He went into mourning and seclusion for two years and later attained another position. However, he was discouraged and disappointed in each of these government positions and each time resigned and returned home after working a short period of time. He also refused numerous governmental offers. This period in medieval China was a time of social upheaval and political corruption, including civil war, peasant revolts, assassinations, and palace revolutions.

Finally, in 405 c.e. Tao was appointed prefect but resigned after eighty days; this was his last official post. Although his family was destitute, he felt a sense of relief on leaving office and returning home to stay. He expressed this in his essay, “Homeward Ho” (as translated by Tan Shilin):

Homeward ho! Let me cut off all social ties! Since worldly wisdom disagrees with me, why seek the society of men? . . . To free myself from cares, on books and the zither I rely. . . . I glory in the timely blessing Nature bestows upon all creation, yet bemoan the numbered days of this my transient life.

This was the major turning point in his life. Because of the troubled times, Tao was unable to realize the Confucian ideal of a scholar pursuing high rank in public life. Unwilling to continue compromising his principles, Tao chose a life of poverty and hardship as a reclusive farmer. He did not value fame or fortune, and his choice represented a complete break with conventional practice.

Thus, in the remaining twenty-two years of his life, Tao turned to Daoism to help him attain inner peace and spiritual freedom. Many of his poems reflect a Daoist philosophy and naturalist perception of life. The ancient Daoists believed that rural work was humankind’s natural occupation. His “pastoral poetry” praised the solitary life and the joys of nature and simple living. His writings reflect a harmony of Confucian and Daoist sentiments, but they also relate inner conflict and struggle. Tao’s writing style was plain and unadorned but at the same time emotional and often deeply philosophical. In poems such as “The Hibiscus” and “The Body, Shadow, and Soul,” he reflected seriously on his life.

There were crises and difficulties such as a fire in which Tao lost everything, crop failures, and near-starvation. For example, in the poem, “Awareness,” he describes his growing hunger and weakness after a blighted crop. In another poem, “Fire in the Sixth Lunar Month of the Year Wu-Shen,” he describes a tragic fire:

My straw-hut was nestled in a narrow lane,
I lived in its sweet seclusion.
The wind blew strong at midsummer,
House and garden disappeared in flames.
Not a single room was spared;
The boat lay moored by the shady gate.

Two of his most well-known prose works are “Peach Blossom Spring” and the biographical sketch of “The Man of Five Willows.” “Peach Blossom Spring,” a prose narrative followed by a poem, is set during the reign of Xiao Wudi (r. 372-396 c.e.) of the Eastern Jin. The story is about a lost fisherman, who follows a stream along a peach orchard and accidentally discovers a hidden land. In this land lives a society of happy people, whose ancestors escaped from tyranny to this beautiful, hidden utopia. Here, people live and work together harmoniously, and there is no war, hatred, oppression, or even taxes. When the fisherman leaves and finds his way home, he tells others about his experience in this paradise. Although many go searching for this place, no one can ever find this utopia again.

In the autobiographical story of “The Man of Five-Willows,” Tao portrays his main characters as a man who has leisure or idleness in his heart (as translated by Roland C. Fang).

Tranquil and spare of speech, he covets neither fame nor profit. . . . Four bare walls enclose his rooms; the wind and sun find free access through the roof and the chinks. His clothes are ragged, his dishes usually empty. But he takes it perfectly at ease. Sometimes he writes to amuse himself, to express what is in his mind. He cares little for worldly gain or loss. It is thus he passes his allotted span on earth.

Finally, “A Lamentation Upon My Own Death,” written in the year of his death, shows the rich imagery, wisdom, honesty, and sincerity typical of his works (as translated by Fang).

When spring and autumn came round
I labored in the fields.
I plowed and sowed, and watched
the growth of the grain.
Happy was I in reading the books,
and in playing on the seven-strings.
I basked myself in the winter sun,
and cleaned my feet in summer streams.
Though my toils so taxed my strength,
my light heart often gave me leisure.
I would gladly resign myself to Heaven’s will
and live my mortal days in contentment.


Tao Qian remains one of the greatest and most respected Chinese writers. His poetry influenced the famous Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai (Li Po), Du Fu (Tu Fu), and Wang Wei. Song Dynasty poets Su Dongpo (Su T’ung-po) and Lu You (Lu Yu) also admired Tao Qian’s writings. More than 120 of Tao Qian’s works have survived. He was a pastoral poet and one of the first nature poets, writing about country life, drinking, and nature, but he was also a philosophical poet, reflecting on his life and spiritual values. His self-doubt, questioning, and anxiety expressed a modern consciousness, and he is considered the first great modern poet of China. His “Peach Blossom Spring” is the Chinese Shangri-la, and has become the classic poetic expression of the search for utopia.

According to translator David Hinton, Tao was the “first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” Subsequent generations of poets have found inspiration in his writings, and Tao’s appeal and popularity have continued through the centuries.

Further Reading

  • Kwong, Charles Yim-tze. Tao Qian and the Chinese Poetic Tradition: The Quest for Cultural Identity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1994. Interprets the poetry and poet within historical and cultural contexts. Includes detailed notes, bibliography, and a glossary.
  • Tao Qian. The Complete Works of Tao Yuanming. Translated and annotated by Tan Shilin. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1992. Includes Tao Qian’s poems in Chinese, as well as helpful biographical information and extensive annotations.
  • Tao Qian. Gleanings from Tao Yuan-ming. Translated by Roland C. Fang. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1980. This book includes a biographical sketch of the poet by Prince Xiao Dong (Hsiao Tung; 527 c.e.) and the poems in their full Chinese versions.
  • Tao Qian. The Poetry of T’ao Ch’ien. Translated by James Hightower. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1970. This is a translation of all of the poet’s surviving poetry, with extensive commentary, annotations, and background information useful for the Western reader.
  • Tao Qian. The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien. Translated by David Hinton. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 1993. A translation of selected poems of Tao Qian. Includes biography and notes.s
  • Tao Qian. T’ao Yüan-ming, a.d. 365-427: His Works and Their Meaning. 2 vols. Translated by A. R. Davis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. The two volumes include poems in Chinese, as well as the English translation, with extensive commentary and notes.

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