Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Lyric Poetry Around the World (11): Tao Yuanming (China, 365-427 CE)

Drinking Wine
by Tao Yuanming

translated by Ad Blankestijn

I built my hut in the world of men,
yet there is no noise here from wagons.
Would you know how that is possible?
With the mind detached, one's place becomes remote.
Plucking chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
in the distance I see South Mountain.
The mountains are beautiful by evening,
birds in flight return two by two.
In these things lies a deep meaning -
I want to say it, but have forgotten the words.


[Illustrations in the Spirit of Tao Yuanming's Poems, by Shitao (1642-c. 1707) - note the chrysanthemums in this painting]

Tao Yuanming (also called Tao Qian, 365-427 CE) lived in the Six Dynasties, a period of disunity when northern China had fallen into the hands of non-Chinese leaders. The south, where Tao Yuanming lived, was ruled by a succession of weak and short-lived dynasties that had their capitals in modern Nanjing.

The poet was born into a family of officials. Tao Yuanming's forbears had served in distinguished posts, and he felt the obligation to continue the family tradition of government service, but only managed to obtain minor appointments. He therefore continually yearned to return to the pastoral life. In 405 he retired for good from public service, after holding his last post as magistrate of Pengci for only 80 days. For the remaining 22 years of his life he lived as a private citizen, a state of life often referred to as "reclusion".

This return to his "garden and fields" formed the main topic of Tao's poetry: retelling the decision, justifying it, proclaiming his contentment with it, and praising exemplary figures from the past who had made the same decision. However, within the Chinese tradition public service was the sacred duty of every educated man, and literati were only morally allowed to refuse government service when the political situation was bad - for example, when an unacceptable ruler or regime was in power. So Chinese commentators have often read Tao's poetry as an implicit condemnation of the Eastern Jin government of his time. Yet Tao Yuanming rarely speaks about government at all and his choice of a private life doesn't seem to have been inspired by political disillusion. Rather, he just seems to have been unhappy as an official and therefore opted for the more congenial life of a private citizen.

[Tao Yuanming Seated Under a Willow,
by Tani Buncho, 1812]

The above is Tao Yuanming's most famous poem (the fifth in a series of 20 poems about "drinking wine"). It admirable conveys the detachment and repose of the recluse, who makes his home among men yet remains uncontaminated by the world - the ultimate of being in the world, but not of the world. The poet contemplates nature both through the chrysanthemums growing by the hedge of his cottage, as through the distant mountain scenery. There is a fundamental truth in this, which can not be communicated by words - just as the Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao.

Although the poet lives in "an inhabited zone" (i.e. not in the wilds), he receives no visitors, to which the phrase "no noise from wagon or horse" refers (i.e. this does not mean that he lives far from a busy road). The world is far because his own mind is far.

The poet is not plucking chrysanthemums to put them in a vase for decoration, but to use as medicine in a wine infusion (he is not a tippler like the later Li Bai, but wine here is also used as a medicine). Chrysanthemums were considered as providing long life, so such a concoction must be a long life elixir. Southern Mountain (which may have been the actual Mt Lu) may belong to the same complex of meanings, as in the Shijing (166/6) it is mentioned as the mountain of long life. It seems that Tao Yuanming later also picked South Mountain as the location for his grave.

Hightower writes in his commentary on the poem, "Southern Mountain... [as] ...the symbol for long life comes into focus as an example of the enduring loveliness of nature into which the birds return at night and in which man is reabsorbed at the close of his life - this is part of the truth which the poet grasps and which he has no words to express, or rather, having grasped it, he can "forget words." (p. 132)

Today, Tao Yuanming is regarded as the greatest poet of China before the Tang dynasty.

The above translation is my own.

James Robert Hightower in The Poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (Oxford, 1970), pp. 130-32
Also included in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature by Victor Mair, pp. 180-81
Stephen Owen in Anthology of Chinese Literature, p. 316
Arthur Waley, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems
Original text at Chinese Wikisource

Shi Tao: Shitao, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Tani Buncho: Tani Bunchō, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lyric Poetry Around the World Index