Yuan Zhen - Poet and Politician of the Tang Dynasty
Yuan Zhen (元稹; 779–September 2, 831), courtesy name Weizhi (微之), was a politician of the middle Tang Dynasty, but is more known as an important Chinese writer and poet, particularly for work Yingying's Biography (莺莺传), which was often adapted for other treatments, including operatic and musical ones. He was briefly chancellor during the reign of Emperor Muzong.
A native of Luoyang, Yuan Zhen was a descendant of Northern Wei's imperial family. He lost his father at the age of seven and moved to Fengxiang (凤翔), near today's Baoji, Shanxi with his mother Lady Zheng (郑氏). Yuan began his writings at the age of fifteen. He was a member of Bai Juyi's literary circle and a key figure in the ancient literature revival. He was a friend of Bai Juyi and also of Xue Tao, a courtesan and famous poet who might have been his lover. Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen made a "Green Mountain pact" to retire together as Taoist recluses once they had accumulated enough funds, but Yuan's untimely death kept them from achieving that dream. In 813, Yuan wrote a grave inscription for Du Fu, which contains some of the earliest known praise for his predecessor's works.
Yuan Zhen was born in 779, around the time of Emperor Dezong's ascension to the throne. He was a 10th-generation descendant of Tuoba Shiyijian, the grandfather of Northern Wei's founder Emperor Daowu, who was posthumously honored Emperor Zhaocheng after Northern Wei's founding. Yuan Zhen's male ancestor line was renamed Yuan, from Tuoba, when Emperor Xiaowen changed Xianbei names to Han names in 496. Subsequently ancestors of Yuan Zhen's served as officials of Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty. His grandfather Yuan Fei (元悱) served as a county secretary general, while his father Yuan Kuan (元宽) served as a low-level official at the ministry of justice, as well as secretary to an imperial prince.
Yuan Kuan died when Yuan Zhen was seven, and Yuan Zhen was raised by his mother Lady Zheng, who was considered an intelligent woman. As the household was poor, she did not send Yuan Zhen to school, but taught him to read and write herself. It was said that Yuan became capable of writing at age eight, and at age 14 passed the imperial examination for understanding two Confucian classics. At age 23, he was made a copyeditor at the archival bureau (秘书省).