Reading a Tang Dynasty Poem

Grades 9-12, Arts & Literature, Lesson or Unit Plan
  • Poem: Facing Snow

This lesson uses a poem by well-known Chinese poet Du Fu to illustrate the aesthetic principles of regulated verse and parallelism in Chinese poetry that are based on the traditional Chinese cosmological perspective. Students will leave class with an appreciation for translation between different cultures as an important process for understanding other cultures in a multi-cultural world.

Title: Reading a Tang Dynasty Poem
Author: Teach China staff
Subject Area: World Literature
Grade Level: 10-12
Time Required: One 90-minute class session
Standards: NL-ENG.K-12.9 MULTICULTURAL UNDERSTANDING Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
Keywords/Vocabulary: Parallelism: a rhetorical device in Chinese poetry where two lines of poetry in a given couplet must be balanced in content; parts of speech; cosmological, mythological, or historical allusion; and tonal patterns.

Regulated Verse: form of poetry that dominated Tang Dynasty poetics; it has a determined number of characters per line that must use parallelism and a set rhyme pattern.

Couplet: a pair of lines in verse.

Five Elements: (a.k.a. Five Phases) A complex Chinese cosmological series of natural associations that include elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), directions (east, south, center, west, north), colors (green, red, yellow, white, blue), seasons (spring, summer, change-of-seasons, autumn, winter), among other qualities. These associations inform poetic parallelism as well as many other Chinese aesthetics.

Literati: From the Sui to the Qing, scholars who were trained in the Confucian classics, who mastered calligraphy and verse, and who passed a rigorous imperial examination gained high-level posts in the state structure.

Essential Question(s): What can works of literature/art tell us about the historical experience of war and how do people make meaning of this type of chaotic historical experience? How do we translate that from one culture to another?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims:
  • Learn aesthetic principles of regulated verse and parallelism based on traditional Chinese cosmological perspective that shaped Chinese poetics.
  • Understand the importance of translation between different cultures as important process of understanding other cultures in a multi-cultural world.
Introduction: Du Fu (pinyin spelling of 杜甫, which also appears in the Wade-Giles romanization as Tu Fu, 712-770 BCE) is a major poet of the Tang Dynasty who witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought on Chang’an during the An Lushan Rebellion of 755. The poem this lesson uses, “Facing Snow,” is a poem that was written during this tumultuous time period. It is an example of regulated verse, an important poetic form that dominated the Tang Dynasty. This type of poem uses a strictly measured number of Couplets with a regulated number of characters per line that must correspond to one another based on Chinese aesthetic principles informed by a cosmological ordering based on the Five Elements.

The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763 BCE) is a major rebellion that engulfed the Tang Dynasty and caused millions of deaths. An Lushan (703-757 BCE) was an ambitious general of Sogdian descent who took advantage of widespread discontent with the extravagance of the Chang’an court during a time beset by natural disasters. An Lushan was successful in defeating the imperial army guarding the capital city and forcing Emperor Xuanzong and his court to flee to Sichuan. Eventually, the Emperor abdicated the throne in favor of his son and the Tang court formed alliances with Turkish tribes from Central Asia and the Imperial forces successfully retook the capital.

Initially, Du Fu left Chang’an at the outbreak of the rebellion in order to ensure his family was out of harm’s way, but he personally returned to Chang’an in an attempt to join the Crown Prince’s court, but he was captured by the Rebellion forces and taken to Chang’an. He eventually escaped an joined the Tang court, but never achieved a great post he seemed destined for. The experiences of the war and his disappointment of never achieving a worthy office to serve the state inform the tone of his overall work, which are widely regarded as one of the greatest literary achievements in both Chinese and world literature.

Columbia University’s Asia for Educators program has a very brief introduction to Du Fu that students might want to review before the class.

Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy: 
  • 1. Distribute document 1: Facing Snow – a Chinese Poem by Du Fu. Review the keywords/vocabulary so that students understand some aesthetic principles behind a regulated verse poem in the Chinese tradition.
  • 2. Divide the class up into four groups and assign them one couplet per group. Explain to students that they are to try and make sense of the relationship of each character to one another in a given line, as well as the relationship of the first line in the couplet to the second line. Once they have discussed what those relationships are, each group will come up with a grammatically correct translation of their couplet into English.
  • 3. Have each group go to the board and write their couplet out. Once the entire poem has been written out on the board for the class to see, distribute document 2: Five Translations of Du Fu’s “Facing Snow.”
Discussion Points/ GroupInteraction:
  • 1. Does the class-translated poem read smoothly and intelligibly as a poem in English? What were the rationales behind each group translating their designated couplet?
  • 2. Review the five translations by various translators; where does the class poem agree with these translations? Where does it differ?
Assessment: Have the students been able to make a meaningful (do not worry about “correct”) relationship between the words and translated them into grammatically correct English? Were they able to provide a rationale for how they arrived at their translated couplet? How do they appreciate the differences in translations and do they recognize the inherent slipperiness of translating one cultural worldview into a language shaped by a different worldview?
  • 1. Students write an essay about the An Lushan Rebellion and what the poem has to say about the experience of war based on the various translations they come up with.
  • 2. Alternatively, students choose a different Chinese poem and work towards their own translation and compare it to other translations they can find by doing a library search of available translations.
Instructional Resources/ Materials: Document 1: Facing Snow
Document 2: Five Translations

  • 1. David Hawkes, A Little Primer of Tu Fu (New York: Cheng & Tsui, 1988)
  • 2. David Young (trans.), Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (New York: Knopf, 2008)
  • 3. Zong-qi Cai, How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)
  • 4. Du Fu’s poems available on-line:
Extending the Lesson/ Follow-up Activity:
  • 1. Have students create a video that accompanies a voice-over reading of their translation; how do they accomplish the visual “translation” of a written work?
  • 2. Have students research a particular modern military conflict (i.e. the Vietnam war) and gather both journalistic reports on the conflict and poetry that covers the war (i.e. New York Times articles on Vietnam and W.S. Merwin’s collection The Lice (1967)). What do these different sources tell us about how a culture understands its experience of the chosen military conflict? Where do they compliment one another; where do they perhaps conflict with one another?
Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: Grades 9-12, Arts & Literature, Lesson or Unit Plan


Teach China Team

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