Biographies of Historical Figures

Bai Juyi

From an impoverished scholar family, though his father was a magistrate for a time. While studying for the examinations, he and Yuan Zhen dreamed of bringing about social reform in their careers. He got into trouble for his outspoken criticism. Of his own poems, he most treasured the fengyu shi, or social criticism. Among other things, he criticized the treatment of palace women. He strove for clarity and simplicity in language.

Du Fu

Du Fu’s family was on the far end of an old Six dynasties aristocratic line. He served in various minor positions but suffered considerable poverty during his lifetime. His own son died of starvation. Generally referred to as “China’s greatest poet,” he was indeed extremely influential among later poets from Han Yu to Lu You and beyond. Much of his poetry uses vernacular phrasing and diction, though his vocabulary is broad and varied. He wrote extensively of injustice in his time and celebrated the feelings and customs of common rural people.

Han Yü

From a family of scholars and minor officials. He established the guwen literary style as an alternative to florid styles. Guwen style incorporated elements of colloquial rhythm &diction and paid more attention to pragmatic and political themes. Han Yu was strongly opposed to blind religiosity and superstition.

Huang Tingjian

He rejected conventional poetic rules and combined minute observation of everyday life with difficult, sometimes obscure diction. Like Su Dongpo, he was banished for opposing Wang Anshi. One of his poems praises Su for his courage in the face of political repression. Known for his unconventionality, he created his own poetic style called “unregulated” style, breaking rules of parsing, tonal distribution, rhyme and emphasis.

Li Qingzhao

Daughter of a noted prose writer and member of Su Dongpo’s literary circle (Li Gefei), Li Qingzhao is known as China’s greatest woman poet and a leading master of the lyric form who influenced later poets of both genders. Since Song times she was appreciated for her proud and unconventional spirit, reflected in her sometimes indecorous poetry. Learned and widely read, she was also known as a collector of antiques, painting and calligraphy.

Liu Zongyuan

Came from scholar family with some blue blood. His father had been a censor. As prefect of Liuzhou, he devised a means of releasing men and women held as surety against debts, (as did Han Yu), sometimes redeeming people at his own expense. He championed social reform throughout his life.

Lord Elgin

Born James Bruce, Lord Elgin (1811-63) was the 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, the son of the famous Elgin, Thomas Bruce (1766-1841) who had removed the Greek Marbles, allegedly with the permission of the Turkish authorities, and shipped them to England in the early part of the nineteenth century. James Bruce himself had served as the colonial Governor General of Jamaica (1842-1846) and that of Canada (1846-1854) before arriving in East Asia to become the Queen?s High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary of China and Japan in 1856.

Mei Yaochen

From a minor official family. Together with Ouyuang Xiu, he initiated the “new realism” in Song literature. Mostly held minor posts. His early work was characterized by social criticism and aimed at the ugly and the trivial. For the first time poetry was devoted to such subjects as an ugly stone, an earthworm, a maggot, a rat, or a louse. He often uses colloquial language and emphasizes the relativity of aesthetic perception.

Su Dongpo

Born into a family of lower officials, his father nonetheless was a distinguished writer. Yet the fact that his father, a “commoner,” would hobnob with high officials excited disapproving comment. He was sympathetic to the impecunious throughout his career. In his examination answers, for instance, he complained how the “wealthy clans and guilds dominated the private economy, controlling prices and bankrupting smaller merchants and farmers.” Extremely influential, he managed to introduce new forms of dress and new inventions for agriculture through his practice and his poems.

Thomas Wade

Thomas Wade was a key player in the drafting of the Treaty of Tianjin as well as the Treaty of Yantai with Li Hongzhang in 1876. After retiring from foreign service, he was invited to fill the first endowed chair of Chinese at Cambridge University and is now remembered as the sinologist who designed and promoted the Wade-Giles?s romanization system which is now replaced by the pinyin system.

Jean-Denis Attiret

Jean-Denis Attiret (1702-1768) was a French Jesuit painter and missionary to China. He went to China in 1737 and was conferred the title “Painter to the Emperor” by Emperor Qianlong. Many of Attiret’s works included paintings of natural objects, such as fruit, fish, trees, and other animals, but he also painted portraits of members of the imperial court. Attiret was one of the four Jesuit artists who were commissioned by Emperor Qianlong to depict his successful military battles in Central Asia.

Sir William Chambers

Sir William Chambers (1723-96) was an English architect. As an employee of the Swedish East India Company, he made several voyages to China where he studied Chinese architecture and decoration, making drawings of gardens and buildings. In China, he studied Chinese architecture and tradition. He designed decorative architecture (e.g., Chinese Pagoda) for the Kew Gardens. In 1757, he published a book of Chinese designs which had a significant impact on contemporary taste.

Roger Fry

Roger Fry (1866-1934) was an influential English artist and critic and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Fry’s most significant contribution is formalist aesthetic theory and his 1910 and 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibitions.

Emperor Qianlong

Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) was the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty in China. His reign (1735–96) was one of the longest in Chinese history. China’s boundaries reached their greatest extent, encompassing Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Taiwan, and portions of Central Asia. He enjoyed excellent personal relationships with Jesuit missionaries in Beijing. In the first half of his reign, agriculture made great strides and was superior to that in much of Europe. Taxes were light and education was widespread, even among the peasantry.

Ma Hezhi

Ma Hezhi (active c. second half of 12th century) was a painter of classical themes at the Southern Song (1127–1279) court in Lin’an, modern Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, and was known for his distinctive brushwork, marked by variations in hand pressure. However, the details of his life are obscure; sparse and contradictory information appears in different sources.

Nian Xiyao

Nian Xiyao (1678–1738) was the director of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. He wrote Shixue, the first Chinese treatise on Western perspective drawing, which was based on Castiglione’s explanation of Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum (Rome, ca. 1693–1700), written by the illusionistic painter Andrea Pozzo (1642–1709).

Tao Yuanming

Tao Yuanming (365-427), a native of Caisang of Xunyang (today’s southwest of Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province), was born in a family of a downfallen eunuch. He had served as an official for several years, but later abdicated his post. After rejecting the life of an official, he led a reclusive life and made rural life the major subject of his creative works. Contrary to the ornate and flowery language of poetry popular at that time, Tao Yuanming formed his own simple and natural style. Many of Tao Yuanming’s poems reflect his disgust of society and display a strong love for the quiet and simple life in the countryside.

Wang Tingna

Wang Tingna (ca. 1569-1609) was the son of a very wealthy merchant. He was a gifted student and soon came to the attention of some leading figures at the Ming’s southern court at Nanjing. Transformed from merchant to literatus by his studies and circle of acquaintances he began to participate in the examination system. However, for he withdrew from the provincial examination when his father was dying and never again took an examination. He did eventually obtain an official title, but not an appointment to an office. Wang’s life was spent in literary artistic circles. He was a collector and connoisseur of renown. Wang also became a publisher (his publishing business was on his estate) of both extremely fine editions as well as cheap popular books of dramas. His publishing business specialized in illustrated books and set a new standard in woodblock illustration.

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