As you may well know, the Chinese imperial examination system is the first ever standardised testing system in the world. (And people wonder why we’re good at rote learning. Genetic memory, dudes.) Besides being a great triumph for meritocracy etc., this linking of writing ability to social and economic progression also meant that literature was inextricably tied to public service.
As such, Chinese poets were rarely ever ‘outsiders’ to the society’s elite. Even when they were literally outside the circles of power, sometimes literally far outside, they remained within the circles of the literati, where learning replaced to some extent the social function of an aristocracy. Within this society, public service was a crucial goal underlying many ambitions; yet its existence had become quite independent of the government, and the opposing impulse – bugger the corrupt government, run for the hills – remained strong as well.
If there was a poet who really, consistently, decided to bugger the government and make for the hills, it would be Tao Qian, also known as Tao Yuanming (365 – 427 AD). The great-grandson of a famous general in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 – 420 AD), he looked like a sure candidate for public service; yet, after a few minor posts, he decided that he had had enough of the corruption and incompetence and retired to farm and drink. Ever since then, even at the cosmopolitan height of the Tang and Song Dynasties, his poems – of which around 130 survive – have become one pole in that continuum between poetry leaning towards public ideals, and poetry leaning towards personal peace, where much of China’s literary history lies.
Okay, enough theorising. POETRY!
My home is built where people live and thrive, and yet is free of vexing traffic noise.
You ask, how did you make such an abode? A distant heart makes any land remote.
Picking chrysanthemums under the eastern fence, the southern mountains come leisurely in view.
Glorious are the mountain views at dusk, when birds flit in pairs back to their roosts.
All this, of course, means something quite profound, but I’m lost for words attempting to expound.