Yuan Zhen (元稹, 779 – 831) lived a half a tumultuous century plus two.
His birth took place almost thirty years after the end of the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763), a fact that distinguishes him from earlier poets like Li Bai and Du Fu, who experienced first hand the devastating effects of war and its immediate aftermath. In addition to the tens of millions of deaths, the rebellion saw the fall of the capital Chang’an and the former capital Luoyang. Throughout Yuan’s life, successive emperors attempted to restore China’s ancient grandeur.
Yuan Zhen’s birthplace is variously given as Luoyang or Chang’an (modern Xi’an). Yuan Zhen was a descendant of Northern Wei’s imperial family that ruled northern China in the 5th and 6th centuries from their capital at Luoyang. Yuan Zhen’s father died when Yuan was only seven; his mother then took the family to remote Fengxiang (鳳翔), which served as the western capital of the Tang Dynasty. Yuan would pass the Imperial Examinations at a young age and become part of Bai Juyi’s literary circle at the Hanlin Academy in Chang’an. Foreign influence was not always appreciated.
Yuan Zhen observed:
“Ever since Western* horsemen began raising smut and dust, Fur and fleece, rank and rancid, have filled Chang’an and Luoyang. Women make themselves Western matrons with Western makeup; Entertainers sing Western tunes, devoted now to Western music.”
Yuan Zhen died in 831. His body was taken to Xianyang (咸阳), on the Wei River, a few miles upstream from Chang’an.
- Western horsemen meant the many Muslim and other foreign traders who brought goods along the Silk Route.