Yang Wanli was born in southern China and grew
up during a time of political turmoil in which the
Jin (Chin) Tartars of northern China conquered
the Sung dynasty. Yang lived in poverty in the
southern Song (Sung) city of Zhu-sui (Chu-sui),
away from the center of the conflict. Consequently,
his childhood was relatively normal, and he received
a classical education. He passed the civil
service examination at age 28.
After three years of service at the Song capital,
Hangzhou (Hang-chou), Yang was sent to Lingling
in the Hunan Province in 1161. There he met
and was mentored by a famous general, Zhang
Zhun, who influenced Yang’s views on the conflict
between the Song and the Jin. Yang soon adopted
the general’s belief in strong resistance against the
Jin and remained committed to that belief
throughout his life. In the Confucian tradition, he
was critical of the government when he saw corruption
or weak policies.
Yang was also influenced by the poet Xiao Dezao
(Hsiao Te-tsao), whom he also met in Ling-ling.
After Xiao advised him on the style of his poetry,
in 1162 Yang burned more than 1,000 of his poems
because he believed they were poorly written.
Yang’s later poetry, such as “Watching a Village
Festival” and “Songs of Depression,” was influenced
by Zen Buddhism and combines the essence
of a spiritual life with the events and concerns of
everyday life. His collected works feature more
than 3,200 poems and hundreds of pages of prose
written during his time as a government official.
When Yang died, he was considered to be one of
the greatest poets of the Song dynasty.
An English Version of a Work by Yang Wanli
Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow. Translated by
Jonathan Chaves. New York: Weatherhill Press,
Works about Yang Wanli
Liu, James J. Y. Major Lyricists of the Northern Sung.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Schmidt, J. D. Yang Wan-li. New York: Twayne, 1976.