WE have now come to the poems for which Wang Wei has become justly famous—his impassive depictions of tranquil nature scenes, often written while on temporary retreat from service at court. Although, as I hope has been made clear, they do not make up the entirety of his oeuvre by any means, they do embody the type of vision most characteristic of and best expressed by him. They are also more immediately accessible to Western readers by virtue of the relatively less significant role played by literary, historical, and religious allusions in them than in other works, although it is important to remember that most of these would have been thoroughly familiar to Wang Wei’s own audience. In most cases notes are only necessary to supply geographical information. For these reasons, and also because these evocations of scene tend to be rather brief, more translations have been included here than in any other chapter.
I have arranged these poems according to certain patterns of perception and thought which underlie Wang Wei’s mode of apprehending the world, but the distinctions are certainly not hard and fast ones. The first four poems continue along the lines suggested at the end of the last chapter, revealing an implicit denial of the visual which is striking in the work of someone who has been singled out for the visual immediacy and precision of his concrete images by most Western critics. This is not surprising, however, when the philosophical and religious underpinnings, with their emphasis on intuitive rather than sensuous perception, are considered. In poem 76, “Written on Crossing the Yellow River to Qinghe,” for example, Wang Wei explicitly frames the presentation of precise details of a natural scene by statements which suggest a more powerful haziness of vision. Sky and earth seem to have merged in the opening of this poem, and the speaker can distinguish nothing within this vast expanse of river and clouds. Although the uniformity momentarily disperses to offer a view of some elements of his surroundings, he sees no really distinct objects; even during this brief period of clarity his sense of sight is unreliable, for he only “seems to” spot mulberry trees and hemp plants on the shore. And in the final couplet, as the poet turns to look back on the course he has traveled, he finds his view blocked once again: a huge watery mist encloses and obscures everything in the scene.
Wang Wei again suggests the bounds of visual perception in poem 77, “Mt. Zhongnan,” which also opens with a depiction of connectedness and distance. The “celestial capital” which the mountain adjoins may refer to an imaginary stellar as well as to the actual imperial center, so it simultaneously looms up into the heights and overlooks Chang’an. The following hyperbolic image (the range was actually limited to the inland province of Shaanxi) conveys the sense of horizontal, in addition to this vertical, extension. It is above all in the second couplet that Wang Wei evokes the contingent and limited nature of perception. Each line contains a verb of sight coupled with another active verb, which is then followed by an implicit denial of the ability to actually see anything at all. As he turns to gaze into the distance behind him, white clouds unite to obstruct his view. And as he proceeds forward, the azure mists which he had once perhaps perceived as a distinct entity have suddenly, now that he has penetrated them, disappeared or become “nothing” (wu). In both directions his view is blocked, by an enclosing barrier of clouds behind and undefined “nothingness” ahead; the neo-Taoist implications of wu, of course, also suggest that the true basis of reality is something that cannot be “looked” at.
Another way in which Wang Wei renders apparently precise imagery curiously unvisualizable is by using a few key abstract nouns, as in poem 78, “Sailing down the Han River.” Here again the second couplet emphasizes the intangibility of the scene, with the subject in each case an abstraction (“flow” and “color”) rather than a concrete noun, creating a sense of elusive otherworldliness. The river’s flow extends “beyond heaven and earth” and is thus inaccessible to normal human perception. Likewise, the mountain’s hue lies somewhere “between [or within] being and nonbeing,” a description which can hardly be considered visually immediate. Furthermore, the terminology here recalls the Buddhist notions of the apparent illusoriness of all things yet also their ultimate reality in the unity of emptiness. The word for “color” (se), for example, is also the Chinese translation for the Sanskrit rūpa, the Buddhist term for form, appearance, and phenomenon. Wang Wei is thus implying here that no distinctions can be made between the concrete and the abstract, or existence and nonexistence; rūpa and śūnyatā are identical, as phrased in the Heart Sūtra quoted above (p. 117): “form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form.” And after presenting elements of the scene in terms that cannot be visually apprehended, Wang Wei goes on to suggest the fundamental relativity of perception. The cities in line 5 seem to be floating on the shore because the observer himself is not stationary, but passing by in his boat, and what appears to be the sky moving among the waves is actually only its reflection. The ethereality of the scene is further heightened when we remember that the word for sky here (kong) also means emptiness.
Poem 79, “Zhongnan Retreat,” similarly uses abstractions to suggest a certain evanescent, unvisualizable quality of the concrete. Wang Wei opens in an unusually discursive manner, evoking the freedom and spontaneity of life in reclusion and then ambiguously suggesting an ideal mode of cognition in line 3. “Splendid things” (sheng shi) may be interpreted, somewhat paradoxically, as either “worldly affairs” or “beautiful scenes,” or it may also refer to “affairs of the past,” as in the phrase sheng chao, which means “the past dynasty.” In any case, for Wang Wei these “splendid things” seem to represent any aspects of the phenomenal world which men habitually value but which he, in contrast, knows to be “empty.” “Empty knowledge,” of course, is the nondual awareness of śūnyatā, the transcendence of distinctions through the intuitive apprehension of an underlying oneness of all things. Wang Wei continues to undermine the reliability of normal perception in the third couplet, where the object of each verb is not a concrete noun but an abstraction: “place” and “time.” He defines his destination in negative, imprecise terms: it is simply “the place where the water ends,” all other scenic details remaining unspecified, and he watches not the clouds themselves moving in the sky but “the time when clouds rise.” The action of the clouds has been frozen, but that does not make them more stable, concrete, and easily apprehended. Rather, time itself seems to have been hypostatized and transformed into an object of perception which by nature cannot be visually perceived.
This refusal to concentrate detail on specific objects also characterizes the dominant temporal patterns underlying Wang Wei’s depictions of natural scenes and illustrated in the next four poems. His preference for the unknowable, unspecifiable, and vague emerges especially clearly in his focus on extended moments of transition, whether on a daily or a seasonal scale, when temporal flux prevents the isolation of particular moments or objects. Yet at the same time, although this concern concentrates on time as linear movement and change, by becoming the very object of focus it paradoxically stops the flow and results in the sense of stasis and timelessness typical of the poet’s works. Poem 80, “Dwelling in the Mountains: Impromptu Lines,” for example, is situated at two transitional moments—of the season and of the day. Bamboos “hold new powder,” the promise of the future, while lotuses shed their petals or “old clothes,” remnants of the past. Similarly, the lighting of fires signals the beginning of the night while the return of the water chestnut pickers ends the day. In each case the juxtaposition serves to hypostatize a moment in the natural cycle, embracing temporal distinctions only to transcend them. The last four lines of poem 81, “Recluse Li’s Mountain Dwelling,” create a similar extended moment.
Poem 82, “Rejoicing that Zu the Third Has Come to Stay,” refers simultaneously to present, past, and future moments in the poet’s friendship, and the next poem to the same person also creates a sense of stasis through the juxtaposition of temporal adverbs, which appear in all but two lines. In the first line “just” evokes the briefness of the friends’ visit together; they have seemed “only” to have had the time to smile once, and this has “just” occurred in the immediate past. “Still” in line 2 also links past and present, but with the opposite implications: while their happiness has been fleeting, their sadness is prolonged indefinitely. The farewell banquet has occurred in the past, but “already” indicates the speaker’s painful awareness of the future, and “again” in line 4 brings the past into the present, with its notion of recurrence also suggesting a cyclical stasis. Line 7 evokes the speed of Zu’s departure, collapsing time into a moment which embraces both present and past. Wang Wei’s friend has, by implication, just untied his boat and set off, yet he is “already far away”: his travel, then, seems to have taken “no time.” And the last line explicitly depicts the motionlessness developed throughout the poem; temporal and physical stasis are linked, for Zu Yong is actually still standing still.
Spatial parallels to this all-embracing temporal stasis in Wang Wei’s poetry can be seen in poems 84-87. Just as he focuses on transitional moments to obliterate clear distinctions in time, so he often presents landscapes in which locations and directions of movement are juxtaposed and balanced. Granted, in “Written at Qi River Fields and Gardens,” for example, the parallelism of regulated verse would demand the oppositions in space of the middle two couplets, which seem to cancel each other out, but the first and last couplets also contribute to the creation of a vast tableau devoid of motion. In the next four poems, verbs which express location or contiguity rather than transitive action—such as “overlooks,” “joins,” “connects”—and place words which simply locate things in relation to each other—such as “beyond,” “amid,” “above,” “below,” etc.—similarly create the impression of motionlessness. Furthermore, this mode of presentation evokes the sense of a fundamentally interconnected universe and avoids concentration on the specific description of any one particular object, as might be expected from Wang Wei’s awareness of perceptual limitations and his preference for vagueness. For example, in poem 85, “Recent Clearing: An Evening View,” we seem to have been given a number of visualizable details, but the poet actually provides no specific information, except for colors, about the physical characteristics and contours of elements in the scene. Rather than focus on an extended description of one object in each line, he merely names it and places it in relation to another. Nor does he specify where each pair should be placed within the total scene; he is concerned less with painting a detailed canvas than with evoking his particular sense of space.
Farewell poems provide a predictably apt context for developing notions of time and space, and Wang Wei’s many works written on such occasions are no exception. Poems 88-97 were all composed on the departures of various friends and colleagues, mostly for government posts in the provinces. In almost every case Wang Wei characteristically traces the path or events his addressee will soon traverse and experience, thus in effect collapsing time and space into an all-encompassing whole. Poem 89, “Farewell to Yuan the Second on His Mission to Anxi,” is a notable exception, for its last line drifts off into the unknown. This sense of incompletion must have been apparent to traditional audiences, however, for when the poem became a popular farewell song, the last line was repeated three times.
The next few poems do typically display a knowledge of imminent events which joins disparate moments—not only present and future, but also the past, by way of historical allusion—in a timeless whole. Wang Wei combines this with frequently verbless evocations of the landscape as a vast enclosed entity in which all elements, and by implication poet and friend, too, are linked, thus transcending distance in space as well. Poem 95, “Farewell to Senior Officer Yang Going to Office in Guozhou,” for example, begins by exaggerating the difficulties of the friend’s journey and indirectly suggests that Yang should perhaps abandon such impossible travels. The second couplet contains no verbs, creating the sense of both spatial and temporal expanse. The path of one thousand Chinese miles is one which only birds should be flying; by implication, the actual distance which men must traverse, winding up, down, and around the mountains, would be much greater. And temporally the journey would also seem unending, for gibbons’ cries, traditionally interpreted as mournful, would be heard relentlessly all day, every day. Yet this space is simultaneously one in which Wang Wei and Yang are connected, here by the image of the moon they share. And the cuckoo’s call in the last line alludes by convention to the prospect of return: this final image brings the poem back to its point of departure and, coupled with the reference to the moon and the opening mention of the impossibility of travel, creates the impression that Yang has never left, that no movement has occurred at all.
In the next three poems Wang Wei specifically invokes the spanning of distances by coupling the word “from afar” (yao) with verbs of cognition or recognition. Despite the vastness soon to separate speaker and addressee in poem 96, “Farewell to Judiciary Inspector Wei,” the former knows from afar the latter’s feelings and perceptions. The same phrase recurs in poem 98, “Written on Climbing Candidate Pei Di’s Little Pavilion,” and to the same effect. The opening lines here describe a peaceful life amid the fullness of nature, with interesting transpositions in the second couplet similar to those of poem 84: although we would generally expect to find the smaller or more quickly moving objects, the birds, defined in relation to the larger sun, here Wang Wei presents them as an unmoving point of reference next to the usually imperceptible downward movement of the star. Similarly, in the following line he attributes what is normally considered a human quality—being at leisure—to the autumn plain. In both cases, the two actions or states are typically depicted as contiguous or linked, and the reversals, furthermore, suggest an abstract, underlying unity of man and nature that would enable such interchangeability of description.
This poem was not written, of course, on the occasion of a friend’s departure, but the situation is similar, if somewhat ambiguous, because of the implied separation. From the title we know that Wang Wei is at Pei Di’s pavilion, but the whereabouts of the latter is unclear. He may also be there as host, but the mention of someone on the forest’s edge suggests that Pei Di is probably there instead and thus unable to “see within these eaves” and know of his friend’s presence. One could also translate the third couplet as: “From afar I know you are at the edge of the distant woods,/ And I do not see you within these eaves.” Or Wang Wei may simply be speaking of what is the case when he is at his own country home, from which he cannot see Pei’s pavilion. In any case, the poet is simultaneously expressing his awareness of the distance between two locations—and possibly men—and transcending that very separation by imaginatively putting himself in both places at the same time, an act achieved in his early work, poem 3. The ambiguity of the final couplet here reinforces this impression, for the traveler could be interpreted as either Pei Di arriving at the pavilion or Wang Wei returning home. Movement occurs, then, in both directions, which cancel each other out and create the sense of a spatially enclosed and interconnected universe.
The harmony between self and world implicit in this poem underlies, of course, Wang Wei’s work as a whole. His poetry reveals a thoroughgoing fusion of emotion and scene: nature and man can be presented in the same terms, so that the depiction of one simultaneously speaks of the other. This integration manifests itself in various ways. In poems 99 and 100, for instance, although the detailed focus on one object in each is unusual, the poet typically relates both birds and bamboo to human activities, while stressing at the same time the superiority of purely natural phenomena. Thus the morning cries of the hundred-tongued birds are preferable to those of the domesticated cock, and bamboos growing freely by a Taoist altar are finer than those employed for practical functions.
Wang Wei occasionally suggests the integrality of man and nature by means of a pathetic fallacy, the transference of human emotions to natural objects. This is true of poem 101, “The Red Peony,” where the poet further indicates that his understanding of the flower’s true feelings can penetrate its deceptively gay exterior. Similarly, he presents the river and rain as grieving in the next poem, and the willow blossoms teasing the late spring in poem 104.
The painful contrast which opens poem 103, “Farewell to Qiu Wei on His Return East of the Yangzi after Failing the Examination”—between internal and external situations, the friend’s disappointment and the lushness of spring—is rare in Wang Wei’s poetry. Much more common is the interpenetration of the two realms indicated in the third couplet of poem 105, “On a Spring Day Going with Pei Di to Xinchang Ward to Visit the Hermit Lu and Not Encountering Him.” And if the poet makes explicit comparisons between man and nature, he is more likely to emphasize likeness rather than difference. Thus he compares thoughts of his friend to the ubiquitous colors of spring in poem 106, “Farewell to Shen Zifu Returning East of the Yangzi,” his heart to a peaceful river in the following work, and vice versa in the next. In poem 109 the relationship is not so much one of likeness as of effect: the arrival at a mountaintop after a journey through dense foliage produces both a physical and an emotional liberation.
Such overt comparisons, however, are the exception rather than the rule in Wang Wei’s poetry, for his notion of the integrality of man and nature generally remains unstated. This is especially true of the many works written while he was on retreat from court service, which constitute the remainder of the translations in this chapter. To be sure, the degree of discursiveness and emotionality, as opposed to the pure depiction of scene with human presences deemphasized though always there, varies even within this group, and this is reflected in my selection. Thus poems 110, “Written in Early Autumn in the Mountains,” and 111, “In Response to the Visit of Several Gentlemen,” are imbued with a sense of melancholy which in the latter even suggests an unhappiness with life in seclusion. This is not an attitude traditionally associated with “Wang Wei the recluse poet,” yet it is not altogether surprising when his commitment to government service is recalled. Even poem 112, “Drifting on the Front Pond,” therefore, which otherwise presents images of the mutual serenity of man and nature, concludes with a statement about the poet’s “irresolute” attitude toward remaining there or returning, presumably to court.
The next four poems were all written at Wang Wei’s country estate on the Wang River in Lantian and embody a movement from this implicit uncertainty to a thoroughgoing tranquility of life amid nature. Poem 113, “Written after Prolonged Rain at Wang River Estate,” opens with a depiction of a placid summer scene and of the speaker’s own appropriately ascetic practices. But whereas the first of the two concluding allusions asserts the certainty of his withdrawal, the second undermines it: in protesting the seagulls’ refusal to trust him, Wang Wei suggests that they might indeed have reasons for doubting the sincerity of his rejection of the court world. The images in the third couplet of poem 114, “Written on Returning to Wang River,” are equally unsettling. The tendrils and catkins are frail and fleeting, evocative of the ephemerality of natural beauty and of life in general, as well as of a corresponding instability in the poet himself. He is a complex of conflicting doubts: about the likelihood of attaining a purity of mind and freedom from worldly trammels (he has not yet reached the realm of white clouds but is only heading “toward” them); about his desire to live in extreme solitude; and, most basically, about the strength of his wish to retreat at all. This irresolution, along with the implied contrast between old age and the youthful spring grasses, may account for the sadness of the final line. Although Wang Wei seems to close both the gate and the poem with a reassuring finality, he has opened up many questions for both himself and his readers.
In poems 115, “Wang River Retreat,” and 116, “At My Wang River Retreat, Presented to Candidate Pei Di,” however, we see none of these doubts, and only peaceful evocations of life in retreat with the companionship of like-minded recluses. This is also true of the next two poems, among Wang Wei’s best known works. “Dwelling in the Mountains: An Autumn Evening” opens with a description of the mountains as “empty,” yet we find later that they are by no means devoid of human presences. The adjective thus evokes the tranquility of the poet’s country home and also calls to mind its many Buddhist implications about the nature of reality. The choice of such transitional periods as evening and autumn is characteristic, as are the interrelationships among natural objects implied in the second couplet. In each case Wang Wei disrupts normal syntax to place the verb at the end of the line, thus presenting the phenomena not as acting upon one another in an agent-receptor relationship, but as existing side by side in total harmony, without clear subject-object distinctions. And just as there are no privileged objects in nature, so man does not occupy a privileged point of view. In the third couplet the observer apprehends movements in nature without prior knowledge of their causes: the effects—rustling among the bamboos and lotuses—are noticed before their causes—washerwomen and fishermen coming down the river—are discovered. Throughout the poem Wang Wei refrains from obtruding an active, dominating subjectivity upon the scene and suggests instead the integrality and equivalence of man and nature, and the concluding allusion allows him to comment on and reinforce this sense in an indirect manner. By reversing the meaning of the ancient poem written to summon a recluse back to court, Wang Wei indicates that he is oblivious to the passage of time, to be signaled by the withering of spring grasses, and reveals an attitude of quiet contentment and submergence of the self in nature.
Poem 118, “In Response to Vice-Magistrate Zhang,” similarly embodies this fundamental integration. It opens discursively, apparently from the perspective of one who has chosen a life of quiet seclusion over involvement in mundane affairs, but then shifts to more imagistic language. In the third couplet Wang Wei presents some typical scenes and pleasures of the hermit, phrased with ambiguous syntax. In addition to the reading I have given it, each line may be read as two juxtaposed clauses (“Pine winds blow; I loosen my belt. / The mountain moon shines; I pluck my zither”); as one clause with a compound verb of causation (“Pine winds blow and loosen my belt. / The mountain moon shines and plucks my zither”); or as one clause without a direct indication of activity on the part of the human subject (“Pine winds blow on my loosened belt. / The mountain moon shines on my plucked zither”). Certainly, all four possibilities evoke an immediate, harmonious relationship between man and nature.
In the concluding couplet Wang Wei turns to address his friend Zhang, like him an official. The latter has apparently questioned the poet about the reasons underlying failure and success, or about the principle of universal change—both meanings are possible—and, in any case, he is interested in discovering how one should relate to the vicissitudes of the world. The final image, Wang Wei’s “response,” suggests at least three interpretations. In the first place, it may be regarded as a non-answer in the tradition of the Chan or Zen kōan (gongan in Chinese), by means of which a Buddhist master attempts to bring a student to enlightenment by answering a rational question with a non sequitur, thus jolting the latter out of practiced, logical, categorical modes of thought and liberating his mind to facilitate a sudden intuitive realization of truth. Wang Wei’s answer, in this case, would deliberately bear no relationship to Zhang’s query, seeking instead to reject such cognitive concerns.
Or secondly, because the fisherman, along with the woodcutter, is a favorite Taoist figure who represents a rustic, pure life in harmony with nature, we may read this final line as a simple suggestion to Zhang to follow the example of such men and escape from official life to the freedom and serenity of country living. This is a realm, moreover, where such distinctions as the failure and success of one’s career will have no meaning.
Yet a third interpretation of this line comes to mind when we consider that it may allude to a specific fisherman’s song, the “Fisherman” (Yu fu), included in the Songs of Chu, 7/295-98. In this earlier poem, a rustic fisherman converses with the fourth-century-B.C. poet Qu Yuan, who had been a loyal minister to the king of Chu and committed to the Confucian ideal of service but who was slandered by others at court and banished. He remained self-righteous about his inflexible moral purity and later chose suicide over an acceptance of the contemporary situation. In this song, when Qu Yuan meets the fisherman, he explains that he has been exiled because he was “clear” and “sober,” while the rest of the world was “muddy” and “drunk.” The fisherman, however, suggests that it might have been more circumspect to adapt to the circumstances and move with the times:
“The Wise Man is not chained to material circumstances,” said the fisherman, “but can move as the world moves.
“If all the world is muddy, why not help them to stir up the mud and beat up the waves?
“And if all men are drunk, why not sup their dregs and swill their lees?
“Why get yourself exiled because of your deep thoughts and your fine aspirations?”
When Qu Yuan insists that he would rather drown in the river than compromise and hide his “shining light in the dark and dust of the world,” the fisherman departs with a gentle mocking reply:
The fisherman, with a faint smile, struck his paddle in the water and made off.
And as he went he sang: “When the Ts’ang-lang’s waters are clear, I can wash my hat strings in them;
“When the Ts’ang-lang’s waters are muddy, I can wash my feet in them.”
With that, he was gone, and did not speak again.
(Trans. Hawkes, pp. 90-91)
Unlike the self-righteous Qu Yuan, the fisherman, by adjusting to the conditions he finds, paradoxically can remain freer of their influence. Ultimately, perhaps, he realizes that when seen from a larger perspective, the waters are all the same. With this allusion, then, Wang Wei affirms the unifying vision and transcendence of distinctions that constitute the key principle of coherence in his poetic universe.
The last poems in this chapter were composed in three groups, all situated in a country retreat. The seven quatrains entitled “Joys of Fields and Gardens” (poems 119-25) employ a rarely used hexasyllabic line; the resulting impression of extreme symmetry, reinforced by the strict parallelism within couplets observed in each poem, provides a syntactic counterpart to the thematic contrast between service and reclusion which runs through the entire group. And the five “Miscellaneous Poems Written at Huangfu Yue’s Cloud Valley” (126-30) all focus on isolated places and events at a friend’s estate.
By far the most famous group of poems, however, is Wang Wei’s Wang River Collection (131-50), written in the company of his friend Pei Di. The preface explains the background of the collection; the twenty quatrains Pei wrote to harmonize with these are included in the Qing dynasty edition of Wang’s works. Wang Wei is also said to have painted a long continuous scroll which depicted the same twenty scenic spots on his Lantian estate, but unfortunately, this work is no longer extant, although there are numerous imitations dating from later dynasties.
The order of the poems in the collection seems to be determined by nothing other than the geographical layout of the Wang River estate, if even that, but the sequence as a whole does resume the key modes of consciousness of the poet’s entire oeuvre. We find here the same transcendence of temporal distinctions, the awareness of boundlessness, the emphasis on perceptual and cognitive limitations, and, running throughout, a sense of the harmony of man and nature. Very few of the poems concentrate on merely providing visual, “painterly” details of a scenic spot but instead indirectly convey these characteristic notions.
The first quatrain (131), for example, could hardly be described as an exhaustive representation of Meng Wall Cove. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of “new home” to “ancient trees” in the first couplet suggests a more abstract concern with time. The distinction between new and old would generally evoke the idea of temporal flux, but Wang Wei then implies that, though others may accept it, he does not. He projects himself into the future to imagine the arrival of a new owner of the estate, who will follow him as inevitably as he did Song Zhiwen, and he visualizes him grieving over “former men’s possessions,” the most important of which was probably life itself. Such laments are in vain, first, because what any man may have been or had is ultimately inconsequential when viewed in terms of the larger scheme of things, and second, because such distinctions between people and times are meaningless, since the process will keep recurring. “Meng Wall Cove” itself contains the present, past, and future to create a timeless whole in which all is the same. Several other poems in the group employ allusions to legend or history to the same effect.
Poem 132, “Huazi Hill,” presents another familiar notion in Wang Wei’s poetry, the sense of almost overwhelming boundlessness. Birds are seen flying off “endlessly” (bu qiong, literally, “inexhaustibly”), which could be interpreted either spatially or temporally, or both, and the scene is filled entirely by “continuous mountains,” which Wang Wei describes only vaguely as possessing the colors of autumn. Wandering up and down the hill over an undefined space and time, the speaker remarks enigmatically about his sadness. Although he provides no cause for these feelings, their limitlessness corresponds to the qualities of the scene. Moreover, the question without an answer provides an appropriately open-ended nonconclusion to this depiction of the inexhaustible.
“Grained Apricot Lodge” (133) similarly ends on an inconclusive note which also emphasizes the element of ignorance. Wang Wei suggests the same distinction between a realm of clouds (or cloudy mountains) and that of men which has appeared in many other poems. Here he also implies, however, that there may be a link between them, for the clouds may indeed travel to the world of men and make rain. But he states that he does not know if such is the case, so the quatrain concludes with an unanswered question.
A similar phrase, “cannot be known,” occurs at the end of the fourth poem in the group, “Clear Bamboo Range” (134), and here the ignorance is even more enigmatic because Wang Wei does not state what it is about the woodcutters that remains unknowable or why. He speaks of “secretly” entering the mountain road, possibly referring to the earlier recluses (the “Four Whiteheads”) or perhaps to his own seclusion. Whatever the case, “Clear Bamboo Range” opens with an emphasis on vividness and sharp definition, but the ambiguity and mystery of this couplet are characteristic of both this collection and Wang Wei’s work as a whole.
“Southern Hillock” (140), for example, emphasizes the limits of vision; the poet gazes afar at houses on the other shore, but there is no mutual recognition over the distance. And “Magnolia Enclosure” (136) also stresses the vagaries of perception. As in so many other poems, Wang Wei sets the scene during a transitional period—an autumn twilight—when only the last rays of daylight linger on. Through this dimness brilliant colors can be glimpsed but intermittently; this inconstant clarity of vision is also suggested in the last line of “Northern Hillock” (146), where the waters are seen as alternately “Bright and dim to the edge of the azure forest.” In “Magnolia Enclosure,” furthermore, the evening mists are curiously described as “without a place to be.” This suggests a number of possibilities: that nature has somehow provided no place for them to rest; that they are always moving and therefore have no established location; or that they are intangible and thus literally unlocalizable, essentially nowhere. In any case, the image is typical because of its vague reference and negative phrasing.
Poem 135, “Deer Enclosure,” is probably the most famous of the entire collection and perhaps even of Wang Wei’s work as a whole. Here again we find a denial of the visible and extremely enigmatic language. The poet opens with his familiar adjective, “empty” (kong), which may denote the unpopulated state of the mountain and simultaneously imply both its illusory nature and also its ultimate reality.
In neither the first nor the second line does Wang Wei specify the subject, and critics have often commented on the resulting ambiguity and apparent contradiction. Actually, since Chinese poets rarely use personal pronouns, the absence of subjects is not a particularly striking feature of this couplet, and the problem may simply be one that arises only in translation into Western languages. Nevertheless, many readers find it extremely paradoxical that no men are seen, yet human voices are heard. The contradiction can, however, be resolved in an apparently simplistic manner, yet one which would accord with the predominant concerns of Wang Wei’s poetry. The other “empty mountains” in his poems have also been found to be occupied by people, certainly the poet himself, at least, and often recluses and monks, which suggests the appropriateness of a Buddhist reading of the term “empty,” although we do not need to deny its concomitant implication of a general solitude amid nature. That people cannot be seen, though their voices are heard, simply reminds us of Wang Wei’s persistent affirmation of the limits of sight. Hearing may be somewhat more reliable, closer to a nondifferentiating intuition; here, of course, it is also vague: the voices are, in fact, only indistinct “echoes.” There is in fact no real contradiction between the two sensory (visual and auditory) messages—just the suggestion, perhaps, of their shared delusory nature.
This lack of perceptual clarity is partly explained by the second couplet, which places the scene at sunset, when the source of light itself is vanishing. Here Wang Wei moves from the massive mountain to focus on a small mossy glade, the deer enclosure of the title. He glimpses the last rays of sunlight, which penetrate the deep forest and cast a final glow. The phrase “reflected light,” like the “echoes” in line 2, emphasizes the insubstantiality of what is being perceived, a reflection of what is already intangible—light—and thus two steps removed from the concrete sun. Yet, as anyone who has walked in the woods late in the day well knows, it also aptly characterizes the peculiar quality of fading sunlight there: since its source cannot actually be seen through the trees, the light seems to be emanating from and mutually illuminating the various objects themselves. Its intensity is diminished, but it seems to possess a whiteness of its own which causes the color of the foliage to pale slightly.
The last word of “Deer Enclosure” has also been the subject of much critical discussion. Shang is normally read as a place word meaning “upon” or “above”; in another tone, however, it becomes a verb meaning “to ascend,” and this is the same tone as that of its rhyme-word “echoes” (xiang). Yet both possible tones of shang belong to the “oblique” tone category, as does xiang, so that there is no serious breach of tonal regulations if the line is read as its quite normal word order would indicate. Nevertheless, although I have attempted to suggest the most likely interpretations of each line in this poem, the number and variety of possibilities demonstrate Wang Wei’s typical reliance on ambiguity and avoidance of distinctions.
The voices in “Deer Enclosure,” even if they are only echoes, remind us that man is not excluded from the world of the Wang River Collection. “White Rock Rapids” (145), for example, describes a natural scene in terms of human actions: the rushes were once graspable, and the stream itself is presented as the functional site of many families’ moonlit washing. Nor does the poet remain in constant and total seclusion. Indeed, poems 137-39 all bring in preparations for the possibility or actual arrival of guests: the brewing of a dogwood blossom infusion, the sweeping of the path, and the welcoming of a traveler from across the lake. In “Lake Yi” (141) the scene is one of parting, which again suggests an immediately prior period of companionship. And “Willow Waves” (142) brings in a more populated world by distinguishing the trees on the country estate from those on the imperial moat in the capital, whose twigs would be broken off in a traditional gesture of parting.
Finally, although “Bamboo Lodge” (147) stresses the speaker’s isolation from others, Wang Wei certainly does not deny his own presence in the scene and in fact reveals here the fundamental self-world relationship of his poetry as a whole, one which does not neglect the personal to focus only on the natural, but which is grounded in a strong mutuality of man and nature. Like many other poems in the group, the quatrain opens with an allusion to one of the Nine Songs in the ancient southern anthology, the Songs of Chu, but without its mood of loneliness or lament. Rather, his solitude here is a choice, and one in which he can enjoy those activities most suggestive of harmony with nature: playing music and voicing the special kind of Taoist whistle. In line 3 Wang Wei again evokes both the dark denseness of the bamboo grove and the ignorance of other men which may have made his solitude possible. The object of “men do not know” is not clearly specified, for “the deep wood,” which may be an inverted object, could also simply be a locative phrase. What others “do not know,” then, may be the existence of the grove itself, as well as its meaning, or, more likely, the fact of the speaker’s presence there and its significance. By means of this vagueness of reference Wang Wei can emphasize the condition of ignorance itself, the limitations of rational cognition which have been suggested so frequently in his work.
At the same time, however, he may be hinting at another, intuitive mode of knowledge which structures his particular relationship with nature and which other men do not share: they do not truly “know” the woods as he does. And this intuitive relationship is one of complete integration of self and world: the poet has expressed his sense of harmony through his music and his whistle, and nature seems to reciprocate, for the moon comes to shine on him. This image of the moon may also serve as a symbol for a sudden, instantaneous enlightenment occurring after a period of solitary contemplation in the darkness. Certainly, as we have seen, for the Chan Buddhist the realization of spiritual truth is intimately connected with the experience of nature. And it is this intimacy, this dissolution of boundaries between self and world, which is evoked in “Bamboo Lodge” and which has emerged as the fundamental principle of coherence in the world of Wang Wei’s poetry.
(4/13a; I, 68)
A boat sailing on the great river—
The gathered waters reach to the end of the sky.
Sky and waves suddenly split asunder:
A commandery city—a thousand, ten thousand homes.
Farther on I see a city market again;
There seems to be some mulberry and hemp.
Looking back at my old home country:
The water’s expanse joins the clouds and mist.
Title:The district of Qinghe was located in present-day Hebei province.
(7/7a; I, 124)
Taiyi nears the celestial capital;
Continuous mountains arrive at the edge of the sea.
White clouds, as I turn and gaze, merge.
Azure mists, as I enter and look, disappear.
The whole expanse shifts at the central peak.
Shadow and light differ in every valley.
Wishing to seek lodging among men,
I cross the water to ask an old woodsman.
Line 1:“Taiyi” refers to Mt. Zhongnan, as well as to the whole Zhongnan range south of Chang’an.
Line 5:The “whole expanse” (fen ye, literally, “dividing the wilds”) refers to both the mass of constellations which had once been used to demarcate areas of land and that very territory itself.
(8/10b; I, 150)
On the Chu frontier the three Xiangs come together.
At jingmen the nine streams pass through.
The river’s flow is beyond heaven and earth;
The mountain’s color between being and nonbeing.
Commandery cities float on the shore ahead;
Ripples and waves stir the distant sky.
At Xiangyang the lovely scenery
Will let old Master Shan get drunk.
Title:The Han River begins its flow in Shaanxi and flows southeast into the Yangzi at Hankou. This poem was probably written during Wang Wei’s southern tour of duty in 740.
Line 1:The “three Xiangs” are the tributaries of the Xiang River, which flows from Hunan in the ancient southern state of Chu.
Line 2:The “nine streams” are the branches of the Yangzi, which flow through the Jingmen Pass in Hubei.
Line 8:“Old Master Shan” (Shan weng, or, possibly, “Old Man of the Mountains,” since shan means “mountain”) is an allusion to a certain Shan Jian, cognomen Jilun (253-312), who, after an illustrious career spent governing four prefectures, retired to a pastoral area in Xiangyang and became famous for his penchant for drinking. His biography is in the Jin History, 43/1228-30.
(3/4a; I, 35)
In middle years I am rather fond of the Tao;
My late home is at the foot of Southern Mountain.
When the feeling comes, each time I go there alone.
That splendid things are empty, of course, I know.
I walk to the place where the water ends
And sit and watch the time when clouds rise.
Meeting by chance an old man of the forest,
I chat and laugh without a date to return
(7/7a; I, 124)
In solitude I close my brushwood gate,
In the vast expanse, facing lowering light.
Cranes nest in pine trees all around;
Men visiting my wicker gate are few.
Tender bamboos hold new powder,
And red lotuses shed old clothes.
At the ford lantern fires are lit:
Everywhere water chestnut pickers come home.
(3/4b; I, 35-36)
Gentlemen swell the imperial ranks;
The common man gladly excuses himself.
Now I follow the alchemist wanderer
To his mountaintop home above the forest.
Against the range flowers have not yet blossomed;
Entering clouds, trees are thick and thin.
In broad daylight he keeps to himself and sleeps on;
Mountain birds warble from time to time.
(7/5a; I, 120)
Before my gate a visitor from Luoyang
Dismounts his horse and brushes off traveling clothes.
Not in vain has an old friend come riding,
Though usually my gate is closed.
Travelers come back from the end of the lane;
Gathered snow carries a lingering glow.
Since early years we have been intimate friends:
Where will your fine carriage return?
Title:Zu Yong of Luoyang received his jinshi degree in 725 and was a poet and essayist; he was appointed as Officer in the Bureau of Military Equipment (jiabu yuanwai lang) by Zhang Yue (667-730).
Line 7:For “intimate friends,” the text reads literally “those sharing a robe,” an allusion to a song in the Classic of Poetry (poem no. 133), whose first stanza is as follows:
How can you say you have no clothes?
I will share my robe with you.
The king raises his army;
We ready our lances and axes.
I will share enemies with you.
(4/1a; I, 49)
Meeting each other, there’s just one smile;
Seeing you off, still shedding tears.
At the farewell banquet already pained by parting,
Grieving I enter the desolate city again.
The sky is cold and the distant mountains pure.
Sun dusks, and the long river rushes on.
You loosen the rope and are already far away:
I gaze at you, still standing in place.
Title:For Zu the Third, see poem 82.
Qizhou was the name of a commandery in present-day Henan province.
(7/8b; I, 126)
Life in retreat by the Qi River:
The eastern wilds are vast, no mountains in sight.
The sun is hidden beyond the mulberries,
And the river gleams between the villages.
Herdboys leave gazing afar at their hamlets;
Hunting dogs return following men.
A peaceful man—what is there to do?
The brushwood gate is closed all day long.
Title:The Qi is a branch of the Wei River, in present-day Henan province. Some biographers speculate that Wang Wei spent time in retreat there during the 740s.
(4/9b; I, 62)
A recent clearing: the plains and wilds are vast;
To the limits of sight there is no dust or dirt.
The citywall gate overlooks the ford;
Village trees adjoin the mouth of the creek.
White waters gleam beyond the fields,
And emerald peaks emerge behind the mountains.
In a farming month there are no idle men:
Families pour out to work the southern fields.
(3/4a; I, 35)
Autumn colors inspire fine feelings—
How much more at peace above the pond.
In the distance below the western woods,
We easily recognize mountains in front of the gate.
A thousand miles are crossed by darkest colors;
Several crags emerge from the midst of clouds.
Jagged peaks face the state of Qin,
8 Crowded together, hiding the Jing Pass.
In lingering rain the slanting sun shines;
Through evening mists flying birds return.
My old friend today is as before,
12 But I sigh over my haggard face.
Title:Cui Jizhong was Wang Wei’s cousin on the maternal side. This poem was written after the autumn of 752, when Cui was named prefect of the commandery of Puyang, in Shandong province.
Line 7:The area around the capital of Chang’an once constituted the ancient kingdom of Qin, in present-day Shaanxi.
Line 8:Jing Pass is also located in Shaanxi province.
(6/15b; I, 112)
The clear creek threads all the way through peach and plum trees.
Under flowing ripples and green rushes lies fragrant white angelica.
Above the gorge are people’s homes: how many all together?
Falling flowers have half dropped into eastward-flowing waters.
Kicked balls frequently pass above the flying birds;
Rope swings vie to emerge from within the drooping willows.
By the vernal equinox youthful ones are already rambling about,
Not needing to wait until Qingming or Lustration Festival time.
Title:For the Cold Food Festival, see poem 40, line 7n. People commonly enjoyed swinging on rope swings during this holiday.
Line 7:The vernal equinox occurred during the second lunar month.
Line 8:Qingming occurred immediately after the Cold Food Festival, at the beginning of the third lunar month, and was marked by the sweeping of graves. For the Spring Lustration Festival, see poem 30.
(10/12a; I, 190)
The immortal official is about to travel to Nine Dragon Pond.
With tasseled scepter and crimson pennants he leans on the stone shrine.
The mountain peak thrusts into the heavens, halfway to the top of the sky;
Caves pierce beneath the river, emerging south of the water.
By the waterfall firs and pines often carry rain;
In the setting sun brilliant greens suddenly turn into mist.
May I ask if the twin white cranes coming to welcome you
Once in the past at Heng Mountain led Su Dan away?
Title:Mt. Song, the central sacred peak, is in Henan province.
Line 1:Nine Dragon Pond was located to the east of Mt. Song.
Line 8:The Record of Spirits and Immortals (Shen xian zhuan) by Ge Hong (fourth-century A.D.) includes a story about a certain Su Dan of Bin (in Hunan) who received a summons to prepare for the arrival of a group of immortals. A flock of white cranes then descended from the purple mists, changed into youths, and took him away to become an immortal; he is referred to as Su the Immortal Duke. Mt. Heng is one of the five sacred peaks, located in Hunan. There is another anecdote about Su Dan in the Water Classic (Shui jing), but it does not mention Mt. Heng or the white cranes.
(14/5a; I, 263)
In Wei City morning rain dampens the light dust.
By the travelers’ lodge, green upon green—the willows’ color is new.
I urge you to drink up yet another glass of wine:
Going west from Yang Pass, there are no old friends.
Title:The protectorate of Anxi was located in modern Xinjiang. The city of Wei (line 1) was in Shaanxi province, and Yang Pass (line 4) in Dunhuang district of Gansu province.
(8/3a; I, 137-38)
The color of grass grows more lovely each day;
Fewer people leave for the Peach Blossom Spring.
In your hand you hold Zhang Heng’s rhymeprose;
My eyes follow your colorful Laolai robe.
Each time you wait for mountain cherries to bloom;
Sometimes together with sea swallows you return.
This year by the Cold Food Festival
You should be able to reach your brushwood gate.
Title:Qian Qi was a native of Wuxing who received his jinshi degree around 750. He has a brief biographical notice in the New Tang History, 203/5786.
Line 2:For Peach Blossom Spring, see poem 6.
Line 3:This alludes to a work by Zhang Heng, cognomen Pingzi (78-139), entitled “Rhymeprose on Returning to the Country” (Gui tian fu); it is included in the Anthology of Literature, 15/206-7.
Line 4:Laolaizi was a recluse noted for his extreme filial piety: even at the age of 70, he would dress in colorful clothes and play like a child in order to amuse his aged parents. In his Records of the Historian (63/2141), Sima Qian speculates that Laolaizi and the Taoist sage Laozi were the same person.
Line 7:For the Cold Food Festival, see poem 40, line 7n.
(8/6b; I, 143)
From afar I think of the border of reeds and rushes,
The deserted expanse where Chu natives travel.
High birds on the long Huai River,
Flat wasteland by the old Ying citywall.
From your envoy’s carriage let nesting pheasants breed;
The district’s drums will answer the crows of the cock.
If you see the provincial magistrate,
Do not resent a greeting with tablet in hand.
Title:Fangeheng district was located in present-day Henan and in the ancient kingdom of Chu, of which Ying was the capital.
Line 5:This alludes to Lu Gong, district magistrate of Zhongmou (in Henan province) during the Latter Han dynasty. When it became known that Lu’s district had escaped being infested by a plague of destructive grain-eating moths, his superior Yuan An sent Fei Qin to investigate the reasons. After walking through the fields, Lu and Fei rested under a mulberry tree and saw both a pheasant and a young boy nearby. Fei asked the youth why he did not trap the pheasant, and the boy responded that the bird was about to give birth. Fei was amazed and concluded that it was Lu’s benevolence, extending through his good influence down to the population, that had spared his district from the plague. The story is given in the History of the Latter Han, 25/874.
Line 6:This is another allusion to a virtuous official, Deng You, cognomen Bodao, a native of Xiangyang during the Jin dynasty. After being appointed governor of the commandery of Wu, Deng became known for the fairness of his administration and the contentment of the populace. When it came time for him to leave his post, the people tried to keep his boat from departing, so that he had to slip out during the night. The people of Wu sang a song about him which ran:
Bang, bang, beat five drums:
At cockcrow the sky is about to dawn.
Marquis Deng has been transferred and cannot stay;
Prefect Xie has retired and cannot leave.
Deng’s biography is included in the Jin History, 90/2338-40.
Line 8:Officials presented reports to their superiors on tablets whose material (jade, ivory, bamboo, wood, etc.) would vary depending on the position of the higher official.
(8/9a; I, 147)
Hand bells and pipes will clamor at Jingkou:
On wind-blown waves you go down to Lake Dongting.
From Purple Divide approaching the Crimson Bank,
You’ll strike the billows and open the window again.
The sun sets, and river and lake are white.
At high tide, sky and earth turn dark.
Bright pearls will return to Hepu—
They should follow the emissary stars.
Title:Xing Ji was appointed Censor of General Affairs (shiyushi) of Guizhou (in modern Guangxi) in 761. The four places mentioned in lines 1-3 would have been encountered on the southward journey to his post and are located in Jiangsu, Hunan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces, respectively. This poem has been cited as evidence that Wang Wei must not have died until sometime in 761, and not 759, a commonly given date.
Line 7:This alludes to an anecdote related in the History of the Latter Han (76/2473). Meng Chang, cognomen Bozhou, was appointed prefect of Taian in Hepu (present-day Guangdong province), a region that did not raise agricultural products but produced pearls for trade with its neighbor, Jiaozhi. When he arrived, he found that because of corruption, the pearls were disappearing from Hepu, trade had fallen off, and the people were dying of starvation. Within a year of his taking office, however, he had managed to correct the situation, bring the pearls back into the market, and restore the original livelihood of the populace.
Line 8:This is an allusion to Li He of the Latter Han dynasty, who was skilled at reading natural signs. During the reign of emperor He (r. 88-106), Li was visited at his home in Yizhou (Sichuan province) by two imperial messengers in disguise, and he astonished them by recognizing their true identities. When queried as to how he had known, he replied that it was because two “messenger” (i.e., shooting) stars had just appeared in the sky, moving in the direction of Yizhou. See the History of the Latter Han, 82A/ 2717-18.
(3/11a; I, 46)
Scattered and silent, the mountains beyond the clouds:
Far into the distance enjoy them from your boat.
Hand bells and pipes will play as you go up the Yangzi,
4 Echoing clearly through the autumn void.
The land is distant, the old citywall overgrown;
The moon is bright and the cold tide vast.
At times they give thanks to the spirit of Jingting Mountain
8 And then release the nets of fishermen.
Where can I send my thoughts of you?
The southward wind strongly fills the sails.
Line 7:Jingting Mountain is located in the north of the district of Xuancheng, in present-day Anhui province. There was a temple there where offerings were made to its spirit, known as the Lord of Zihua.
Line 10:In the original, this line reads: “The south wind blows the ‘five-ounces.’” A “five-ounces” (wu Hang) consisted of a bunch of chicken feathers of that weight which was tied to the mast of a boat and used to gauge the strength of the wind: a breeze moving the “five-ounces” would be strong enough to fill the sails.
(8/7a; I, 144)
In ten thousand ravines trees penetrate the sky,
And cuckoos echo on a thousand peaks.
The mountains’ midst is half-filled with rain,
From tips of trees doubling a hundred streams.
Han women will bring tong cloth in tribute
And men of Ba dispute about taro fields.
Wen Weng was a civilizing influence:
Do you dare not follow this ancient sage?
Title:Zizhou was located in present-day Sichuan.
Line 2:The call of the cuckoo (cuculus poliocephalus) is supposed to sound like a phrase which means “It’s better to return” (bu ru guiqu), hence it is a frequent motif in farewell poems. Also, there is a legend that a king of Shu (Sichuan) named Du Yu died of shame after a love affair with his chief minister’s wife; his soul was metamorphosed into the cuckoo (sometimes translated as nightjar) and is said to shed bloody tears in late spring.
Line 5:“Han” refers here not to the dynasty or the main ethnic subgroup of China, but to a small tribe living on the Jialing River in Sichuan, which was formerly known as the West Han River. The flowers of the tong tree growing in the area were used to make cloth, which had been offered as tribute to the central government for centuries.
Line 6:Ba was the name of an ancient state which once occupied part of Sichuan province.
Line 7:Wen Weng was appointed prefect of Shu during the Han dynasty. When he arrived there, he discovered that the people were living barbarian lives by Chinese standards; he made successful efforts to educate and civilize them and became known as a humane, enlightened reformer. See the History of the Former Han, 89/3625-26.
Line 8:As Zhao Diancheng points out, the order of the first two characters in this line should be changed from bu gan (“you do not dare”) to gan bu (“do you dare not”).
(8/8b; I, 146-47)
Baoxie Valley will not hold a carriage:
Where then will you be going?
A bird’s path for a thousand miles,
And gibbons’ cries all hours of the day.
By the official bridge, travelers offer wine;
Amid mountain trees, a shrine to the Young Maid.
After parting we will share the bright moon:
You should hear the cuckoo’s call.
Title:In one edition of Wang Wei’s poems the name Ji appears after the title “Senior Officer”; Yang Ji is known to have been sent to the frontier in 766 (well after this poem must have been written) to foster friendly relations with the Tibetan people (Old Tang History, 196B/5243). Guozhou is in Sichuan province.
Line 1:Baoxie Valley, so named because its southern entrance was called Bao and its northern entrance Xie, was part of the narrow and precipitous route from the capital to Guozhou.
Line 5:This refers to the ancient practice of offering wine and meat as sacrifices to the spirits to ensure a safe journey.
Line 6:This shrine was located at the foot of a mountain of the same name near Baoxie Valley and was said to have been erected to the daughter of Zhang Lu, a military leader during the Latter Han dynasty.
Line 8:For “cuckoo,” see poem 94, line 2n.
(14/5b; I, 264)
You are about to follow the general in capturing Youxian:
On the sandy battleground galloping horses head toward Juyan.
From afar I know the Han envoy beyond Xiao Pass
Grieves to see the lone citywall next to the setting sun.
Line 1:Youxian was the title of a Xiongnu king who was pursued by Han dynasty troops far from the border. One night, believing that he was beyond reach, he got drunk and did not notice that Chinese troops had managed to surround him. He managed to escape with his favorite concubine and some warriors, but most of his chieftains were taken prisoner; he himself was never captured. The story is in the History of the Former Han, 94A/3767.
Line 2:Juyan and Xiao Pass (in line 3) are both located on the northwest frontier.
(8/8a; I, 145)
For a myriad miles spring should have ended;
On the three rivers wild geese are also scarce.
Joining the sky, the Han River is broad.
A lone traveler returns to the city of Ying.
In the country of Yun paddy sprouts are lush;
Among people of Chu zizania grains are plump.
I imagine your parents will lean on their gate and gaze
And recognize your Laolai robe from afar.
Line 2:The “three rivers” may refer to the Xiang, Pu, and Yangzi Rivers, or to the Min, Li, and Xiang Rivers—all of which are located in southern regions of China.
Line 4:Ying was the capital of the ancient southern kingdom of Chu.
Line 5:Yun was a state during the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 B.C.), located in present-day Hubei.
Line 8:For “Laolai robe,” see poem 90, line 4n.
(9/2a; I, 155)
Living in peace you don’t go out of doors;
You fill your eyes by gazing at cloudy mountains.
The setting sun, alongside the birds, sinks down;
The autumn plain, away from men, is at rest.
From afar I know at the distant forest’s edge
One cannot see within these eaves.
A seasoned traveler often goes out by moonlight:
Gatekeeper, do not bolt the door.
Title:Wang Wei refers to Pei Di as, literally, a “budding talent” (xiucai), a polite way of addressing a candidate for the jinshi examination at the time.
(10/13b; I, 193)
Outside the gate of Orchid Temple grass grows in profusion.
Inside Weiyang Palace they roost amid the flowers.
At times they follow one another past the Imperial Park;
I do not know which one of them heads for Gold Embankment.
When spring comes they know how to speak a thousand different tongues;
As day breaks their cries are heard before a hundred birds.
The myriad homes and thousand families should all know it has dawned:
At Jianzhang Palace why need we listen for the crowing cock?
At Jianzhang Palace why need we listen for the crowing cock?
Title:This was a type of sparrow which could twist its tongue to imitate the calls of several different species of birds.
Line 1:Orchid Temple was a belvedere located in the Imperial Park to the east of Chang’an.
Line 2:Weiyang Palace near Chang’an was built by the first Han emperor (r.206-194 B.C.).
Line 8:Jianzhang Palace was built during the reign of the Han emperor Wu in 104 B.C. and was located to the west of Weiyang Palace.
(11/9b; I, 207)
Life in retreat: each day is pure and tranquil;
The tall bamboos are beautiful and dense.
At tender joints remain shells of young shoots,
4 While new clusters emerge by the old fence.
Among slender branches, the wind’s jumbled echoes;
Through scattered shadows the cold gleam of the moon.
The Music Bureau fashions them into imperial flutes,
8 And fishermen cut them down as fishing poles.
How can they compare, inside the gate of the Tao,
With those azure greens that brush immortal altars?
Line 10:This refers to the Immortal Stone Mountain (Xianshishan) in Yongjia (Zhejiang province), so named because legend had it that someone who had abstained from eating grains had grown wings and become a Taoist immortal there. There was a large flat stone on its peak, some eight hundred feet square, which was named Immortal Altar; four bamboos grew around it and made music when the wind blew through them.
(13/10b; I, 253-54)
Green beauty, tranquil and at leisure;
Red garments, light then dark again.
The flower’s heart grieves, about to break:
From spring colors, how can the heart be known?
(8/8a; I, 146)
In the southern states there is a returning boat:
Through Jingmen Pass it travels up the river.
Far and wide beyond the reeds and rushes
Lie cloudy waters and Zhao’s burial mound.
The mast carrying citywall crows departs;
The river joining the evening rain grieves.
Who can bear to hear the gibbons’ cries?
Do not wait for fall in the mountains of Chu.
Line 4:The tomb of King Zhao of the ancient southern state of Chu was located in Dangyang (Hubei province); the Jingmen Pass was also located in this area.
(8/10b; I, 149-50)
I pity that you did not achieve your wishes—
How much more in the springtime of willow branches!
For traveling your funds have been exhausted;
As you go home, white hairs are new.
At the Five Lakes one half-acre dwelling;
From a myriad miles, a lone returning man.
Knowing you are like Ni but unable to recommend you,
I am ashamed to be a censorate official.
Title:Qiu Wei (694-ca. 789) was a native of Jiaxing (Suzhou) who was known for his filial piety. He passed the jinshi examination fairly late and held, among other offices, the post of Court Censor (shiyushi) from 735-36.
Line 5:The five Lakes are located near Suzhou, where Qiu’s family lived.
Line 7:This alludes to Ni Heng, cognomen Zhengping, whose talents (unlike Qiu Wei’s) were recognized by others. He was brought to the attention of court by Kong Rong (153-208), one of the Seven Masters of the Jian’an reign period. See the History of the Latter Han, 80B/2652-58.
(8/3b; I, 138-39)
Wan district and Luoyang are windblown and dusty:
Your journey will cause much bitter pain.
My “Four Griefs” will reach the Han river;
Your family now will live among people of Sui.
The color of sophoras shades the clear daylight,
And willow catkins tease the end of spring.
Court officials have come to bid farewell:
Our ruler has favored you with embroidered robes.
Title:Tangzhou and Suizhou (line 4) were both located in present-day Hubei province.
Line 1:The district of Wan, now known as Nanyang, was located in Henan province, between Luoyang and Tangzhou.
Line 3:This alludes to a set of four poems by Zhang Heng (78-139) entitled “The Four Griefs Poems” (Si chou shi) and included in the Anthology of Literature, 29/406-7.
Line 8:These were robes worn by a court censor, a post held by Qiu Wei.
(10/11a; I, 189)
The Peach Blossom Spring has always been cut off from wind and dust.
At the southern edge of Willow Market we visit a recluse friend.
Arrived at his gate we do not dare to write “common bird.”
Seeing bamboo why do we need to ask about our host?
Outside the city azure mountains are almost inside the room;
From eastern homes flowing waters enter the western environs.
Behind closed doors he has written books for several years and months:
The pines he planted have aged with him and grown a scaly bark.
Title:Xinchang Ward was located in the capital city of Chang’an.
Line 1:For Peach Blossom Spring, see poem 6.
Line 2:This market was located in the southwestern part of Chang’an.
Line 3:This alludes to a story in the New Account of Tales of the World (Shishuo xinyu [Xin bian zhuzi jicheng (Taipei: Shijie, 1974), VIII, 24/200]) about Xi Kang (223-62) and Lü An (d. 262), good friends who would travel long distances to see each other. Once Lü went to visit Xi but the latter was not at home; his elder brother Xi Xi went out to greet Lü, who refused to enter the house but only wrote the word “phoenix” (feng) on the door and left. Xi Xi was delighted, thinking that Lü meant thereby to compliment him by comparing him to the lofty bird. Actually, however, Lü was criticizing him, saying that he was no more than a “common bird” (fan niao), two words which can be formed from the character feng.
Line 4:This is an allusion to Wang Huizhi (d. 388), a son of the famous calligrapher Wang Xizhi (321-79). Huizhi once stopped to admire the bamboos in the yard of a friend, Wu Zhongyi, but refused his host’s entreaties to come in and visit. Wu finally had to close the gate behind Wang to induce him to stay. See the Jin History, 80/2103.
(14/5b; I, 264)
By willows at the edge of the ford, travelers are scarce.
The fisherman swings his oar toward the winding shore.
There are only thoughts of you like the colors of spring:
South of the Yangzi, north of the Yangzi—sending you home.
Line 1:Willows are traditionally associated with parting in Chinese poetry: since the Han dynasty it had been customary to break a willow twig to give to a departing friend.
Line 4:The geography of this poem may seem puzzling, for Shen is returning “east of the Yangzi,” yet the river must run an east-west course if it can be bordered on both north and south by “the colors of spring.” In fact, it does so through most of central China but then swings northward as it approaches the Pacific. “East of the Yangzi,” then, would refer to the present-day provinces of southern Anhui and Zhejiang.
(9/1b; I, 154)
Divided fields above Fu’s grotto:
A traveler’s stop within the clouds and mist.
On the high citywall I gaze at the far setting sun;
To the end of the reach azure mountains gleam.
Fire on the shore: a lone skiff rests for the night.
Fishermen’s homes: evening birds return.
Vast and distant, the sky and earth at dusk:
My heart and the broad river are at peace.
Title:Hebei City was located in the Pinglu district of Shanzhou, in present-day Henan province.
Line 1:The term “divided fields” literally means “well-city,” referring to the Zhou dynasty system of dividing a plot of land into nine sections resembling the character for “well” (jing—two horizontal lines intersecting two vertical lines). The eight outside portions would be owned and cultivated by eight families, who would farm the central section for the state. “Fu’s grotto” refers to the residence of Fu Yue: according to legend, the first emperor of the Shang/Yin dynasty, Tang (r. 1766-1753B.C.), had a dream about Fu, searched all over for him, and made him his chief minister when he finally found him.
(3/3b; I, 34)
To enter into Yellow Flower River,
Always follow Green Creek’s waters.
Along the mountains for a myriad turns,
4 Yet traveling no more than a hundred miles.
Noises deafen amid a jumble of rocks,
And colors are tranquil deep within the pines.
Tossing lightly, water chestnuts float;
8 Clear and still, reeds and rushes gleam.
My heart has always been serene:
The clear river is equally at peace.
Let me stay atop a large flat rock
12 And dangle a fishhook from now on.
Line 1:Yellow Flower River is located in Shaanxi province.
(4/11a; I, 65)
A precipitous path—how many thousands of turns?
Just a few miles, yet resting three times.
Now and then I see my companions
4Vanish and appear behind a wooded hill.
Splashing and gusting, the rain upon the pines;
Flowing on, the stream amid the rocks.
Tranquil words are deep within the creek,
8 Long whistles high atop the mountain.
Gazing I see south of Southern Mountain,
The white sun beclouded in the distance.
An azure marsh is beautiful and still;
12 Green trees are dense as if afloat.
I have always hated being enclosed:
Boundlessness dissipates men’s cares.
Line 8:A “whistle” (xiao) was probably a combination of Taoist breathing techniques and whistling which was said to express feelings and was associated with harmonizing with nature and achieving immortality; the word has also been translated as “humming,” “singing,” and “crooning.” The tradition of the xiao began during the Jin dynasty and has always been linked with Taoism. Its most famous practitioner was Sun Deng, a friend of the poet Ruan Ji, whose xiao was said to sound like a phoenix (see poem 46, line 11n.). By the Tang dynasty there were apparently twelve different types of xiao. For further details see Zhuang Shen, pp. 97-101 and p. 107, n. 15 and Donald Holzman, Poetry and Politics: The Life and Works of Juan Chi (A.D. 210-263) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 150-52.
(10/9b; I, 187)
Untalented, I do not dare to burden a glorious era:
I long to head for the eastern creek and keep the old bamboo fence.
Not despising Shang Ping’s marrying his daughters off early,
I do object to Magistrate Tao’s leaving office so late.
In the grassy court crickets’ echoes quicken with autumn’s approach.
Within the mountains cicada sounds lament as evening nears.
In solitude by the brushwood gate where no one else arrives,
In an empty grove I meet alone with the white clouds.
Line 3:Shang Ping is Shang Chang, cognomen Ziping; his last name is also sometimes given as Xiang. See poem 73, line 6n.
Line 4:Magistrate Tao is Tao Qian, who actually only served as magistrate (ling) of Pengze in Jiangxi province for eighty days.
(1/5b; I, 8)
Alas, I have not yet died,
Lamenting this lonely life.
In reclusion at Lantian,
4 On sterile land I plow the fields,
At year’s end paying taxes
In order to offer millet sacrifices.
Mornings I go to the eastern marsh
8 Before the dew dries on the grass.
At dusk I watch smoke from cooking fires,
Shouldering a pole, coming home.
I heard there were guests,
12 Went and swept the brushwood gate.
One small dish—will that do?
A melon slice, ripe jujubes.
I gaze up at this venerable group,
16 Silvery-white, an old man;
Ashamed I have no fine bamboo,
Spreading rushes in place of mats.
By rippling waves, we climb the bank,
20 Plucking those lotus flowers,
Quietly watch the silvery sturgeon;
The white sand gleams below.
Mountain birds fly together,
24 The sun obscured by light rosy clouds.
They climb on carriages, mount horses
And suddenly disperse like rain.
Sparrows chirp in the desolate village,
28 Cocks crow in the empty house.
Once more I am alone again:
Doubled sobs, repeated sighs.
This is Wang Wei’s only poem written in the archaic tetrasyllabic meter of the Classic of Poetry, the 305 songs, ballads, and hymns said to have been collected by Confucius himself. Several of the ancient poems are complaints about hardship, loneliness, and poverty, and much of the lament in this poem, as well as its directness of expression, may be attributed to the poet’s awareness of this tradition. Commentators also believe that the “sigh” in the first line over not yet having died suggests that the poem was written shortly after the death of either Wang Wei’s wife or his mother. In any case, a considerable amount of posing is involved, for the poet was never poor, and it is doubtful if he ever toiled in the fields himself. Nevertheless, the emotion pervasive here does recur in other poems on life in retreat.
(9/1a; I, 153)
The autumn sky gleams into the distance—
And even more, remote from the midst of men:
Traversed by cranes on the edge of the sand
And joining with mountains beyond the clouds.
The limpid waves are tranquil as night approaches;
The clear moon is white and serene.
This evening I will trust to my single oar,
Irresolute, not yet to return.
(10/10a; I, 187)
A prolonged rain in the empty woods: cookfire smoke rises slowly,
As we steam pigweed and stew millet to feed those on the eastern fields.
Over vast and boundless paddies.fly the white herons;
In dense, dark summer trees warble yellow orioles.
Within the mountains practicing peace I watch the morning hibiscus.
Beneath the pines in a cleansing fast I cut off a dewy sunflower.
The rustic old man has done with the struggle to win a place on the mat:
Seagull for what reason are you still suspicious of me?
Line 7:This alludes to a story of how the Taoist Yang Zhu, having been rebuked by Laozi for his arrogance, succeeded so well in modifying his demeanor that the people at the inn where he happened to be staying, who had once humbly given him a mat to himself, ended up daring to struggle with him for a place on it. The anecdote is recorded in the Zhuangzi, “Imputed Words” (Yu yan, 76/27/25), and in another Taoist text, the Liezi (Xin bian zhuzi jicheng, IV, 2/25).
Line 8:This refers to the another story in the same section of the Liezi (2/21) of a man who used to roam freely with the gulls by the sea. One day, however, his father asked him to catch one for him; when the man went to the beach the next day, the gulls refused to fly to him.
(7/6b; I, 123)
In the mouth of the valley a bell stirs, remote.
Woodsmen and fishermen gradually grow scarce.
Far away the distant mountain dusks;
Alone toward white clouds I return.
Water chestnut tendrils are weak and hard to still;
Willow catkins are light and easily fly.
On the eastern marsh, the color of spring grass:
Sadly I close the brushwood gate.
(10/9b; I, 186)
I haven’t gone to the eastern hills for close to a year.
Returning home I have just had time to seed the spring fields.
In the rain the grasses’ color turns green, like a dye.
Above the water peach blossoms redden, ready to blaze.
Youlü the mendicant is the scholar of sūtra studies,
And old Master Hunchback is the provincial village worthy.
Throwing on clothes and losing my sandals, I rush out to greet them:
Together we like to talk and laugh before my humble door.
Line 5:This refers to Uruvilva Kaśpaya (Youloupinluo Jiaye), one of śākyamuni Buddha’s main disciples.
Line 6:This is an allusion to an anecdote in the Zhuangzi (“Mastering Life/’ 48/19/17) about an encounter between Confucius and a wise hunchback of Chu, who impressed the sage with the skill, concentration, and ease with which he caught cicadas on the tip of a sticky pole.
Line 7:The phrase “losing (or dropping) my sandals” alludes to a story in the Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms (Wei, 21/597). When the poet Wang Can (177-217), one of the Seven Masters of the Jian’an Period, arrived at Chang’an, he attracted the attention of Cai Yong (133-92), an official well known for his talents and erudition and highly respected at court. Despite his lofty position, when the latter heard that Wang Can was at his gate, he lost his sandals in his hurry to greet him.
(7/5b: I, 122)
Cold mountains turn deep green,
Autumn waters daily flowing on.
I lean on my staff outside the brushwood gate
And listen to evening cicadas in the wind.
At the ford lingers a setting sun;
From the deserted village rises one wisp of smoke.
Again I meet a drunken Jieyu
Madly singing in front of Five Willows.
Title:For an explanation of “Candidate,” see poem 98, title note.
Line 7:For Jieyu, see poem 44, line In.
Line 8:“Five Willows” alludes to the poet Tao Qian; see poem 38, line 10n.
(7/6a; I, 122-23)
Empty mountains after a recent rain:
The air, since evening, turns autumnal.
The bright moon, amid the pines, shines.
The clear stream, over rocks, flows.
Bamboos rustle: washerwomen return.
Lotuses move: fishing boats come downstream.
As it wishes spring’s fragrance may cease:
This prince naturally can stay.
Line 8:For the allusion here, see poem 72, line 4n.
(7/4b; I, 120)
In late years I care for tranquility alone—
A myriad affairs do not concern my heart.
A glance at myself: there are no long-range plans.
I only know to return to the old forest.
Pine winds blow, loosening my belt;
The mountain moon shines as I pluck my zither.
You ask about reasons for success and failure:
A fisherman’s song enters the shore’s deeps.
(14/1a-b; I, 257-58)
Coming and going through thousands of gates, a myriad homes,
I have traversed northern villages, southern environs.
What is the purpose of ambling horses’ tinkling pendants?
At Kongtong who is that man with disheveled hair?
Line 4:This alludes to a story in the Zhuangzi, “Let It Be, Leave It Alone” [Zai you, 26/11/28] about a hermit named Master Guang Cheng who lived on Kongtong Mountain. When the mythical Yellow Emperor visited there to study the Tao with him in order to better govern others, Guang Cheng refused. Only when the Emperor, after three months in solitary retirement, returned and requested help in governing his own body did the Master agree to instruct him.
Meeting again, enfeoffed as the marquis of ten thousand homes,
Standing and talking, bestowed with two discs of jade.
How can that surpass tilling southern fields side by side?
Or compare with sleeping high by the eastern wall?
Line 2:This is an allusion to Yu Qing of the ancient kingdom of Zhao, who met King Xiaocheng of Zhao three times: on his first visit he was given gold and a pair of white jade discs; the second time he was appointed minister of Zhao; and the third time he was enfeoffed as a marquis of ten thousand homes. See the Records of the Historian, 76/2370ff.
Line 3:This alludes to Changju and Jieni, two men who plowed fields together. Once when Confucius passed by and sent his disciple Zilu to ask them where a nearby river could be forded, Changju refused to tell him, insisting that if Confucius were a real sage, he should already know the location. Then Jieni chided Zilu for following a man who was trying in vain to change the world, rather than escape from it. See the Analects, XVIII.6.
Line 4:“Sleeping high” is a phrase denoting a life of ease and freedom from anxiety.
They pick water chestnuts at the head of the ford, where the wind is sharp
And ply their staffs to the west of the village, in slanting sun.
By the side of Apricot Altar, a fisherman;
Within Peach Blossom Spring, the homes of men.
Line 3:This alludes to an anecdote in the Zhuangzi (“The Old Fisherman” [Yu fu, 86/31/1]), in which a fisherman comes upon Confucius playing his zither at Apricot Altar and, in a lengthy conversation, chides him for his officious meddling in the affairs of others. He convinces the sage that one should not be concerned about the observance of propriety and rites, which are but creations of man, but rather about following the Way of Heaven.
Line 4:For Peach Blossom Spring, see poem 6.
Dense and lush, fragrant grass in the green of spring;
High and thick, tall pines in the summer cool.
Oxen and sheep return by themselves to the village lane.
Children do not know officials’ gowns and caps.
Beneath the mountain one wisp of smoke in a distant village;
On the edge of the sky a lone tree on the high plain.
A “One-Gourd” Yan Hui in a rustic lane;
The “Master of Five Willows” just across the way.
Line 3:One of Confucius’ favorite disciples, Yan Hui, or Yan Yuan, was known for his remarkable frugality and good nature: he would be satisfied with a handful of rice, a gourd of water, and a humble home. See the Analects, VI.9.
Line 4:For “Master of Five Willows,” see poem 38, line 10n.
Peach blossoms are red and also hold last night’s rain.
Willows are green and carry, too, the spring mist.
Flowers fall; the servant boy has not yet swept.
Orioles chirp; the mountain guest is still asleep.
Pouring wine we meet above the spring’s waters.
Holding zithers we like to lean on tall pines.
The southern garden’s dewy mallows are cut each morning;
The eastern valley’s yellow grain is pounded at night.
(13/1b-2b; I, 240-41)
Man at leisure, cassia flowers fall.
The night still, spring mountain empty.
The moon emerges, startling mountain birds:
At times they call within the spring valley.
Every day they leave to pluck lotuses.
Islets are far; many return at dusk.
In plying poles do not splash the water:
I fear you’ll dampen red lotus dresses.
Suddenly dipping among red lotus flowers,
It emerges again from the clear shore and soars.
Standing alone—how new are its plumes?
A fish in its beak, atop the ancient log.
Mornings they till Upper Peace Field;
Evenings they till Upper Peace Field.
May I ask the one who asked at the ford:
How can we know the virtue of Ju and Ni?
Line 4:Ju and Ni refer to Changju and Jieni; see poem 120, line 3n.
The spring pond is deep and wide.
For a while I await the light skiff’s return.
Ever so slowly green duckweed comes together;
The drooping willows sweep it open again.
(13/2b-8b; I, 241-50)
Preface: My retreat is in the Wang River mountain valley. The places to walk to include: Meng Wall Cove, Huazi Hill, Grained Apricot Lodge, Clear Bamboo Range, Deer Enclosure, Magnolia Enclosure, Dogwood Bank, Sophora Path, Lakeside Pavilion, Southern Hillock, Lake Yi, Willow Waves, Luan Family Shallows, Gold Powder Spring, White Rock Rapids, Northern Hillock, Bamboo Lodge, Magnolia Bank, Lacquer Tree Garden, and Pepper Tree Garden. When Pei Di and I were at leisure, we each composed the following quatrains.
A new home at the mouth of Meng Wall:
Ancient trees, the last withered willows.
The one who comes again-who will it be?
Grieving in vain for former men’s possessions.
Flying birds leave endlessly.
On continuous mountains autumn colors return.
Up and down Huazi Hill:
Melancholy—what limits to these feelings?
Grained apricot cut for beams;
Fragrant reeds woven for a roof.
I do not know if clouds within the rafters
Go to make rain among men.
Line 3:These last two lines allude to the second of Guo Pu’s (276-324) “Seven Poems on Traveling with Immortals” (You xian shi qi shou, Anthology of Literature, 21/292-95), whose second couplet reads: “Clouds arise within the rafters; / Winds emerge from the windows and doors.” This is a description of the residence of a Taoist priest, to whom Wang Wei is thus suggesting a comparison.
Tall and dense, they gleam by the empty riverbend;
Azure-green, billowing, flowing waves.
Secretly enter the Shang Mountain road:
Woodcutters cannot be known.
Line 3:This refers to the famous hermits known as the “Four Whiteheads,” who, when the First Qin Emperor came to power in 221B.C., retired to Mt. Shang in Shaanxi province and refused to serve in his autocratic government. See the Records of the Historian, 55/2045.
Empty mountain, no man is seen.
Only heard are echoes of men’s talk.
Reflected light enters the deep wood
And shines again on blue-green moss.
Autumn mountains embrace the lingering light.
Flying birds follow companions ahead.
Brilliant blue-green—at times distinct and clear;
Evening mists without a place to be.
They bear fruit both red and green,
And then, like flowers, blossom once again.
In the mountains, if guests are to stay,
Prepare this dogwood cup.
The bypath is shaded by sophoras;
In secluded shadows, green moss is thick.
But the gatekeeper sweeps it in welcome
In case the mountain monk should come.
A light bark greets the honored guest,
Far and distant, coming across the lake.
On the porch, each with goblets of wine:
On all four sides lotuses bloom.
A light skiff leaves for Southern Hillock.
To Northern Hillock, wide waters are hard to cross.
On the other shore I gaze at people’s houses:
Far and distant, we do not know each other.
Blowing flutes cross to the distant shore.
At day’s dusk I bid farewell to you.
On the lake with one turn of the head:
Mountain green rolls into white clouds.
Separate rows of fine trees next to each other
Cast their shadows into clear ripples.
Not like those on the imperial moat,
Where the spring wind is wounded by farewells.
Brisk gusts in the autumn rain;
Rushing on, the stream pours over rocks.
Leaping waves naturally splash each other:
White egrets are startled, then descend again.
Drink each day at Gold Powder Spring
And you should have a thousand years or more:
To soar on an azure phoenix with striped dragons,
And with plumes and tassels attend the Jade Emperor’s court.
Line 3:The allusions in this couplet are to the mythical figures of the Queen Mother of the West (Xi wang mu), who was said to have ridden in an azure phoenix chariot pulled by striped animals, and the Jade Emperor, supreme deity in the Taoist pantheon. Gold was believed by Taoists to confer immortality, hence their many alchemical experiments.
Clear and shallow, White Rock Rapids.
Green rushes once could be grasped.
Families live east and west of the water,
Washing silk beneath the bright moon.
Northern Hillock north of the river’s water;
Various trees vivid against crimson railings.
Winding about, the Southern River’s waters:
Bright and dim to the edge of the azure forest.
Alone I sit amid the dark bamboo,
Play the zither and whistle loud again.
In the deep wood men do not know
The bright moon comes to shine on me.
Line 1:This alludes to a poem entitled “The Mountain Spirit” (Shan gui), the ninth of the Nine Songs in the Songs of Chu, 2/140-42. There the speaker grieves over the failure of his lady (the spirit) to arrive, and he waits in sorrowful solitude in a dense and gloomy bamboo grove.
Line 2:For an explanation of this “whistle,” see poem 109, line 8n.
On the tips of trees “lotus” flowers
In the mountains produce red calices.
The mouth of the valley is silent without men.
In all directions they open, then fall.
Line 1:This alludes to “The Xiang River Princess” (Xiangjun), the third of the Nine Songs in the Songs of Chu, 2/113-19, in which the shaman-speaker laments the impossibility of meeting with his goddess-love. He compares this with the likelihood of finding wild figs in the water or lotuses on treetops. Here, however, Wang Wei turns the factual impossibility into a legitimate metaphor: the magnolia blossoms do indeed resemble lotus flowers growing on tree branches.
The ancient man was not a haughty official,
Naturally lacking experience of worldly affairs.
He happened to lodge in a humble post,
Among the lifeless, many-branched trees.
Line 1:This “ancient man” was Zhuangzi, who is said to have served some time as Keeper of the Lacquer Tree Garden (qiyuan li) in the state of Meng (Records of the Historian, 63/2143).
Line 4:The phrase translated here as “lifeless” (posuo) has many meanings, but Zhao Diancheng believes that it alludes to a passage in the biography of Yin Zhongwen (d. 407): after coming upon an old sophora tree, Yin contemplated it for some time and sighed: “This tree is lifeless, with no intention of reviving” (Jin History, 99/2605).
Cinnamon wine greets the Son of Heaven;
Sweet pollia is bestowed on the lovely person.
Pepper broth libations on the jeweled mat—
We wish to bring down the Lord Within the Clouds.
Line 4:This is a spirit to whom the second of the Nine Songs in the Songs of Chu, 2/105-12, is addressed. The other images in this quatrain also appear frequently throughout this southern anthology.