Qianlong Emperor: The Worst Poet in Chinese History?

The longest-lived ruler of the Qing dynasty wrote 43,000 poems in his lifetime, most of them bad.

If you ask a Chinese person who was the most successful poet in Chinese history, the answer will most likely be someone from the Tang dynasty (618-907), the golden age of Chinese poetry. For example, the “poet-immortal” Li Bai, known for the fantastic themes and playfulness of his works; the “poet-sage” Du Fu, who wrote realistic poems about this chaotic time in history; or Bai Juyi, whose low-key, near-vernacular style made his verses understandable even to the uneducated, and whose works are enjoyed by readers in foreign countries like Japan and Korea.

But when it comes to being the most prolific poet, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1616-1911) has all these Tang luminaries beat. One of the longest-lived monarchs in Chinese history, the Qianlong Emperor had 43,000 poems to his name by the time he died at the age of 88, meaning he allegedly wrote 1.3 poems each day on average (by comparison, the 18th century’s Complete Tang Poems, China’s largest collection of Tang poetry, contains around 49,000 poems by more than 2,200 poets). “Alleged” is the key word here, as it’s not clear the emperor penned a single poem attributed to him, and he was certainly more concerned with quantity than quality, to put it mildly.

It was not rare for ancient Chinese emperors to write poems. Li Jing, the second ruler of the Southern Tang state during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960), and his son and successor Li Yu, are both recognized as great poets.

But unfortunately, hundreds of years on, no one could say the same of the Qianlong Emperor, except, perhaps, for the Son of Heaven himself. That’s because the emperor was very proud of his poetic achievements, once exclaiming in his late years: “At the age of nearly 90, I have created as many poems as that of the poets of the whole Tang dynasty. Isn’t that a legend in the literary world?” Qian Zhongshu, a renowned 20th-century literary scholar and writer, commented on the Qianlong Emperor’s poems in his On the Art of Poetry: The Emperor Gaozong of the Qing [Qianlong] wrote poems like he was writing essays, using many unnecessary auxiliary words. It makes people sick.” Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.