Tuesday, March 27, 2012





"Certain stylistic devices feature prominently in Chinese poetry, including allusion, imagery, parallelism and stylized language."

From "Chinese Love Poetry"
A book edited by Jane Portal,(The British Museum)




The following is "A Study of: Tao Yuanming's Nature Poetry"
By Angela Jung Palandri
Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 15 (1988) pp. 97-121
Copyright 1988 by Dialogue Publishing Company,
Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.


In the intellectual history of China, two philosophical schools, Taoism and Confucianism, predominated up to the twentieth century.

Although these two rival philosophies contended for supremacy, each served, jointly or separately, as a basic mode of Chinese thinking, which would in turn form the infra- and supra-structures of traditional Chinese society.

Though divergent in their approach and methods of application, the followers of both Confucius and Lao Tzu, set as their ultimate goal the attainment of the Tao, an elusive term that defies exact translation.

"The Tao that can be defined is not the eternal Tao, warned Lao Tzu, the acknowledged founder of Taoism.

For practical purposes the word is usually translated as "the way," "the path," or "the road."
By extension, it has come to mean the norm (in the Platonic sense), the moral principles, Truth, or Nature.

To Confucianists, the Tao stands for an abstract principle in the realm of ethics, applicable to human behavior and human relationships.
More concretely stated, a man can become an ideal moral being, if the moral law is implemented by education and by adherence to a set structure of duties, rites, and observances.

The Taoist, on the other hand, believes that man's spirit is free and that it must be allowed to grow and expand spontaneously, to live in harmony with nature where all things are equal.
In the Taoist view, to cultivate goodness in man through academic learning and socially imposed rules and conventions is to restrict him to superficial human values, which are material and temporal, and to strip him of his primordial purity and simplicity.

The earliest literature on the Tao is the Lao-tzu, traditionally attributed to Lao Tzu, a semi-legendary figure supposed to be a contemporary of Confucius (551-479 B.C.).
Although highly cryptic, it remains the uncontested authority for orthodox Taoist philosophy.
The second most important of the Taoist writings is the Chuang-tzu, named after
the honorific title of its author, Chuang Chou.

According to Arthur Waley, in his Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Chuang Tzu "can be understood by anyone who knows how to read poetry."
Indeed, the Chuang-tzu is read today more for its literary qualities than for its metaphysics, because it is highly imaginative, and full of rich symbols, imagery, and paradox.

What little we know of Chuang Tzu is found in the Shih-chi (Historical Records) of Szu-ma Ch'ien, from which we learn that he was a native of Sung, born during the last part of the fourth century B.C. and thus a contemporary of Mencius.
Even though he was sought by the rulers of Ch'i and Ch'u to assist them in governing, he never served them in any official capacity.

He spent his time in teaching and writing, content to live poor but independent. Chuang Tzu's philosophy has had little impact on the social and political systems of China, but his influence on Chinese literature, especially on nature poetry, has been immeasurable.

In the introduction to his translation of Chinese poetry, "Images of Jade", Arthur Christy observes:
Nature, the Universe, is the Chinese poet's field.
Here he exercises the widest liberty in indulging his passion for the things which please his fancy.
And what he produces is not primitive or elemental in feeling, nor is it a mere enjoyment of the sensuous. If a comparison may be permitted, he is more Wordsworthian than Keatsian.

His poetry is a chastened and subdued product of reflection, for he regards Nature not merely as a physical phenomenon, with sensuously enjoyable qualities, but as animating soul which is in intimate relation with life itself.
For him spirit interprets matter. He is a thorough-going mystic.
He is not satisfied merely with a faithful representation of presentation in his art of what he sees and feels, although he does this extremely well.
His desire in to render Nature's more subtle and essential aspects, for in them he believes he finds the way towards an appreciation of the Law of our being and the universe as a whole.



Among the numerous nature poets in China, T'ao Yuan-ming, also known as T'ao Ch'ien (365-427 A.D.), comes closest to the above description.

The earliest recognized and the most admired of all Chinese nature poets, T'ao Yuan-ming also had a great affinity with the English Romantic poet, Wordsworth (1770-1850).
Granted that the two are separated by time and space, and are products of their own environments and their own philosophical traditions, their poetic inspirations, however, seem to have been derived from the same source: Nature.
And Nature plays a major role in both their lives and their poetry.

Wordsworth's concept of nature can be traced to Rousseau's idea of primitivism, with the elevation of the "Noble Savage" and the belief that man's heart and actions are basically good, until he is tainted or corrupted by civilization, which then causes him to become crafty and devious through imitation or education.

T'ao Yuan-ming perceives nature through the vision embodied in Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, in which nature is equated to the primordial power of creation.
If anything, it is close to the Natura Naturans of Spinoza, who, also believes that all things are determined in Nature, which he conceives to be infinite and unified.

"Instead of maintaining that God is like man magnified to infinity, who has absolute, irresponsible control of a Universe which is external to him," observes Joseph Ratner, author of The Introduction to the Philosophy of Spinoza, "Spinoza maintains that God is identical with the Universe and muse be and act according to eternal and necessary laws."
In this sense, Spinoza is also a Taoist at heart in observing that God is Nature, or that God, Nature or substance is one.

For in the final analysis, Spinoza's Natura Naturan and Natura Naturata are ultimately one.

But Chuang Tzu seems to go one step further when he implies that man's freedom can be gained only by transcending one's self and by becoming one with Nature as he voices in the following paradox:
"The perfect man has no self: the holy man has no merit; the Sage has no fame."

It was in pursuit of this kind of vision that T'ao Yuan-ming renounced public life and returned to his farm, that is, to nature.
The "return to nature" served as a turning point in T'ao Yuan-ming's life and in his poetry.
He wrote several poems to justify, exalt, and commemorate the occasion, which possibly happened in 405 A.D.
In the first section of a long poem entitled "Returning to My Farm," he confesses:

In my youth I was out of tune with the world of man.
My nature inclined me to mountains and streams.
By mistake I fell into the web of the dusty world.
And thirty years of my life have been wasted.

The captive bird longs for its home in the grove.
The fish in the tank craves for its former abode.
So I have cleaned up the wilderness south of the village;
Remaining rustic, I have returned to my farms.

Elms and willows lend shades to my rear eaves;
Peach and plum trees decorate my front hall.
Distance blurs the village from sight,
Wrapt in mist and smoke rising from the chimneys.
Dogs bark in the narrow lanes;
Cocks crow atop the mulberry trees.
No dust or turmoil in this homestead;
Plenty of freedom in the unadorned rooms.
Long, long was I confined in a cage;
Now I have returned to nature once more.

The same return-to-nature theme is further repeated in a fu (a prose poem) bearing a similar title, "Returning Home" ("Kuei-ch'iu lai- hsi" , which is prefaced by an introductory note that reads in part:
I was poor, and what I got from fanning was not enough to support my family. The house was full of children, the rice jar was empty, and I could not see any way to supply the necessities of life... P'eng-tse was only thirty miles from my native place, and the yield of the fields assigned the magistrate was sufficient to keep me in wine, so I applied for the office. Before many days had passed, I longed to give up and go back home.

Why, you may ask. Because my instinct is all for freedom, and will not brook discipline and restraint.
Hunger and cold may be sharp, but this going against myself really sickens me. Whenever I have been involved in official life I was mortgaging myself to my mouth and belly and the realization of this greatly upset me...

The ensuing long poem in sixty lines of irregular meter that follows expresses the poet's elation and irrepressible joy at the free, rustic, and simple life after the return:

Every day I stroll in the garden for pleasure,
There is a gate there, but it is always shut.
Cane in hand I walk and rest
Occasionally raising my head to gaze into the distance.
The clouds aimlessly rise from the peaks,
The birds, weary of flying, know it is time to come home.
As the sun's rays grow dim and disappear from view
I walk around a lonely pine tree, stroking it.

Back home again!
May my friendships be broken off and my wandering
come to an end.
The world and I shall have nothing more to do
with one another...

I admire the seasonableness of nature
And am moved to think that my life will come to its close
I have no desire for riches
And no expectation of Heaven.
Rather on some fine morning to walk alone
Now planting my staff to take up a hoe,
Or climbing the east hill and whistling long
Or composing verses besides the clear stream:
So I manage to accept my lot until the ultimate home coming.
Rejoicing in Heaven's command, what is there to doubt?


Although T'ao Yuan-ming tells us that he is fond of nature by inclination, we sense that his joy in nature is heightened after his disillusionment with public life during a period when China was occupied by alien tribes in the north, and was rift apart by the civil strife and political corruption of the government in the south.

Coincidentally, Wordsworth, too, took refuge in nature and chose the life of a recluse at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, after he became disillusioned with the French Revolution.
His long, autobiographical poem entitled "The Prelude" (written between 1798 and 1805, but not published until his death in 1850) remotely echoes the sentiments of the fifth-century Chinese poet in these lines:

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings
From the green fields, and from yon azure sky.
Whate'er its mission, the soft breeze can come
To none more grateful than to me; escaped
From the vast city, where I long had pined
A discontented sojourner: now free,
Free as a bird to settle where I will.

Note also how similar in feeling and tone with T'ao Yuan-ming is Wordsworth's poem :

"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"
.. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Though of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
Those plots of cottage-grounds, these orchard-tufts.
Which at this season, with their upripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees.

The landscapes of the nineteenth-century English countryside could not possibly have been identical with the countryside of fifth century China, but one cannot fail to see the similarities in description, in the exuberance that both poets derive from their respective natural elements.

Further on in the same poem, Wordsworth grows into a more reflective mood and rises to a more elevated thought, which could well have been that of the Chinese poet:

... For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing often times
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, and objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things...

In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my mortal being.


Although less explicit and low-key in expression, T'ao Yuan-ming finds both pleasure and sustenance in the nature that surrounds him in all seasons, whether he is well provided for or destitute. In the two poems written in response to Secretary Kuo, a former colleague of the poet, who might earlier have questioned T'ao Yuan-ming's wisdom in choosing early retirement from public life, or sympathized with his present humble condition (we have no way of determining which, since we do not have Kuo's writing), T'ao Yuan-ming describes the rather cheerful condition of his rustic life:

Luxuriant are the trees in front of the hall;
In mid-summer they offer cool shade.
The seasonal south wind arrives on time.
How refreshing it blows through my open lapel.
In retirement I am engaged only in leisure:
I amuse myself with books and music, free to rise or to rest.

My vegetable garden yields plenty for the table;
The rice bin still contains last year's grain.
There is a limit to what one needs;
Having more than enough is not my plan.
With sorghum I have made wine in spring.
Now that it is ripe, I pour myself a cup or two.
My little child frolicking by my side
Is trying to make intelligible sound.
In all these I have found genuine delight
Which helps me to forget honor and rank.
As I gaze at the white clouds in the distance,
The ancients are deep in my thoughts.

Mild and moist were the months of spring;
Cool and clear is the white season of autumn.
Now the dew congeals, no longer drifting mists.
The sky is high, the landscape sharp and clear.
Soaring peaks rise from yonder mountain range --
Seen from here, their lofty beauty is unsurpassed.
Fragrant chrysanthemums deck the woods with splendor;
The green pines stand in rows above the cliff.
I admire their beauteous grandeur,
Elegant and lofty under the frost.
Holding my wine cup, I toast to the mystics
Who once roamed along the pines.
Searching for the essence I have not yet acquired,
Reluctantly I await the rising moon.

Granted, these poems are replete with ambiguous symbols not easily grasped, and thus lend themselves to various interpretations; however, the general tenor and intention of the poems are quite clear.
While the conventional symbols of chrysanthemums and pines could very well stand for the poet's personal integrity and endurance, it seems unlikely that these poems stress T'ao's own moral values.
This can be substantiated by the poet's allusion to the "ancients" in the last line of the first verse, and to the "mystics" in the second verse.
Both seem to refer to the same "ancients" mentioned in the following passage of Chuang-tzu:

The understanding of the men of ancient times went a long way.
How far did it go?
To the point where some of them believed that things have never existed -- so far, to the end, where nothing can be added.

Those at the next stage thought there were boundaries but recognized no right or wrong.
Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and because the Way was injured, love became complete.
But do such things as completion and injury really exist or do they not?

- Only in this context do the last two lines, which defy the interpretation of many critics, make sense.
It has often been said that T'ao Yuan-ming's poetic language, unlike that of his contemporaries, is simple and unadorned.
This does not mean that he is incapable of expressing profound thought.
However, when his thought verges on mysticism, or his idea grows out of his Taoist vision, words are inadequate for the full expression of the concept.
The reader can either confine himself to appreciating the surface meaning of the poem or he can attempt to read between the lines, and try to grasp its meaning through his intuitive power.

The following poem is a good example of the intrinsic complexity of T'ao's thought behind his deceptively simple expressions:

I have built my cottage amid the realm of men
But I hear no din of horses or carriages.
You might ask. "How is this possible?"
A remote heart creates its own hermitage!
Picking chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
I perceive the Southern Mountain in the distance.
Marvelous is the mountain air at sunset!
The flitting birds return home in pairs.
In these things is the essence of truth --
I wish to explain but have lost the words.

The concrete imagery and the realistic description in these lines seem to have such a strong impact on the reader, that he may feel transported from a mundane world into a rare world of beauty and tranquility, momentarily sharing and experiencing the poet's vision.
The juxtaposition of the Southern Mountain (a symbol of immutability) and the chrysanthemums (a symbol of impermanence but recurrence) could, by their contrasting yet harmonious presence, lift the reader out of the existential level to a metaphysical plane of perception approaching to a universal harmony, or an infusion between subject and object.

At the same time, one is kept in touch with the reality of the present -- heightened by the feel of the mountain air and the sight of the birds flying home at sunset.
If this is a subjective and perhaps limited response to the poem, it is because one can hardly find adequate words to explain the full import of that which the poet himself has left unexplained because words have failed him.

The last line of this poem in particular is reminiscent of the first line in chapter one of Lao-tzu which says: "The Tao that can be explained is not the eternal Tao [or Truth]."

However, if one can grasp the Truth through one's intuitive power, there is indeed no need for words, as Chuang-tzu explains:

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.
The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit, once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.
Words exist because of the meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

Could the truth that T'ao Yuan-ming tries to convey in his poem be inherent in the innocence and glory of "the new-born blesses" that Wordsworth writes about in Stanza VIII of his "Intimations of Immortality":

Thou, whose exterior semblance does belie the Soul's immensity;
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind, --
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truth do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find¡

Unlike Wordsworth, T'ao Yuan-ming did not seem to have to "toil" to find the truth, or the Tao, in his life. He simply lived it, by returning to Nature.

Since his resignation from public service, and his rejection of those social values which tied him down, the poet was able to "return home" to his natural habitat, free from all outside pressures or the need to conform, free to follow the dictates of his own nature.
He was content even in adversity with the life he chose to live.

Although he experienced hunger and cold, as he stated in several poems, even to the point of begging for food, as attested to by his poem "Ch'i-shih" ("Begging Food"), he never complained and never lost heart.

But he did not choose the deliberate asceticism practiced by certain Taoist and Buddhist religious sects.
He never denied himself the pleasures of wine whenever he could afford it, he enjoyed family life and the company of his rustic friends and neighbors.

Two-thirds of T'ao Yuanming's extant poems were written after his resignation from the office of P'eng-tse magistrate.
They are a record of his life as a farmer, eking out his livelihood from the soil.

This is where he and Wordsworth part company, because Wordsworth wrote about the humble subject and the rustic, and the hard life of "Michael" or the "Leech Gatherer" purely from a spectator's point of view;

T'ao Yuanming left us with his first-hand experiences and a record of his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Occasionally, T'ao Yuanming brooded upon such ontological questions as life and death.

One representative poem of his philosophical reflections is "Hsing, Ying, Shen" (variously translated as "Substance, Shadow and Spirit," or "Body, Shadow, and Soul"). Of this poem, A. R. Davis comments:

This poem stands out in T'ao's collection as a deliberately "philosophical" poem.

Similar ideas can be found incidentally in other of his poems, but here alone in his surviving work are they developed to the point of dialectical treatment.

The piece, however, remains a poem, a fine poem; it is not a philosophical essay.
It has, therefore, the obliqueness of reference, natural to poetry and the poet's mind.

Although there is in the few words of the preface a slight suggestion of polemic
the expression is strongly personal, and I think that it is wrong to regard it too much as a document in contemporary intellectual controversy...

In a head-note to his poem, T'ao Yuanming gives the following explanation:
"Every one, noble or base, brilliant or dumb, clings tenaciously to life, which is nothing but a delusion.
Therefore, I have given voice to Substance and Shadow to express their grief, and let the Soul or Spirit resolve their problems by following the course of Nature. Those who are concerned with this matter understand my intention."
The poet's intention seems to present at first three different points of view regarding human life and mortality. The source of T'ao Yuanming's philosophical outlook is found in Chuang-tzu:

"Once a man receives this fixed bodily form, he holds onto it, waiting for the end. Sometimes clashing with things, sometimes bending before them, he runs his course like a galloping steed, and nothing can stop him. Is he not pathetic?"

Further on, in the same book one reads:

"Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of schemes; ... do not be a proprietor of wisdom... Hold on to all that you have received Heaven (i.e. Nature) but do not think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all."

T'ao Yuanming, in this poem, makes Substance speak for the hedonistic 'carpe diem concept of indulging in wine, since there is nothing for him to look forward to.

He does not believe in the attainment of immortality as do some of the Taoists of the esoteric religious cults, nor does he believe in the transcendency of inevitable change as preached by the Buddhists of his time.

The Shadow represents the transitory glory of name and fame or moral virtues from the humanist perspective adhered to by most Confucians.
T'ao Yuanming's own philosophy, represented by the Spirit, is that man should follow the course of Nature, which is the essence of Tao. The poem, quoted here in full, is one of the most revealing texts of the poet's philosophical bent:


Shadow to Substance:

Earth and heaven endure forever,
Streams and mountains never change.
Plants observe a constant rhythm,
Withered by frost, by dew restored.
But man, most sentient being of all,
In this is not their equal.
He is present here in the world today,
Then leaves abruptly, to return no more.
No one marks there's one man less --
Not even friends and family think of him;
The things that he once used are all that's left
To catch their eye and move them to grief.
I have no way to transcend change,
That it must be, I no longer doubt.
I hope you will take my advice:
When wine is offered, don't refuse.

No use discussing immortality
When just to keep alive is hard enough.
Of course I want to roam in paradise,
But it's a long way there and the road is lost.
In all the time since I met up with you
We never differed in our grief and joy.
In shade we may have parted for a time,
But sunshine always brings us close again.

Still this union cannot last forever --
Together we will vanish into darkness.
The body goes; that fame should also end
Is a thought that makes me burn inside.
Do good, and your love will outlive you;
Surely this is worth your every effort.
While it is time, wine may dissolve care
That is not so good a way as this.





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