The Light of Letters: Tang Poetry in a Barbarous World - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Light of Letters: Tang Poetry in a Barbarous World


Even after a lapse of more than 20 years, I can still see it in my mind’s eye: a Tang-era molded earthenware horse figurine, its head turned resolutely to the left, its back legs ever so slightly bent in an eternal posture of readiness. Treated with a polychrome sancai ceramic glaze imbued with copper and iron oxides, the horse’s saddle and tasseled harness have turned a mottled shade of green, its skin a swirl of amber and ivory. Streaks of dark brown glazing run down the horse’s muscular shoulders and flanks onto its forearms, thighs, stifles, gaskins, and hocks, giving the appearance of fresh trickles of blood. It is evidently a Ferghana horse, known to the ancient and medieval Chinese as hanxuema, the “blood-sweating horse,” and more reverentially as tianma, the “heavenly horse.” Attaining an almost mythological status, such horses were routinely praised in ritual hymns:

Bedewed with red sweat
That foams in an ochre stream,
Impatient of all restraint
And of abounding energy,
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and easy gait
Covers a thousand leagues.

Blessed with unparalleled speed, endurance, intelligence, and determination, these Central Asian steppe horses were ideally suited to the military needs of the Han and Tang dynasties, but their role extended far beyond the mortal realm. Emperor Wu of Han, who first secured access to the Ferghana herds through his conquest of the Western Regions, composed a hymn of his own in their honor:

The Heavenly Horses are coming;
Open the gates while there is time.
They will draw me up and carry me
To the Holy Mountain of Kunlun.
The Heavenly Horses have come.
And the Dragon will follow in their wake.
I shall reach the Gates of Heaven, I shall see the Palace of God.

Thus could Ferghana horses carry an emperor’s disembodied soul to the land of the immortals, concealed somewhere in the distant Kunlun Mountains, and when they were transmuted into mingqi, or entombed spirit objects, these blood-lathered equines could also serve the posthumous needs of their aristocratic owners, albeit in figurine form. No Tang sepulcher was complete without at least one Ferghana horse, to keep the dead company, or to convey them up to the Holy Mountain in style.

The particular heavenly horse I have in mind has gone on quite a journey of its own, beginning in an 8th-century burial chamber and ending not in the land of the immortals, with its soaring cliffs of jade and jasper, but rather in a dimly lit gallery in the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, located in the downtown Dallas Arts District, where I also found myself, having undertaken an internship there back in the summer of 2000. It was an ideal place for a budding young Sinophile with a penchant for classical Chinese poetry and guqin music to spend a few months, surrounded by jade brush washers, inlaid table screens, ivory carvings, lacquerware boxes, bronze Buddhas, silk scrolls, and folding screens, all gathered together in that tastefully chosen private collection, at the time still newly opened to the general public. Of all those works, however, it was the Tang horse that most commanded my attention. Standing in its presence was enough to be whisked away to the vast steppes west of Bukhara, from whence the Ferghana horses hailed, or to the blood-soaked battlefields of the War of the Heavenly Horses, where the Han dynasty and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Dayuan clashed over access to the priceless tianma herds. Standing in its presence was enough to be transported back to the Tang capital of Chang’an, with its resplendent Buddhist monasteries and Taoist shrines and Zoroastrian fire temples and Nestorian churches, its palaces and mansions, its crowded markets, its glittering ponds dotted with fairy islands, its polo grounds, its entertainment wards, its bathhouses, its harems, its Eunuch Agency, and its Inexhaustible Treasury — possibly the greatest assemblage of cultural wonders the world has ever known.

While I would gaze upon the Crow Collection’s caparisoned horse, I would invariably be reminded of the Tang poet Tu Fu, who for his part was inspired by a painted, rather than a sculpted, representation of a Ferghana horse, resulting in one of his finest works, “A Drawing of a Horse by General Cao at Secretary Wei Feng’s House.” That haunting poem, as translated by Witter Bynner, concludes:

I remember when the late Emperor came toward his Summer Palace,
The procession, in green-feathered rows, swept from the eastern sky –
Thirty thousand horses, prancing, galloping,
Fashioned, every one of them, like the horses in this picture…
But now the Imperial Ghost receives secret jade from the River God,
For the Emperor hunts crocodiles no longer by the streams.
Where you see his Great Gold Tomb, you may hear among the pines
A bird grieving in the wind that the Emperor’s horses are gone.

The emperor’s horses are long gone now, and indeed the Ferghana horses themselves have gone extinct, though some of their genes live on in the Akhal-Teke horses of Turkmenistan, renowned for their speed, hardiness, and the otherworldly metallic sheen of their iridescent coats. Chang’an would be repeatedly sacked during the An Lushan rebellion (755–763), the Huang Chao rebellion (874–884), and various conflicts with the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Sogdians, necessitating a relocation of the imperial capital to Luoyang. The Daminggong, the Palace of Great Illumination, was reduced to a “haunt of hares and foxes,” lamented Wei Chuang, and “all along the streets of heaven one treads on the bones of state officials.” Two-thirds of the Chinese population, by some estimates, were killed or displaced in those dreadful years, and nature soon reclaimed the abandoned capital city, prompting Tu Fu to write “Spring View,” which starts with arguably the most often recited lines in the history of Chinese poetry:





guó pò shānhé zài

chéng chūn cǎomù shēn

gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi

hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn





Our nation is ruined; the hills and rivers remain.
In spring, the city lies deep in weeds and trees.
Sensing the moment, flowers shed petals like tears.

Lonely birds sing of their grief.

Chang’an is now teeming modern Xi’an, where a few Tang-era monuments, like the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda, still mark the skyline. Yet most Tang artifacts that we have today survived because they were stored underground, in tombs filled with mingqi spirit objects — everyday utensils, arms and armor, and figurines of soldiers, servants, polo players, monsters, unicorns, zodiac animals, camels, and Ferghana horses.

However transfixed I was by the aesthetic charms and fascinating history of the Crow Collection’s earthenware horse, it was there and then that my somewhat ambivalent relationship with museums also began. The appeal of Tang figurines is undeniable — most every museum with an East Asian art gallery has one, and the art historian Gerald Reitlinger once quipped that “no Mayfair flat is complete without a T’ang camel” — but they are nevertheless burial goods, and under most circumstances we disapprove of grave robbery. Making matters worse, the soul, according to ancient Chinese philosophy, is sundered in twain at the moment of death, with the deceased person’s po, or animal soul, remaining behind with the body, while the hun, or spiritual soul, sets off in search of paradise. Mingqi, whether in the form of utilitarian and precious objects or ceramic representations of servants, horses, earth spirits, and tian wang heavenly guardians, were meant to accompany the po in perpetuity, thereby keeping the cosmos in harmony, the dearly departed’s twinned but estranged souls being comforted simultaneously on earth and in heaven. Appropriating mingqi through archaeological excavations, and then inserting them into the art market or the stream of commerce, seems like a particularly disrespectful sort of sacrilege, even if it results in a well-rounded museum collection. Should this mingqi, this spirit object, this vessel of ghosts, literally this 明器 or “luminous object” be in a sterile, climate-controlled, sensor-monitored display case, permanently divorced from its original context and its sacred raison d’être, or should it be in its rightful place, alongside its true owner’s po?


Où sont les neiges dantan?” “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” The medieval French poet François Villon’s melancholy question, posed in his “Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By,” has resounded through the ages, even as the annual snowfall melts away, the poet’s cold corpse molders in an unknown grave, and the material legacy of the Middle Ages is slowly ground down into dust by an unfeeling, benighted modernity. Villon’s immortal words, however, live on. The poets of China’s Middle Ages understood that the material world is fragile, perishable, vulnerable to decay and spoliation, even as their aristocratic contemporaries put their faith in tangible spirit objects. Li Shangyin, in his late Tang poem “The Memorial Inscription by Han Yu,” described the iconoclastic destruction of a massive stele bearing an inscription written by the philosopher Han Yu. To again borrow Witter Bynner’s translation:

The tablet was thirty feet high, the characters large as dippers;
It was set on a sacred tortoise, its columns flanked with dragons…
The phrases were strange with deep words that few could understand;
And jealousy entered and malice and reached the Emperor –
So that a rope a hundred feet long pulled the tablet down
And coarse sand and small stones ground away its face.
But literature endures, like the universal spirit,
And its breath becomes a part of the vitals of all men.
The Tang plate, the Confucian tripod, are eternal things,
Not because of their forms, but because of their inscriptions…

Helize van Vuuren provides a rather less fanciful translation:

The stone was thirty feet high, with words as big as bushels,
Carried by a sacred tortoise, with a hornless dragon coiling on top.
Then slander reached the Son of Heaven that it was biased.
A hundred-foot rope pulled the tablet down;
With rough gravel the words on the big stone were rubbed off.
But the Master’s writing, like the vital force of nature,
Had already penetrated into people’s hearts:
As with the mottoes on T’ang’s Basin and K’ung’s Tripod,
The objects are no longer there, but the words remain still.

Regardless of how one translates the poem, its meaning is readily understood. Words have a power of their own. Words can prove more perdurable than anything wrought from granite or limestone or terracotta. Words may be “handed down for seventy-two ages,” as Li Shangyin put it, while a stele might not last even one, and a mingqi object might be plundered, wrenched from one’s ghostly hands, and carried away to distant lands. Han Yu’s tablet is gone, the unknown entombed aristocrat has lost his Ferghana horse, but “The Memorial Inscription by Han Yu” is still with us.

Li Shangyin never obtained a position at court befitting his obvious talents, sidelined as he was by factional disputes with corrupt eunuchs. His poems, however, remain part of China’s, and the world’s, collective literary patrimony. Tu Fu spent much of his life a refugee amidst the An Lushan Rebellion and other bloody conflicts, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary tuberculosis every step of the way, and eventually dying aboard a ship plying the Yangtze River. Li Po’s death was also connected with the Yangtze, though in his case, at least so the legend goes, the poet drowned in a drunken attempt to embrace the moon reflected in the river’s water. “Li Po,” wrote the philosopher Lin Yutang in My Country and My People (1935),

is China’s prince of vagabond poets, with his drink, his dread of officialdom, his companionship with the moon, his love of high mountain scenery, and his constant aspiration: “Oh, could I but hold a celestial sword / And stab a whale across the seas!” Li Po’s romanticism ended finally in his death from reaching for the shadow of the moon in the water in a drunken fit and falling overboard. Good, infinitely good, that the staid and apparently unfeeling Chinese could sometimes reach for the shadow of the moon and die such a poetic death!

Bo Juyi and Wang Wei were also forced into exile. Li He, nicknamed the “Poet-Ghost,” was frail and sickly, dying tragically young like Chatterton or Keats, though not before a scarlet figure visited him on his deathbed, informing him that Shangdi, the Supreme Deity, had summoned him to compose poetry in heaven. Luo Binwang was imprisoned for his criticism of the empress consort Wu Zetian, and executed for his subsequent support of Li Jingye’s rebellion. Wang Bo killed one of his servants, and later drowned at sea. The poets of the Tang dynasty were an unfortunate lot, all in all, but they made their way to the land of the immortals not on Ferghana horses but on the inscribed and printed page, by dint of their words and how they used them, words that have survived wars, societal upheavals, and cultural revolutions, words that will last for 72 ages or more, accompanying us and comforting us like the mingqi, the luminous objects they are.


I have no interest whatsoever in collecting grave goods. I would rather listen to the voices of the dead than rob them of their few remaining possessions. Everywhere I go, therefore, I carry with me an ever-growing collection Tang poetry, including translations by Witter Bynner, John Frodsham, Shih Shun Liu, Angus Charles Graham, C.H Kwock, Vincent McHugh, David Hinton, and others. There is, after all, no end to the ways in which Chinese classical poems can be translated and re-translated, interpreted and re-interpreted, owing to the very nature of their literary creation. As the translator David Hinton observed in his treatise on Tu Fu’s poetry, Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (2019), Chinese classical poetry’s grammar “allows a remarkable openness and ambiguity that leaves a great deal unstated, leaves it as an absent presence. All words can function as any part of speech. Prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships between lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear. The distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made. Verbs are not uncommonly absent, and when present they have no tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague. And very often subjects and objects are absent, which creates the sense of individual identities blurred together into a space of shared consciousness.”

Take, for example, Tu Fu’s aforementioned poem “Spring View,” which opens with the characters for nation/broken/mountain/river/exist. I have rendered that line “Our nation is ruined; the hills and rivers remain.” Witter Bynner preferred “Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure,” William Hung translated it as “The nation is shattered. Only the landscape remains,” and Rewi Alley opted for “Even though a state is crushed, its hills and streams remain.” In English, the first character could be rendered abstractly as “a nation” or “the nation,” and more specifically as “my nation,” “our nation,” or “this nation.” The translator’s choice will affect the meaning considerably. We can be sure that Tu Fu had Tang China and beleaguered Chang’an in mind when he wrote “Spring View,” but the sentiments expressed can be applied to any nation fallen into wrack and ruin and moral decay. A great deal is going on with this first character, but we have 39 characters remaining in this one poem alone, each one ambiguous and in need of careful deciphering, and then there are some 1,500 more poems in Tu Fu’s extant corpus. It is tempting to view translating these deceptively simple compositions as a fool’s errand; thankfully, there are those who have taken on the challenge. The most recent attempt, and the latest addition to my collection, is surely one of the most successful: Wong May’s In the Same Light: 200 Poems for Our Century from the Migrants & Exiles of the Tang Dynasty, published late last year by The Song Cave press, and winner of the 2022 Windham Campbell Prize.

I can think of no one better suited to translating the works of Tu Fu, Li Po, Li He, Wang Wei, et al. than Wong May, whose mother, Wang Mei-Chuang, was a classical Chinese poet and professor of Chinese literature, and whose mentor, Pan Shou, was a literary figure dubbed “the Tu Fu of the Chinese diaspora.” Born in Chongqing, China, in 1944 and raised in Singapore, educated in the United States, employed as a Chinese teacher in France, and currently residing in Ireland, Wong May can certainly identify with the peregrinations of the Tang poets, observing in the marvelous afterword to her anthology that “when the world’s texts collide, across continents, on a translator’s desk, borders fall, time stands idle.” Poetry, for Wong May, is the means by which “one enters the world or the world enters you.” It serves a crucial civilizational function, for “poetry can proofread history,” as she persuasively argues. “It is what we are left with, in any civilization: poetry, if we be so lucky.”

Without the Tang poets and their later interpreters, we could never fully grasp the sheer horrors of the Tang dynasty’s collapse. Tu Fu, in his “Song of the Conscripts,” provides us with an image entirely absent from court chronicles, sculptures, and frescoes:

White bones washed up from old wars
Unclaimed by tides or men.
Plaintive, the new ghosts fret,
The old ghosts wail & screech
On a sunless day
In the dour rain,
They sound
Much like birds.

Without those poets, we would be deprived of first-person accounts of political persecution, like the one found in Luo Binwang’s “To the Cicadas.” Luo, writing in prison before his coming execution, worries not so much about his own impending death, but rather about the fate of the fragile cicada outside his cell:

The chilled dews of the night
Will batten
Your gauze wings, I fear
& fresh gales
Must make short shrift of
Your songs.
Who would believe in your high spirits?
— You pitched in and helped.
& who else
Could express my grief as well as you.

It was an age of warfare, internecine strife, and social collapse, an age of famine, plague and drought; the Tang poets, Wong May notes, “never saw the end of warfare. Chang’an looted & razed, blood sped readily down the Grand Canal … Charnel house within the city & ossuary outside the gate — of what was once the most populous, cosmopolitan city of culture & commerce in the world.” But it was also a time of literary flourishing and boundless creativity, a time when poetry was omnipresent, when love poems and nature poems could be used as barter in teahouses and taverns, and when poets wrote for themselves, their colleagues, their patrons, and posterity. In the end, Wong May concludes, “it was poetry against barbarism,” the “literacy of the heart” standing in opposition to a barbarous world. “In dark times, we read by the light of letters.”


Emperor Wu of Han dreamt of heavenly horses, much like the sancai-glazed figurine in the Crow Collection, that would carry his soul through the Gates of Heaven and into the Palace of God. A beautiful vision, but a fleeting one. As the emperor grew older, and as his regime was threatened with peasant uprisings and succession struggles, his dreams grew ever more troubled. One night, in the year 96 bc, Wu awoke in a cold sweat after a nightmare in which he had been set upon by small, stick-wielding puppets. He began to experience waking hallucinations of shadowy assassins lurking in the corridors of Chang’an’s Jianzhang Palace. Paranoia set in, and Wu initiated a series of witch-hunts that claimed the lives of countless court officials and their clans. The famed historian Sima Qian was accused of lèsemajesté and castrated. The emperor’s consort, Wei, committed suicide, and their son, the Crown Prince Ju, likewise hung himself in a peasant’s hovel. Wu’s vast empire inevitably descended into chaos and street fighting.

The Gates of Heaven must have seemed increasingly unattainable, and Emperor Wu put his hopes not in the afterlife but in perpetual earthly life. While passing death sentences on those accused of witchery, he assembled court magicians to craft divine immortality pills. He erected a giant bronze statue of an immortal atop the Shen-ming tower, which held aloft a bowl to collect the morning dew, “reaching beyond the vile, clogging dust of the world to obtain the limpid elixir of the pure, translucent ether.” The water was then mixed with powdered jade, and imbibed in the hopes of eternal life by an increasingly insane emperor. He died anyway, on March 29, 87 B.C., at the age of 69. Three centuries later, Emperor Ming of Wei became intrigued by accounts of Wu’s monumental bronze dew collector, and ordered it to be brought from Chang’an to Luoyang, a journey of 800 li or 400 kilometers. It proved far too heavy, however, and it was abandoned midway through its journey, somewhere along banks of the river Ba near Shan-hsi, its dew-plate wrenched away from its outstretched, corroded, crumbling bronze hands.

Nothing remains of Emperor Wu of Han’s bronze colossus. His tomb, which took 53 years to construct and soaked up one-third of the court’s yearly tax and tribute revenue, was promptly looted by peasant rebels known as the Red Eyebrows. Whether such a demonic figure as Wu ever made it into the Palace of God is very much in doubt. But we know that the Poet-Ghost Li He made it there — he had, after all, received a personal invitation to compose poetry in the heavenly court of the Jade Emperor — and it was that poet who truly immortalized the emperor and his bronze folly, in a poem translated by Wong May as “Journey of a Statue,” and elsewhere as “Songs of the Brazen Immortal Bidding Farewell to Han.”

The Emperor Han too is a guest of autumn
In the middle of the night you heard his royal steed
Whinny unreined
At dawn no trace of the man

Gone are the emperor, his courtiers, and his magicians. Gone are his heavenly horses. Gone is his dynasty. Gone is his palace, now a weedy field outside Xi’an. “All round the thirty-six palaces,” wrote Li He, “mosses have replaced flowers.” Gone is Wu’s bronze statue,

A king’s ransom
At a future date
The sound of lead on bronze heard ten li
Outside the city gate
Dead flowers continue on
Looking up
If the sky should care
The sky would have grown old

The sky will never grow old, nor will the hills and rivers, and nor will the poetry of the Tang dynasty. In the words of Wong May, even “if a civilization were bent on destroying itself, there will be poets to bear witness,” poets like Li He, who understood that we are all guests of autumn, and poets like Li Po, who reminds us that:

The living are on their way.
The dead have only come home.
Between heaven & earth,
A traveler’s lodge.
& you grieve over dust.
Nothing new.

READ MORE by Matthew Omolesky:

A Kind of Magic Mirror: The National Gallery’s Carpaccio Exhibit

Lying Flat: China’s Demographic Decline

The Cockroach and the Sparrow

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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