In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Medieval Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Literary Histories
  • Reference Works
  • Modern Anthologies
  • Textbooks
  • Translations into Western Languages

Chinese Studies Early Medieval Poetry
Jack W. Chen, Evan Nicoll-Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0065


The designation “early medieval China” denotes the centuries between the end of the Eastern Han 東漢 (27 CE–220 CE) and the Sui 隋 dynasty (581 CE–618 CE), or c. 200 CE–600 CE. During this period the Eastern Han devolved into rebellion and warlordism, ending with the founding of the Wei 魏 dynasty (220 CE–265 CE). The Wei in turn was supplanted by the Jin 晉dynasty (265 CE–420 CE). Although the new rulers managed to unify China for a brief time, the dynasty was forced south of the Yangzi River when non-Han nomadic tribes sacked Luoyang and Chang’an. Following this came the Northern and Southern Dynasties 南北朝 (420 CE–589 CE), which took place, respectively, to the north and south of the Yangzi River. Non-Han clans ruled during the Northern Dynasties 北朝 (386 CE–581 CE), whereas the Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420 CE–579 CE) era was controlled by northern emigré and southern clans. Sometimes, the period is referred to as the Six Dynasties 六朝 period or simply the Period of Disunion. Although this period was not one of grand empire building, it was acclaimed as an age of great literary, intellectual, and cultural accomplishment. Of particular cultural importance was the emergence of pentasyllabic (wuyan 五言) and heptasyllabic (qiyan 七言) shi 詩 (lyric poetry), which began to rival and, eventually, eclipse the dominant, tetrasyllabic (siyan 四言) form, which could be traced back to the Classic of Poetry (Shijing [詩經]). It should be noted, however, that although literary histories often conventionally characterize early medieval China as dominated by pentasyllabic poetry, the genre fu賦 (rhapsody, rhyme prose) was as significant in terms of cultural prestige. Also of importance was yuefu shi 樂府詩 (Music Bureau poetry), often treated as a genre, but actually an amorphous poetic corpus with musical associations, from ritual hymns to local song traditions and literati imitations. The three major forms are often treated separately, but they share many thematic commonalities. Furthermore, there is a vast literature in Chinese and Japanese devoted to the poetry of this period, and the following article is intended simply as a starting point for research. This article provides a guide to the main traditional sources and modern critical editions for early medieval poetry, along with important English-language scholarship and selected scholarship in Chinese, Japanese, French, and German. Those interested in more general reference works and resources for Chinese poetry should consult the article on Traditional Chinese Poetry.

General Studies

There are a number of overviews of this period, which take the form of collected essays by leading specialists, edited volumes, and diachronic studies on a specific topic. English-language readers might begin with Kroll and Knechtges 2003, which serves as a kind of introduction to the state of the field in the literary and cultural history of the early medieval period, or with Chan and Lo 2010, which takes up issues related to hermeneutics and literature; also useful in this regard is Guoli Chenggong daxue Zhongwenxi 1991–, which brings together conference proceedings for this ongoing set of conferences. Cao 1986 collects the essays of this prominent scholar and supplements his literary histories (Cao and Shen 1998, Cao and Liu 2000, both cited under Literary Histories) with case studies of specific authors, texts, and themes; a second volume of his essays was published in 2011. Also worth consulting is Cao 1998, a detailed account of the Northern and Southern Dynasties. Studies that span historical periods, while taking up more specific subjects, include Holzman 1996, on landscape poetry; Hu 2010, on military poetry; and Wu 2008, on court poetry.

  • Cao Daoheng 曹道衡. Zhonggu wenxueshi lunwen ji (中古文學史論文集). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986.

    Essays on various literary historical subjects, with an emphasis on the Northern and Southern Dynasties, General essays on various periods, plus the lives and works of Bao Zhao and Tao Yuanming and the youxian 遊仙 (wandering with immortals) poems of Guo Pu. Second volume published in 1994 by Wenjin chubanshe.

  • Cao Daoheng 曹道衡. Nanchao wenxue yu beichao wenxue yanjiu (南朝文學與北朝文學研究). Nanjing, China: Jiangsu guji chubanshe, 1998.

    Consideration of differing literary styles between north and south during the Period of Disunion. Attention is given to the intellectual, political, and sociohistorical contexts, plus important literary trends in both regions. Particularly useful is discussion of Northern Dynasties literature.

  • Chan, Alan K. L., and Yuet-Keung Lo, eds. Interpretation and Literature in Early Medieval China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

    Three leading authors explore poetry: (1) David R. Knechtges, on the Eastern Han Hongdu Gate School; (2) Timothy Wai-keung Chan, on the image of the jade flower in early Daoist verse; and (3) Cynthia L. Chennault, on temple-visit poems from the Liang to Sui dynasties.

  • Guoli Chenggong daxue Zhongwenxi 國立成功大學中文系, ed. Wei Jin Nanbeichao wenxue yu sixiang xueshu yantaohui lunwenji (魏晉南北朝文學與思想學術研討會論文集). Taipei: Wenshizhe chubanshe, 1991–.

    Conference proceedings for this irregularly held conference on early medieval Chinese literature and intellectual history, containing a wide assortment of papers from each gathering. Six volumes have been published. Useful as a snapshot of the state of the field.

  • Holzman, Donald. Landscape Appreciation in Ancient and Early Medieval China: The Birth of Landscape Poetry; Six Lectures Given at National Tsing Hua University, February–March 1995. Hsin-chu, Taiwan: Program for Research of Intellectual-Cultural History, National Tsing Hua University, 1996.

    Series of lectures traces developments in the literary representation of landscape from the Han through Liu-Song. Argues that increasing attention to the unique details of natural environments and growing interest in using landscape to symbolize spiritual or metaphysical contemplation are evidence of the appearance of a literary tradition more concerned with aesthetics than didacticism.

  • Hu Dalei 胡大雷. Jinge tiema shili qiankun: Han Wei Nanbeichao junshi zhanzheng shi yanjiu (金戈鐵馬詩裡乾坤:漢魏南北朝軍事戰爭詩研究). Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 2010.

    Study of early medieval poems on warfare and military experience, divided into chapters on specific subtopics, including poems on military achievement, the frontier, knights-errant, hunting, marriage diplomacy, wives left behind, and going on campaign.

  • Kroll, Paul W., and David R. Knechtges, eds. Studies in Early Medieval Chinese Literature and Cultural History in Honor of Richard B. Mather and Donald Holzman. Provo, UT: T’ang Studies Society, 2003.

    Collection of papers on a variety of topics relating to the literary culture of the early medieval period. Several studies from this volume are examined individuallythroughout this article (see Cutter 2003, cited under Cao Zhi; Berkowitz 2003, Knechtges 2003, both cited under Western Jin; Lai 2003, cited under Lu Ji; Su 2003, cited under Bao Zhao; Chennault 2003, cited under Southern Qi, Liang, and Chen Dynasties; Kroll 2003, cited under Tao Hongjing). Also includes bibliographies of the works of Richard B. Mather and Donald Holzman.

  • Mu Kehong 穆克宏. Liuchao wenxue lunji (六朝文學論集). Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2010.

    Collection of essays by a prominent scholar of this period, with approximately a third of the essays on the Wen xuan (文選) (see Wen xuan) and another third on the Wenxin diaolong (文心雕龍), the most important literary treatise of the period.

  • Wu, Fusheng. Written at Imperial Command: Panegyric Poetry in Early Medieval China. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

    Study of praise poetry in the early medieval period, covering the period from the Han through Sui. Worth noting is a chapter on Northern Dynasties poetry.

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