Tao Qian (also known as Tao Yuanming) is a famous Chinese poet from the six dynasties period. Tao Qian lived during the Eastern Jin and Lui Song dynasties. Tao Yuanming spent a great deal of his life as a recluse. A great deal of his poetry was written while he lived in a small house on the country-side. Tao Yuanming spent his time reading, drinking wine, and writing poems, although he would entertain the occasional guest. His poetry often reflected on the pleasures and difficulties of his reclusive lifestyle. Many of his best works were written about his retirement from public life.

It wasn’t until nearly 700 years later that he grew to popularity when the influential literary figure Si Shi (1037-1101) declared him an authentic representation of spontaneity within the delicate web of poetical history. Tao Yuanming is also thought to the foremost representative of the poetry style known as ‘Fields and garden Poetry’. Poetry of this nature often dealt with the delicate beauty and philosophical nature involving ones surrounding landscape.

A Change of Names

Tao Yuanming ended up changing his name from Tao Yuanming to Tao Qian. It is thought that Qian meant ‘hiding’ and was symbolic of his final withdrawal from civil service after he finished his work as a government servant. Tao Qian could also be translated to ‘Recluse Tao’. In his youth Tao Yuanming wrote an autobiographical essay in which he referred to himself as T’ao Ch’ien (Master of the Five Willows).

Life as a Civil Servant

Tao Yuanming’s family had a long history of working as civil servants. His great grand-father was a general and governor during the Eastern Jing dynasty and his father served as a government official as well. However, Tao Yuanming was born into poverty as his family had lost political influence by that time.

Tao Yuanming is believed to have been born in 365 CE around Chaisang (now known as Juijiang, Jiangxi). That being the case, some Chinese scholars disagree. Yuan Xingpei, for example, argues that Tao was actually born in 352. The name of the town in which he was born in, Chaisang, translates into ‘Mulberry-Bramble’ and the town is well-known for it’s natural beauty.

Tao Yuanming himself ended up serving over ten years in civil service. It was during this time in which Tao Yuanming’s poetry began to indicate his will to withdraw from his social life. The Chinese poet Tao Yuanming had five children, all of which were male.

Spring of the Year 405

Around spring 405, Tao Yuanming was serving within the military ranks. However, after his sister died, he had troubles with the Jin court.  Once he learned about the corruption of his peers and courts, he was prompted to resign and seek solitude. He wrote about the situation with the phrase ‘bow like a servant in return for five bushels of grain’. He lived in retirement for 22 years before his death. It is believed he lived until the age of 63.


Many of his poems adhere to the simple yet intricate nature of his solitary lifestyle. His poetry depicts a life of drinking wine and shining menial tasks in a philosophical light.

After his seclusion, he became locally famous as a hermit and was sometimes visited by strangers who were seeking wisdom and insight. The Chinese poet was revered by many other famous Chinese poets such as Li Bai, Du Fu, and Si Shi.

His lifestyle had many parallels, such as that his early poetry was full of ambition and inclination to fulfill his service and family heritage as a civil servant, but yet his later works were quite the opposite in nature.

His most famous poetry shared a similar theme of ‘returning home’ and is considered as a seed for later poetry based in the yuefu poetry style. Yueufu poetry found it’s roots during the Han dynasty. A famous work which is considered a thematic evolution of Tao Yuanming’s poetical style is Zhahng Heng’s ‘Return to the Field’.

Approximately 130 of his poems and essays have survived, most of which are available online.

Returning to Live in the South

Direct Translation

Little not fit common charm
Nature basic love mound hill
Mistake fall world net in
Thus went ten three years
Cage bird long for old forest
Pond fish long for old deep pool
Start barren south fields border
Observe awkward return field orchard
Plot residence 10 more acre
Grass house 8 9 rooms
Elm willow shade behind eaves
Peach plum collect hall before
Dim far person village
Reluctant to part ruins village smoke
Dog bark deep alley in
Chicken mulberry tree peak
Door yard no earth mix
Modest room have more vacant
Long at confinement in
Again get return self right

Full Translation

When young, I’d not enjoyed the common pleasures,
My nature’s basic love was for the hills.
Mistakenly I fell into the worldly net,
And thus remained for thirteen years.
A bird once caged must yearn for its old forest,
A fish in a pond will long to return to the lake.
So now I want to head to southern lands,
Returning to my fields and orchards there.
About ten acres of land is all I have,
Just eight or nine rooms there in my thatched hut.
There’s shade from elms and willows behind the eaves,
Before the hall are gathered peaches and plums.
Beyond the dark and distance lies a village,
The smoke above reluctant to depart.
A dog is barking somewhere down the lane,
And chickens sit atop the mulberry tree.
The mundane world has no place in my home,
My modest rooms are for the most part vacant.
At last I feel released from my confinement,
I set myself to rights again.