T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) was one of China's foremost poets in the five-word shih style, and his influence on subsequent poets was very great.
Also known as T'ao Yüan-ming, T'ao Ch'ien lived during the Eastern Chin and Liu Sung dynasties. He was born in Ch'ai-sang in present-day Kiangsi Province, the great-grandson of T'ao K'an, a famed Chin general. Both his grandfather and father had served as perfects, but by T'ao Ch'ien's time the family must have become poorer, and despite his preference for a life of seclusion he held at least four different posts during some dozen years (393-405) in order to support his family.
T'ao did not serve very long, however, in his last post as magistrate of P'eng-tse (405). According to a famous anecdote recorded in his official biographies, he voluntarily resigned when summoned to appear before a superior so that he did not have to bow in obeisance for the sake of a meager salary. In any event, upon returning home on that occasion, he wrote a sequence of fiveword poems as well as a long poem entitled Kuei-ch'ülai tz'u (On Returning Home) in celebration of his liberation from the shackles of official life. He was then only 40 years old. Subsequently, many eminent men sought him out for an official appointment, but he resolutely declined. He apparently enjoyed the remainder of his life as a gentleman farmer, reading his favorite books at leisure, exchanging visits with his neighbors, and watching resignedly the lack of promise of his several sons.
T'ao Ch'ien has been too often described as a Taoist nature poet with his fondness for wine and for chrysanthemums. It is true that he delights in nature and in wine, but he is far more a philosophic or meditative poet than an idyllic or bucolic one. He represents the culmination of the five-word poetry of the Han dynasty with its obsession with life's meaning; and with his strong attraction to Confucian endeavor and knightly chivalry, his intellectual makeup is far more complex than the word "Taoist" would convey.
One of T'ao's best-known poems is a debate among "Substance, Shadow, and Spirit, " who speak respectively for hedonism, Confucian fame, and a kind of Taoist stoicism which accepts life in its totality. T'ao Ch'ien is thus an existentialist: the elegies written on the supposed occasion of his own death are among the most moving poems in the Chinese language.
The simpler view of T'ao Ch'ien as a Taoist recluse is supported by some of his most celebrated works. In a brief idealized autobiography, he styles himself Mr. Five Willows and speaks of his contentment with poverty, his fondness for wine, and his joy in reading, though he makes no attempt to probe the deeper meanings of books. His prose description of the Peach Fount Colony living in happy oblivion of the outside world has been celebrated since his time as the Taoist vision of a simple, good life unrealizable on earth.
T'ao Ch'ien was not recognized as a major poet until the T'ang dynasty. By the Sung times, however, his status as one of China's greatest lyrical poets had become generally recognized, and his poetry has never ceased to fascinate the Chinese since.
The poems of T'ao Ch'ien were translated by William Acker as T'ao the Hermit: Sixty Poems by T'ao Ch'ien (1952) and by Lily Pao-hu Chang and Marjorie Sinclair as Poems (1953). A number of anthologies of Chinese poetry in translation contain selections from T'ao Ch'ien, including Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (1946); Robert Payne, The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry (1947); and J. D. Frodsham and Ch'eng Hsi, An Anthology of Chinese Verse: Han, Wei, Chin and the Northern and Southern Dynasties (1967). Every history of Chinese literature for Western readers discusses T'ao Ch'ien at some length, though there is no full-length study in English. James R. Hightower has done notable work on the poet in his articles "The Fu of T'ao Ch'ien" in John L. Bishop, ed., Studies in Chinese Literature (1965), and "T'ao Ch'ien's 'Drinking Wine' Poems" in Chow Tse-tsung, ed., Wen-lin: Studies in the Chinese Humanities (1968).