The first poems of China dates back to the 4th century BC with the “Book of Songs” written by Shi Jing and the “Songs of Chu”, written by semi-legendary Qu Yuan in cooperation with his disciple Song Yu.
In the Han dynasty, Chu poems became the “fu”, a rhymed verse (except in its introduction and conclusion that are in prose). “Yue fu” lyrics had a similar development originated in the Shi verses.
During the period of division, surged the illustrious poet and ruler of Northern Wei Kingdom Cao Cao. He was father of the celebrated traditional bards Cao Pi (creator of the poem with seven syllables per line) and Cao Zhi. Another important poet of this period (not recognized in his lifetime) is Tao Qian. His poetry influenced the art of the following dynasties and today survives around 120 poems and essays which describe the idyllic rural life. Tao Qian is still known as the "Poet of the Fields".
The golden age of Chinese poetry occurred in the Sui and Tang dynasties.
From the 2nd century, the “yue fu” (popular poems composed in a folk song style with lines of uneven length) began to transform into “shi” (a very personal expression with more complex ideas that dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era). Shi was five-character line and survives romantic nature and Taoist poems.
"Gushi" is a term to refer the oldest poems characterized by non-regulated verse while “Jintishi”, refers to regulated verse which evolved since the 5th century.
The Tang dynasty was the pick of the Jintishi. During this period several set tonal patterns were created, trying to balance the tones of classical Chinese language. Famous Tang poets are: Bai Juyi, Li Qiao, Luo Binwang, Wang Wei, and Zhang Jiuling, but the most prominent and frequently considered as the greatest of the Chinese poets are Li Po and Du fu.
Li Po wrote about 1000 intense poems, many of them fantastic and related to Taoism or Confucian moral. His works have a remarkable use of language with an extravagance of imagination and a direct tie with the person who reads. His best poems are related to nature and friendship, always with an acute vision of life.
Du Fu is known as the "poet historian", because most of his poems are based on military strategies, the successes and failures of governments, or advices for rulers. He mastered all the styles of Chinese poetry and the quality of his poems is still greatly valued. "The Song of the Wagons" (c. 750) is the oldest and a fine instance of his great work.
At the late Tang dynasty appeared Li Shangyin, a poet which verses are often sensuous, dense, allusive and difficult to translate, containing political romantic or philosophical issues.
His contemporary, the ruler Li Yu composed his best poems during the time after the Song ended his reign and took him as a prisoner. He focused on developing the "ci" (lyric poetry) by expanding its scope from love to philosophy and history. Li Yu also established the two-stanza form in the Chinese poetry.
Ci was popular during the Song dynasty, often expressing feelings, particularly romance; but the best ci poets like Li Houzhu and Su Shi used the form to express different topics. Other Song poets are: Li Qingzhao, Lu You, Ouyang Xiu and Wang Anshi.
Gao Qi is the most notable poet of the Ming dynasty. His work is supported on the previous dynasties forms, but with personal characteristics that created a new style of poetry. In prose, Zhang Dai was a notable essayist and Wen Zhenheng wrote beautifully about garden designs.
During the Qing dynasty Yuan Mei stood out. He wrote poetry and essays motivated by his beliefs in Chan religion (a fusion between Buddhism and Taoism), and also was a painter. His poems are described as bizarrely clear and stylish language.
Modern Chinese poetry doesn’t follow particular patterns and in general, has been separated from traditional styles. However, there have appeared tendencies like the Misty Poetry in 1970s as a response against the Cultural Revolution and in favor of democracy. Its most notable poet is Bei Dao, famous by his noteworthy poem "Huida" ("The Answer") inspired in Tiananmen protests.
Xu Zhimo is another modern-notable poet and writer. His literature was one of the first to profitably adopt Western romantic forms into contemporary Chinese poetry and novels.