The Poetry of the Early T’ang

Book Review
The Poetry of the Early T’ang by Stephen Owen

Stephen Owen’s series of books on Tang poetry (three: Early Tang, High Tang, and Late Tang) are ambitious and admirable, a cornerstone of the education of anyone seriously interested in the greatest era of Chinese poetry. In this volume, his first, Owen manages to survey a broad swath of poets, relate their biographical details, translate scores of poems, tell us what was unique about each one’s style, and how it related to the overall development of poetics in China.

However, I cannot in good faith give this five stars for several reasons: 1) The translation style is quite loose, and loses some of the poems’ essential elements; 2) the overarching narrative of a development toward the High Tang means that he slights the achievements of a number of truly spectacular Early Tang poets; and 3) the book was not thoroughly copy-edited, and so there exist a number of typos in both English and Chinese. (For further elaboration of certain faults, see Paul Kroll’s review of the book inĀ Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 1.1 (1979) and Owen’s response in the same journal’s next volume.)

Nevertheless, Owen’s achievement in providing a broad history of this whole period – a touchstone from which others have launched more detailed studies – is unparalleled and laudatory, a testament to his impressive scholarship.

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