Du Fu by Wang Ziwu detail

Dao in Chinese Poetry. Daoist Talks (VII).

Two masterpieces of classical poetry.

Dao in Chinese poetry: The previous contributions to the series Daoist Talks have mainly dealt with painting and the philosophy of Daoism. To touch on another facet of this topic, two classic poems will be presented today. These are of course personal choices, but they are not chosen at random. Above all, the 2nd, from Du Fu, captures the nature of the Dao most aptly from my point of view.

But first a poem by Li Bai [1], probably the best-known Chinese poet. This is so that we can first examine the aspect of opposites more closely. As far as opposites in painting are concerned, a lot has already been written here. But they also play an important role in poetry.

1) Li Bai: Quiet Night Thought 《静夜思》jìng yè sī



Before my bed lies a pool of moonlight
I could imagine that it’s frost on the ground
I look up and see the bright shining moon
I bow my head I am thinking of home

Chinese poetry or rhyming, which is very different from Western poetry, will not be discussed further here. But we look at the opposites and how Daoism comes into play.
In a nutshell: up moon, down moon-light, head up, head down 🙂

interpretation of the poem

What we generally read about is that the “I” person is Li Bai, the poet [2]. We learn that “Quiet Night Thought” is a famous poem written by Li Bai, a renowned Tang Dynasty poet. The poem reflects the beauty and solitude of the night and the feelings that arise in the poet’s heart as he gazes at the moon.
The poem opens with the speaker admitting that he is far from his hometown and feeling homesick. He looks up at the bright moon, feeling a sense of melancholy and longing. The moon serves as a symbol of the poet’s homeland and his desire to return to it.
As the poet gazes at the moon, he is reminded of his family and friends back home, and he wonders if they are also looking up at the same moon. This thought makes him feel a sense of connection with them despite the distance that separates them.
The poem then shifts to the poet’s contemplation of the passing of time. He reflects on the fleeting nature of life and the impermanence of all things. The moon serves as a reminder that everything is constantly changing and that nothing lasts forever.
Despite the poem’s underlying sense of sadness and longing, it also conveys a sense of peace and tranquility. The quiet night serves as a refuge from the chaos of daily life, allowing the poet to reflect on his emotions and contemplate the beauty of the world around him.
Overall, “Quiet Night Thought” is a powerful poem that captures the beauty and complexity of human emotions. Through the use of vivid imagery and symbolism, Li Bai invites readers to contemplate the passage of time, the transience of life, and the power of nature to bring solace and comfort to the human soul”.

There is more I think

But I think that’s just part of it. For me, the appeal lies in the fact that we don’t even know who the speaker is. Does it really have to be the poet himself? It could also be a disgraced politician living in exile. Or a girl from a poor family who has become one of the many concubines of a rich merchant and leads an unhappy existence. Or a soldier on the cold northern front. Or a country girl who hires herself out as a maid in the capital. In my opinion, precisely in the vagueness lies the kind of poetry that we find in painting when e. g. fog only shows a few mountain peaks and trees, and the viewer himself becomes a “creator” and has to finish the painting in his mind.

painting of Li Bai drinking alone with the moon, painted by Wang Zewu 王子武
Painting by Wang Ziwu after the poem by Li Bai “Drinking alone with the moon“. [source: sohu.com]

2) Du Fu: Wild Geese

The poem, entitled “Wild Geese,” was written by the Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Du Fu [3] (also known as Tu Fu). The poem is part of the famous collection “300 Poems of Tang” (Tang Shi San Bai Shou) and was written in the 8th century.

Wild geese roam through the wide sky above,
Below, on the cold surface of the water, their image is reflected.
The geese don’t want to throw their picture on the water,
Nor does the water want to contain the image of the wild geese.

Chang Chug-yuan [4] writes very aptly: “This little poem is a metaphor for the idea of reflection as a creative force. When the geese fly over the water, they have no intention of projecting their image onto the surface of the water, any more than the water has any intention of reflecting their image. But at this moment their beauty is reflected in its purest form. In the moment of reflection, time equals space and space equals time. They merge into an absolute point, the spot, from which all beauty, everything created, rises. Our spirit is nothing but God’s mirror, reflecting the “here-now” of creation. Such is the nature of the creative process as understood by the Taoists. (p.51)

And Chang writes a few pages further (p 59): “If inner reflection takes place, it accomplishes the process of manifesting ultimate reality. This process is direct, immediate, and spontaneous.” Chang also references Laozi, who wrote, “Tao never acts, and yet nothing remains undone…..All things create themselves”. (Dao de jing, Chapter XXXVII)

the poet Du Fu painted by Wang Ziwu
Painting by Wang Ziwu: Du Fu [source: mutualart.com]

All the featured images are from the well-known maker Wang Ziwu [5], whom I knew and had the privilege of getting to know when he wasn’t that famous. I wrote an entertaining blog post about a student prank with one of his pictures [6]. I am delighted that Wang Ziwu also painted a portrait of me. My, back then, long hair and beard offered him a welcome change 😊

portrait painting of Friedrich Zettl by Wang Zewu
Painting by Wang Ziwu: Portrait Friedrich Zettl

[1] Li Bai ( 李白 701–762), also pronounced as Li Bo was a Chinese poet, acclaimed from his own time to the present as a brilliant and romantic figure who took traditional poetic forms to new heights.

[2] The excerpt was mainly created with ChatGPT and it is surprising how good the analysis is.

[3] Du Fu (  also Tu Fu; 712–770) was a Chinese poet and politician during the Tang dynasty. Along with his elder contemporary and friend Li Bai (Li Po), he is frequently called the greatest of Chinese poets. 

[4] Chang Chung-yuan: Tao, Zen und schöpferische Kraft. Diederichs Gelbe Reihe. Düsseldorf 1975, p. 51.

[5] Wang Ziwu 王子武, born in 1936 in Xi’an graduated from the Xi’an Fine Art Academy in 1963.  He has had an illustrious career as an artist and educator and has held offices in many influential art schools and associations.

[6] Blog post: Student prank with Wang Ziwu 王子武

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30 responses to “Dao in Chinese Poetry. Daoist Talks (VII).”

  1. Bon Repos Gites avatar

    Those are both very beautiful, well-crafted verses!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! I The only Chinese poems I still know by heart 🙂

      1. Bon Repos Gites avatar

        They are wonderful!

  2. swabby429 avatar

    I read those verses in a similar manner as viewing an abstract painting. There is more than meets the eye. By the way, I like Wang Ziwu’s portrait of you.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! It was big fun when he painted it with 20+ people watching a “long-nose” getting portrayed.


    I am intrigued by your suggestion that we don’t know who the speaker is in the first poem. Allowing this infinite perspective certainly does add nuance to the interpretation. Thanks for the lovely lesson – and for the link to your student prank…lol 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much! Poetry as well as arts are subjects of interpretation, I think. The question if one’s interpretation is “right” is of minor importance as long as it makes sense 😊

    2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I just found out that the “prank” post had part of the text twice, sorry! Old man here…


        Happens to me, too. No worries! 🙂

  4. mich avatar

    Loved the paintings, esp. the one of you — looking good with beard and long hair!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you. Mitch! At that time quite a few people in China thought I was related to Karl Marx because of my appearance 🙂

  5. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    Wonderful poems and fascinating/informative post, as always, Friedrich. 💫

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kindness 🌹🙏🌻

      1. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

        Always a pleasure! 🌹

  6. Edith avatar

    Die Gedichte sind fantastisch. Ich schreibe dem Mond diese Kraft zu. Wer ihn liebt, kann nur sooo ein tolles Gedicht schreiben. Und ja, er scheint überall, da darf man sich zurückversetzt fühlen in die Heimat. Der Mond ist auch zuständig fürs Sehnen…
    Und dein Bildnis ist gelungen!!!!
    Feine Samstagsstunden noch dir von ganzem Herzen ❤

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank! Ja, der Mond übt auch insofern bei mir große Kraft aus, als die Bilder, die ich am Tag vor dem Vollmond male, deutlich besser ausfallen als sonst.

      1. Edith avatar

        Dies denke ich mir auch mit meinem Geschreibsel.. Dabei wird das von manchen Ärzten und Wissenschaftlern bestritten… Hab du einen guten Abend ❤

  7. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Fascinating! Thanks for this introduction to Chinese poetry 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! I am glad – but not surprised – you like it 🙂

  8. Martha Kennedy avatar

    I’m not surprised at the quality of ChatGPT’s analysis. It’s just “read” every analysis of that poem that has been placed in its way and synthesized them. One thing about its writing that stands out to me all the time is its use of transitional words like “overall.” Its writing is like that of a college sophomore that has been taught to use transitional words and the 3 to 5 paragraph structure. I recently read an article which I can’t find now, sigh, saying its essays would definitely get it into college, but not a really good school. I had to laugh.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Matha! You mention transitional words like “overall” and I think I can explain that. Even if you use “yoast” here on WP, which helps to improve your SEO, you get red points if you use too few transition words. (Even for sentences that are too long). If you correct that, the search engines will love you. Which of course is a catastrophic development. This will permanently change our creative writing.

  9. sandyroybessandbugzy avatar

    The poems are simple and explained so well . This post is fascinating thank you.🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Your kind comment makes me very happy and helps a lot! Enjoy a great day! 🙂

  10. Isaiah Onyinyechi avatar

    What a nice and lovely poems . The poems are simple and explained so we’ll.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! 🙂

      1. Isaiah Onyinyechi avatar

        You are welcome 💙

  11. Edith avatar

    Für dich, Friedrich
    Malst du, dann malst du mit Herz und Geist,
    mit ganzer Kraft.
    Alles in dir, wird von Farben umspült.
    Du, total darin eingehüllt,
    wirst für dieses Bild leben.
    In solchem Moment ist alles anders,
    dann tauchst ein in schwarz/weiß, in bunt,
    vielleicht lächelst du dabei, spitzt du den Mund.
    Malst du, bist du sicher ganz bei dir –
    und du dir sagst, es ist geschafft….
    Mit lieben Grüßen, Edith

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank! Ich bin ueberwaeltigt 🙂

      1. Edith avatar

        ❤ ❤ ♥️

  12. Priti avatar


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