In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yuan Dynasty Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Literary Histories
  • Online Resources

Chinese Studies Yuan Dynasty Poetry
Ming Tak Ted Hui, Tian Yuan Tan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0194


Yuan poetry refers to the poetry composed during the Yuan dynasty, a period when China was under Mongol rule. The dating of the Yuan dynasty can be a complex question. In Chinese historiography, the dynasty is often considered as a successor of the Song dynasty (960–1279) and is said to begin in the year 1271 since an edict was issued by Khubilai Khan (b. 1215–d. 1294) to proclaim the establishment of the Yuan. Yet, as early as 1234, the Mongol ruler Chinggis Khan (b. c. 1158–d. 1127) had already been ruling over much of northern China. Thus, to provide a more comprehensive history of Yuan poetry, this article adopts a looser definition and incorporates literary works produced by poets who were active in the 1230s. Similarly, for the end of the dynasty, this article incorporates poets who were born before 1368, the year when the last Yuan emperor Toghon Temür (b. 1320–d. 1370) abandoned the Yuan capital Khanbaliq (modern Beijing). Apart from the dating of the Yuan dynasty, the term “poetry” also deserves further rumination. “Poetry” may seem like a self-evident concept since it is often translated as shi 詩 (poetry or verse). Yet, if one defines poetry as an expression of feelings and ideas with the use of a distinctive style and rhythm, then other genres like ci 詞 (song lyrics), fu 賦 (poetic expositions), and sanqu 散曲 (colloquial songs) would all fall within the definition of poetry. Since the early 20th century, due to an emphasis on the evolutionary nature of Chinese literature, a dynastic succession of literary genres has often been assumed, and the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) was often associated with the poetry genre sanqu. While it is important to acknowledge that sanqu was a new poetic genre that emerged during the end of the Jin dynasty and the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, it is equally important to recognize the significance of other genres of poetry. For instance, the development of fu in the Yuan dynasty was linked to the changes in civil examination, and shi poetry was often used to forge literary communities. This article is organized according to the poetic genres listed above to provide a thorough overview of Yuan-dynasty poetry. For those interested in more general reference works for Chinese poetry, they should also consult the Oxford Bibliographies article “Traditional Chinese Poetry.”

General Literary Histories

For a general overview of the literary world between 1230 and 1375, West 2010 provides the most comprehensive account in English to date. The author alerts the readers about the importance of shi (classical verse) and fu (poetic expositions) without sacrificing the depth of discussion on sanqu. He also incorporates numerous translations and close readings of primary works in this survey. In Chinese, a standard and useful literary history is Deng and Yao, et al. 1991, which maps out the development of sanqu, shi, and ci poetry and highlights the stylistic features of the most important poets of the time. Unlike most literary histories, which are often organized according to different poetic genres, Zha 2019 devotes a sizeable portion of the author’s monograph to some common motifs and aesthetic features observed across various genres. The author pays special attention to the sociocultural context of literary production of the time. Yang 2005 gives a chronological list of individual years in Yuan dynasty literature from 1220 to 1424 with notable events and publications listed under their respective years.

  • Deng Shaoji 邓绍基 and Yao Shuyi 么书仪, et al., eds. Yuandai wenxue shi 元代文学史. Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1991.

    Part of the series Zhongguo wenxue tongshi xilie 中国文学通史系列. With specific chapters devoted to the discussion of the styles of each individual sanqu and shi poet.

  • West, Stephen H. “Literature from the Late Jin to the Early Ming: ca 1230-ca 1375.” In The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Vol. 1, To 1375. Edited by Stephen Owen, 557–650. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    The best English introduction to the literary world of the Yuan dynasty to date. Provides a remarkably thorough survey of how sociocultural changes (for instance, the cessation of civil service examinations or the removal of privilege accruing to Han ethnicity) had changed the literature of the Yuan dynasty. Includes translations and analyses of primary works. See Section 8. Sanqu: A new form of hybrid poetry, pp. 633–649.

  • Yang Lian 杨镰. Yuandai wenxue biannian shi 元代文学编年史. Taiyuan, China: Shanxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 2005.

    A useful year-by-year record of Yuan dynasty literary history beginning from 1220 to 1424 with notable events and works listed under their respective years. With copious notes on sources and some black-and-white illustrations.

  • Zha Hongde 查洪德. Yuandai wenxue tonglun 元代文学通论. 3 vols. Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin, 2019.

    An ambitious attempt to locate common aesthetic features found across different genres. The first volume is devoted to a discussion on some major historical trends of the literary world of the Yuan dynasty, second on the common aesthetic features of the time, and third on the different literary styles advocated by various schools of writers.

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