Header images courtesy of Tokugawa Art Museum (via Wikimedia Commons)
Many remarkable poets and philosophers have called East Asia home, preaching their ideas, thoughts, and wisdom through the centuries. Boasting a keen grip on philosophy, art, science, poetry, literature, and religion, these artistic figures shaped the literary landscape of ancient times, and continue to influence and inspire the modern word. Take a deep-dive into the classical poets and philosophers of East Asia that you should know about.
Ancient China boasts a prolific history that dates all the way back to the Xia dynasty (circa 2070 BC). During all this time, it had accommodated many remarkable literary and philosophical persons within its borders. Although the classical literary linguistic pattern was different from the verbal interpretation, its literary works mostly focused on fictional and philosophical topics, religious works, scientific writings, and poetry.
Also remembered as Lǎozǐ (老子; “Old Master”), Lao Tzu is an almost legendary writer and thinker who is thought to have been born anywhere between the sixth or fourth century BC. So far does his renown extend that he is best known by his honorific title of Lao Tzu rather than his real name, which is believed to be Lǐ Ěr (李耳).
Belonging to the Chu state, Lao Tzu’s philosophic preaching revolves around the concept of interaction between human beings and nature, the constant presence of a universal flux or energetic forces which revolve according to the beliefs from ascendants, the cult of heaven, and the almighty nature of the supreme. His most notable works include the Tao-te Ching (道德经; Dàodéjīng), a fundamental text that laid the groundwork for both philosophical and religious Taoism, a philosophical belief which emphasises living in harmony with the Tao (道; Dào).
from these written works, Lao Tzu is also well-celebrated for his deeply spiritual and fundamental maxims, which are still quoted today, such as, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”
Also remembered as Lǐ Hè Cháng-jí, Lǐ Hè (李贺) was born around 790 AD in Henan, a landlocked province of China, during the Middle Tang period. He was extremely well-accepted as a poet of brief, single-lined verses, and was capable of compiling poems daily due to his diligent nature. His works primarily focused on topics that explored supernatural themes, earning him the nickname of “The Ghost of Poetry” (詩鬼; Shī Guǐ). He bore a sickly appearance and it is thought that his poor health contributed to his early death at the age of 26 in 816 AD.
Another well-known teacher, philosopher, writer, and political theorist, if not the most famous to emerge from ancient China. Confucius (孔夫子; Kǒng Fūzǐ) was born in 551 BCE in the Lu state and is considered the paragon of Chinese sages, often credited with having authored and edited many classic Chinese texts.
His most notable contribution is Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius, a philosophical belief system that spotlights morality, social relationships, justice, kindness, and sincerity, all of which permeated the social fabric of China and has a lingering impact on everyday life. His teaching also focused on five key themes: human manners, ritual conduct, child obedience, superior person, and good government. According to Confucius, love, peace, and brotherhood in every walk of life are important aspects to bear in mind for humans to live a happy and prosperous life. He advocated the well-known principle, “Do not do unto others what you do not want done to yourself,” which is considered the Golden Rule (or the principle of treating others as you want to be treated).
Lùyóu (陆游) is also known by his literary name of Fàngwēng (放翁). He was a prominent poet during the Song dynasty and had penned a great deal of prose and nearly eleven thousand poems, many of which were focused around patriotic themes. He was considered a prodigy, as he had already gained excellent writing skills at the tender age of 12. It can be said that he nearly rebelled against the former Jiangxi Poetry School, one of the earliest literary genre in China, by using a more direct vocabulary while focusing on realistic details, simple, and direct expression. He emphasised creating rustic scenarios while highlighting refreshing and accurate imagery.
Mencius (孟子; Mèngzǐ)—who was born Mèng Kē (孟軻)—is considered the “Second Sage,” second only to the great Confucious himself. He is believed to have been one of the philosopher’s own disciplines, inhering his permeating idealogy and developing it further to build the foundations for his eponymous chronicle, the Mencius (孟子; Mèngzǐ), in which he collects conversations and anecdotes on moral and political philosophy.
As an early Chinese philosopher who tried to provoke and illuminate the concept of maintaining peace on the domestic as well as on the government level, his core belief is that humans are innately good, but have need of encouragement and good support to flourish. Moreover, Mencius states that the government is obliged to act benevolently towards the public, providing beneficial facilities, such as maternal needs and moral education.
Hánshān (寒山; “Cold Mountain”) is a mysterious figure in the Chinese literary chronicles of the Tang dynasty. His elusive writings, composed in the Taoist and Zen traditions, were found scrawled on bamboo, stones, cliffs, woods, and sometimes on the walls of the village houses. Speculations around his personality and mere existence abound, and his origins remain enigmatic. He is considered a recluse, and his poems target a character of the Tang dynasty, who had existed thousands of years ago while wandering in the mountain as its “guest,” searching for food. It can also be said that Hánshān had tried to portray himself as a fictional character.
Hánshān is thought to have penned as many as 600 poems, although only 313 of them have survived. In his poems, he imparts conventional wisdom, his concern for humanity, tales of his life before arriving at Cold Mountain, and thoughts on religions and politics. Contrary to the popular Tang dynasty style of the time, Hánshān wrote in a manner that was straight-forward and uncomplicated, making for striking prose.
Looking at literary annals, we can find an ocean of work produced on the island formerly known as Wa. The history of Japanese literature was noted down in classical Chinese during the time when the native Englishman would have used Latin as a literary language. Many marvellous and great poets, writers, philosophers, and other literary persons had been a part of Japanese literary circles, boasting multiple genres of Japanese writing.
Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長) was educated in the medical field but later became a scholar on classical Japanese philosophy and poetry. Influenced by Kokugaku (國學; the National Learning Movement) during the Edo period, Norinaga deepened his interest in Japanese literature and largely rejected the influence of foreign religions like Buddhism and Confucian to give greater focus and importance to Shintoism (神道), a local religion that originated in Japan. He compiled a comprehensive, 44-volumed text called Kojiki-den (古事記伝), in which he commented on the teachings of Shinto.
One of the pioneers of restoring the ancient culture and traditions of Japan, Kamo no Mabuchi (賀茂 真淵) studied Japanese literature under the guardianship of Shinto priests. He is generally considered as one of the most prominent figures of the Kokugaku movement, basing his studies and teachings on texts like the Man’yōshū (万葉集), one of the oldest collections of Japanese poetry which contains more than 4,500 poems. He was one of the first figures to suggest the concept of rejecting Chinese literature and philosophical thoughts and to showcase ancient Japanese beliefs instead. His disciples include Motoori Norinaga, among many others.
Hagiwara Hiromichi (萩原 広道) was acknowledged as a philologist and scholar of literature, as well as an author, poet, and translator. He was active in the latter part of the Edo period and was most notable for his astute literary analysis of The Tale of Genji (源氏物語; Genji Monogatari), which he adapted with his own easy explanation, commentary, and interpretation. By doing this, Hiromichi helped open up this authoritative text to a wider readership, making classic Japanese literature accessible for many, even though the well-established stance of educated scholars at the time was to discourage the usage of deliberately simple language. Hiromichi counted Kamo no Mabuchi and Motoori Norinaga among his influences.
Korea possesses an immense and complex chronicle and has long enjoyed a bloom of dance, music, and literature in every era. Fundamentally, the Chinese school of thought and language was adopted by the people of Korea. However, with the passage of time, at the end of the fifteenth century, an official pattern to write the Korean language was invented, which was then named Hangul. With the new written language, a change was brought about in the Korean literary circle, sparking a new wave of Korean poets and philosophers.
Also known by her courtesan name Myeongwol (명월), Hwang Jin-yi (황진이) was a famous Korean gisaeng (기생; lower-class women who were trained to be courtesans) who excelled in the fields of poetry, music, dance, philosophy, literature, and painting. She gained recognition at the court of King Jungjong (조선 중종) in the Joseon dynasty for her quick wit, bold personality, and unparalleled intellect. In fact, her legacy is of such monumental proportions that she has inspired modern Korea to create a great number of both written and visual adaptations about her life.
Hwang Jin-yi was especially skilled at sijo (시조), a traditional Korean poetry form from the Goryeo period. She can also be declared as an earlier William Wordsworth of the Korean poetry and literary circle as well, because she had mostly portrayed the natural beauty of landscapes while using the newly invented Korean alphabets.
Active during the fourteenth century of the Goryeo era, Jeong Mong-ju (정몽주) was a well-celebrated Korean scholar, poet, and diplomat, who might have been better known by his pen name Poeun (포은). After receiving a desirable education from neo-Confucianist scholar Yi Saek (이색) and scoring high marks on his civil service literary examinations, Jeong Mong-ju taught neo-Confucianism at the Songgyungwan, the most prestigious educational institution at the time. Aside from his teachings, his poetry was especially notable, most of which were written in the sijo form with just three lines.
As the first-ever female philosopher of Korea, Im Yunjidang (임윤지당) broke boundaries in her advocacy for women’s right to become Confucian masters, arguing that its interpreted values of moral self-cultivation and human nature applied to both men and women. Born in 1721, she led a unique provincial life that afforded her less pressure from social norms and more freedom to study the classics and become a neo-Confucian scholar.
Her most notable work is the Yunjidang Yugo, a collection of her written thoughts that was only published three years after her death in 1796—and she is counted as one of the few female writers who were published in the Joseon dynasty of Korea. Although she was indulged in the traditions of Confucianism, she nevertheless stood for the spiritual and moral equality of men and women, using classic texts to reclaim her right to be educated. Her works touched upon themes that range from the cosmic to the human, as well as emotions and philosophy.
In the end, it can be posited that exploring the philosophy extracted from ancient China can help us acknowledge the belief in peace, patience, balance, and diplomacy in order to tackle life’s challenges. Japanese chronicles are vibrant in all genres, and Korean literature is full of tragedies, building up a diverse and dynamic deluge of information on culture, tradition, literature, religious beliefs, morals, and ethics.