March 19, 2007 at 6:00 pm #21768
A very long thesis on Tao Yuan Ming, but worth it.. I hope you enjoy it; another look at taoist thought, life and practices, essentially the Tao of Poetry…SnowLion
A STUDY OF TAO YUAN-MING’S NATURE POETRY
In the intellectual history of China, two philosophical schools,
Taoism and Confucianism, predominated up to the twentieth century.
Although these two rival philosophies contended for supremacy, each
served, jointly or separately, as a basic mode of Chinese thinking, which
would in turn form the infra- and supra-structures of traditional Chinese
society. Though divergent in their approach and methods of application,
the followers of both Confucius and Lao Tzu a set as their ultimate goal
the attainment of the Tao, an elusive term that defies exact translation.
“The Tao that can be defined is not the eternal Tao,” warned Lao Tzu,
the acknowledged founder of Taoism. For practical purposes the word
is usually translated as “the way,” “the path,” or “the road.” By extension, it has come to mean the norm (in the Platonic sense), the moral have no way of determining which, since we do not have Kuo’s writing), Tao Yuan-ming describes the rather cheerful condition of his rustic life:
Luxuriant are the trees in front of the hall;
In mid-summer they offer cool shade.
The seasonal south wind arrives on time.
How refreshing it blows through my open lapel.
In retirement I am engaged only in leisure:
I amuse myself with books and music, free to rise or to rest.
My vegetable garden yields plenty for the table;
The rice bin still contains last year’s grain.
There is a limit to what one needs;
Having more t han enough is not my plan.
With sorghum I have made wine in spring.
Now that it is ripe, I pour myself a cup or two.
My little child frolicking by my side
Is trying to make intelligible sound.
In all these I have found genuine delight
Which helps me to forget honor and rank.
As I gaze at the white clouds in the distance,
The ancients are deep in my thoughts.
Mild and moist were the months of spring;
Cool and clear is the white season of autumn.
Now the dew congeals, no longer drifting mists.
The sky is high, the landscape sharp and clear.
Soaring peaks rise from yonder mountain range
Seen from here, their lofty beauty is unsurpassed.
Fragrant chrysanthemums deck the woods with splendor;
The green pines stand in rows above the cliff.
I admire their beauteous grandeur,
Elegant and lofty under the frost.
Holding my wine cup, I toast to the mystics
Who once roarmed along the pines.
Searching for the essence I have not yet acquired,
Reluctantly I await the rising moon.
Granted, these poems are replete with ambiguous symbols not easily
grasped, and thus lend themselves to various interpretations; however, the
general tenor and intention of the poems are quite clear. While the conventional symbols of chrysanthemums and pines could very well stand for
the poet’s personal integrity and endurance, it seems unlikely that these
poems stress Tao’s own moral values. This can be substantiated by the
poet’s allusion to the “ancients” in the last line of the first verse,
and to the “mystics” in the second verse. Both seem to refer to the same
“ancients” mentioned in the following passage of Chuang-tzu:
The understanding of the men of ancient times went a long
way. How far did it go? To the point where some, of them
believed that things have never existed so far, to the end,
where nothing can be added. Those at the next stage thought
there were boundaries but recognized no right or wrong.
Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured, and
because the Way was injured, love became complete. But do
such things as completion and injury really exist or do they
Only in this context do the last two lines, which defy the interpretation of many critics, make sense. It has often been said that Tao Yuan-
ming’s poetic language, unlike that of his contemporaries, is simple and
unadorned. This does not mean that he is incapable of expressing
profound thought. However, when his thought verges on mysticism, or his
idea grows out of his Taoist vision, words are inadequate for the full
expression of the concept. The reader can either confute himself to
appreciating the surface meaning of the poem or he can attempt to read
between the lines, and try to grasp its meaning through his intuitive power.
The following poem is a good example of the intrinsic complexity of Tao’s
thought behind his deceptively simple expressions:
I have built my cottage amid the realm of men
But I hear no din of horses or carriages.
You might ask, “How is this possible?”
A remote heart creates its own hermitage!
Picking chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
I perceive the Southern Mountain in the distance.
Marvelous is the mountain air at sunset!
The flitting birds return home in pairs.
In these things is the essence of truth
I wish to explain but have lost the words.
The concrete imagery and the realistic description in these lines
seem to have such a strong impact on the reader, that he may feel
transported from a mundane world into a rare world of beauty and tranquility, momentarily sharing and experiencing the poet’s vision. The
juxtaposition of the Southern Mountain (a symbol of immutability) and
the chrysanthemums (a symbol of impermanence but recurrence) could,by their contrasting yet harmonious presence, lift the reader out of the existential level to a metaphysical plane of perception approaching to a universal harmony, or an infusion between subject and object.
At the same time, one is kept in touch with the reality of the present heightened
by the feel of the mountain air and the sight of the birds flying home at
sunset. If this is a subjective and perhaps limited response to the poem,
it is because one can hardly find adequate words to explain the full import
of that which the poet himself has left unexplained because words have
failed him. The last line of this poem in particular is reminiscent of the
first line in chapter one of Lao-tzu which says: “The Tao that can be
explained is not the eternal Tao [or Truth] .”However, if one can grasp
the Truth through one’s intuitive power, there is indeed no need for
words, as Chuang-tzu explains:
The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the
fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because
of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget
the snare. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve
gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can
I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word
Could the truth that Tao Yuan-ming tries to convey in his poem be
inherent in the innocence and glory of “the new-born blesses” that Wordsworth writes about in Stanza VIII of his “Intimations of Immortality”:
Thou, whose exterior semblance does belie the Soul’s
immensity;Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,That, deaf and silent,
read’st the eternal deep,Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest! On whom those truth do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find.I
Unlike Wordsworth, Tao Yuan-ming did not seem to have to “toil”
to find the truth, or the Tao, in his life. He simply lived it, by returning
to Nature. Since his resignation from public service, and his rejection of
those social values which tied him down, the poet was able to “return
home” to his natural habitat, free from all outside pressures or the need
to conform, free to follow the dictates of his own nature. He was content
even in adversity with the life he chose to live. Although he experienced
hunger and cold, as he stated in several poems, even to the point of begging
for food, as attested to by his poem “Ch’i-shih” (“Begging Food),
he never complained and never lost heart. But he did not choose the
deliberate asceticism practiced by certain Taoist and Buddhist religious
sects. He never denied himself the pleasures of wine whenever he could
afford it, he enjoyed family life and the company of his rustic friends
Two-thirds of Tao Yuan-ming’s extant poems were written after
his resignation from the office of Peng-tse magistrate. They are a record
of his life as a farmer, eking out his livelihood from the soil. This is where
he and Wordsworth part company, because Wordsworth wrote about the
humble subject and the rustic, and the hard life of “Michael” or the
“Leech Gatherer” purely from a spectator’s point of view; Tao Yuan-
ming left us with his first-hand experiences and a record of his innermost
thoughts and feelings. Occasionally, Tao Yuan-ming brooded upon such
ontological questions as life and death. One representative poem of his
philosophical reflections is “Hsing, Ying, Shen” (variously translated as
“Substance, Shadow and Spirit,” or “Body, Shadow, and Soul”). Of this
poem, A. R. Davis comments:
This poem stands out in Tao’s collection as a deliberately
“philosophical” poem. Similar ideas can be found incidentally
in other of his poems, but here alone in his surviving work
are they developed to the point of dialectical treatment, The
piece, however, remains a poem, a fine poem; it is not a philo
sophical essay. It has, therefore, the obliquencess of reference,
natural to poetry and the poet’s mind. Although there is in
the few words of the preface a slight suggestion of polemic,
the expression is strongly personal, and I think that it is wrong
to regard it too much as a document in contemporary intellectual controversy …
In a head-note to his poem, Tao Yuan-ming gives the following explanation: “Every one, noble or base, brilliant or dumb, clings tenaciously to
life, which is nothing but a delusion. Therefore, I have given voice to
Substance and Shadow to express their grief, and let the Soul or Spirit
resolve their problems by following the course of Nature. Those who
are concerned with this matter’understand my intention.””
The poet’s intention seems to present at first three different points
of view regarding human life and mortality. The source of Tao
Yuan-ming’s philosophical outlook is found in Chuang-tzu:
“Once a man receives this fixed bodily form, he holds onto
it, waiting for the end. Sometimes clashing with
things, sornetimes bending before them, he runs his course like a galloping
steed, and nothing can stop him. Is he not pathetic?”
Further on, in the same book one reads:
Do not be an embodier of fame; do not be a storehouse of
schemes; . . .. do not be a proprietor of wisdom. . . Hold on
to all that you have received Heaven (i.e. Nature) but do not
think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is al1.
Tao Yuan-ming, in this poem, makes Substance speak for the
“hedonistic carpe deim” concept of indulging in wine, since there is nothing
for him to look forward to. He does not believe in the attainment of
immortality as do some of the Taoists of the esoteric religious cults,
nor does he believe in the transcendency of inevitable change as preached
by the Buddhists of his time. The Shadow represents the transitory glory
of name and fame or moral virtues from the humanist perspective adhered
to by most Confucians. Tao Yuan-ming’s own philosophy, represented
by the Spirit, is that man should follow the course of Nature, which is the
essence of Tao. The poem, quoted here in full, is one of the most revealing texts of the poet’s philosophical bent:
Substance, Shadow, and Spirit
Shadow to Substance
Earth and heaven endure forever,
Streams and mountains never change.
Plants observe a constant rhythm,
Withered by frost, by dew restored.
But man, most sentient being of all,
In this is not their equal.
He is present here in the world today,
Then leaves abruptly, to return no more.
No one marks there’s one man less
Not even friends and family think of him;
The things that he once used are all that’s left
To catch their eye and move them to grief.
I have no way to transcend change,
That it must be, I no longer doubt.
I hope you will take my advice:
When wine is offered, don’t refuse.
Shadow to Substance
No use discussing immortality
When just to keep alive is hard enough.
Of course I want to roam in paradise,
But it’s a long way there and the road is lost.
In all the time since I met up with you
We never differed in our grief and joy.
In shade we may have parted for a time,
But sunshine always brings us close again.
Still this union cannot last forever
Together we will vanish into darkness.
The body goes; that fame should also end
Is a thought that makes me burn inside.
Do good, and your love will outlive you;
Surely this is worth your every effort.
While it is time, wine may dissolve care
That is not so good a way as this.
The Great Potter cannot intervene
All creation thrives of itself.
That Man ranks with Earth and Heaven,
Is it not because of me?
Though we belong to different orders,
Being alive, I am joined to you.
Bound together for good or ill
I cannot refuse to tell you what I know:
The Three August Ones were great saints
But where are they living today?
Though P’eng-tsu lasted a long time.
He still had to go before he was ready.
Die old or die young, death is the same,
Wise or stupid, there is no difference.
Drunk every day you may forget,
But won’t it shorten your life span?
Doing good is always a joyous thing
But no one has to praise you for it.
Too much thinking harms my life;
Just surrender to the cycle of things,
Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change
Neither happy nor yet afraid.
And when it is time to go, then simply go
Without any unnecessary fuss.”
This poem may be considered the testament of Tao Yuan-ming’s
personal conviction, grown out of a long process of deliberation. Nowhere
else in the poet’s writing is his philosophical contemplation as succinctly
enounced. Undoubtedly, like many of his contemporaries, Tao Yuan-
ming had felt the impact of sundry religious practices such as Buddhism
and esoteric Taoism, in addition to orthodox Confucianism and philosophical Taoism.
If he had not been tempted by the popular practices of one school or another, he must have been familiar with their beliefs.He never succumbed to the pursuit of sensuous pleasures (even though he enjoyed the pleasure of wine); joined any esoteric cult promoting the prolongation of life; nor tried to preserve his name and fame after death. Instead, Tao Yuan-ming, represented by the Spirit in his poems, surrendered himself to the course of Nature, and thus freed himself from all worries
and the fear of death.
Throughout Chinese literary history, however, critics have disagreed
about Tao Yuan-ming’s philosophical leanings because of the lack of any
detailed, accurate biographies of the poet. In all three dynastic histories,
his biographies are placed in the category of “Recluses.”Moreover,
they are all brief, sketchy, and short on facts and details. Even the dates
of his birth and death are not precisely known, thus leaving room for
speculation. One is informed that he was a native of Chai-sang in
Chiu-chiang,and that he was born into an impoverished family of the scholar-
official class. His great grandfather was the illustrious Tao Kan,Duke
of Chang-sha; his maternal grandfather also was a high official in the
Western Chin. Tao Yuan-ming held several minor government posts
before his appointment as magistrate of Peng-tse, a position from which
he resigned some eighty days later.
Some critics have pointed to the inherent conflict in Tao Yuan-
ming between his Confucian aspirations for social involvement and his
personal inclinatiom for the love of nature and freedom. Could his early
Confucian training in moral integrity and personal discipline have curbed
some of the negativism of his Taoist behiefs? Although he renounced
political ambitions in his pursuit of the Tao, he did not really abandon
the world of man; his models were historical personages of high moral
virtue whom he wished to emulate.
Tao Yuan-ming’s view of himself as a person is best seen in his
short prose piece, “Biography of Mr. Five Willows” (“Wu-liu hsien-sheng
chuan”s), which is, by consensus, a thinly disguised self-portrait:
Mr. Five Willows is a native of one knows not where. Nor does
Erie know his name. Since there are five willows by his house,
he has been given the sobriquet of “Mr. Five Willows.” He
is a man of few words, retiring by nature. He has no desire
for money or for fame. An avid reader, he does not however,
seek extraneous interpretations. Whenever he finds certain
books arresting his interest, he forgets his meals. He has
a special weakness for wine, but being poor he cannot always
afford it. His friends, aware of this, often invite him to drink.
Then he drinks to his heart’s content. But when he is drunk,
he takes leave at once. The walls surrounding his house are
dilapidated, giving little protection from the sun or wind.
His coarse gown is shabby and threadbare; his rice jar is
frequently empty. Yet he lives in contentment, and writes
poetry to amuse himself and to express how he feels. Worldly
gain or loss does not concern him. This is his way of life.”
hi the coda of Mr. Five Willows’ biography (known as Tzant or Eulogy),
and in accordance with the conventional style of Chinese biographical
literature, Tao Yuan-ming sums up his appraisal of Mr. Five Willows by
way of an analogy:
When Chien Louu said, “One does not grieve over poverty or
low station in life, nor does one strive for power or riches,”
did he have this man (Mr. Five Willows) in mind? He drinks
and writes poetry to please himself (unmindful of public
opinion) such a man should belong to the time of Wu-huai
and Ko-tienw (both legendary sage rulers of an ideal era of
This indeed is high self-praise coming from a man who is both truthful
and honest. But if Mr. Five Willows was not a self-image of the poet,
he was at least a model which he admired. That the persona in this biographical work with no known name or origin is nicknamed Mr. Five Willows
is rather puzzling. If the nickname were meant to be merely a realistic
description of Tao Yuan-ming’s own homestead, he could have named his
fictitious character after the blue pines in his garden, or called him the
Master of Chrysanthemums”, which grew along the eastern hedge.
No one seems to question the significance of the appellation, Mr. Five Willows,
which posterity has assumed is an alias for the poet. There seems to be no
historical antecedent for the name, but the allusion of Ch’ien Lou, whose
motto was “one grieves not over poverty or low station in life, nor does
he strive for power or riches,” may suggest that T’ao Yuan-ming is applying
to Mr. Five Willows a motto equally applicable to the poet himself.31
This worthy man of the Chun-chiu period, who lived and died in poverty,
was posthumously named “Kang” (translated as “contentment”), because
of his moral richness. He is mentioned not only in T’ao Yuan-ming’s
own poems, but also appears later in the “Elegy for T’ao Yuan-ming,”
written by Yen Yen-chihx (384456 A.D.), a close friend and former
neighbor of the poet. In the concluding lines of the elegy, Yen laments:
Even the best of men come to an end:
Chien Lou has died;
Chan Chin,too, passed away.
They were your models
Who in the past trod the same dust.
We now bestow on you the title Ching-chieh,
Just as they were given the titles Kanga and Huiab.
Tao Yuan-ming was given the posthumous title “Ching-chieh,” just as
Chien Lou was given the title of “Kang.” But who was the man named
Chan Ch’in, posthumously titled “Hui”? A further search has disclosed his
identity: he was none other than the incorruptible sage, popularly known
as “Liu-hsia Hui,” ac meaning the “Benevolent One Under the Willows.”
Liu-hsia Hui is frequently mentioned in The Analects and in the Mencius,
because of his uprightness and moral integrity. Liu-hsia Hui has also been
portrayed by some painters as a recluse seated under a willow tree, encircled
by humble folk seeking counsel. Although there is only one allusion to
Liu-hsia Hui in T’ao Yuan-ming’s poems,it is possible that the poet’s
admiration for the sage was known to Yen Yen-chih, who therefore made
the allusion to Chan Ch’in (Liu-hsia Hui’s real name), along with Ch’ien
Lou, in his “Elegy for Tao Yuan-ming.”‘ /t is entirely possible that the
poet’s choice of the name Mr. Five Willows, for his persona (or self-image)
implies symbolically the affinities between his biography and Liu Hsia
Hui, the man whose house was overhung with willows.
In addition, the willow is a generally recognized symbol of gentle-
ness and weakness. According to the Pen-ts’ao kang-yao (Encyclopedia
of Trees and Herbs) of Li Shih-chen, ae the willow is so called because of
its pliability and ability to go with the flow of nature. Weakness and softness are highly commended in the Lao-tzu: “The use of Tao consists in
weakness”;and again: “The softest of all things override the hardest
of all things.”
Nowhere, however, is Tao Yuan-ming’s Taoist vision more clearly
manifested than in his famous utopian tale, “Tao-hua yuan-chiaf (“Peach
Blossom Spring”), a poem of thirty-two lines which is prefaced by a prose
narrative. This prose narrative is frequently anthologized as an independent piece of work. The story is about a certain fisherman of Wu-ling,ag who by chance discovers an idyllic world of peace and tranquility,whose inhabitants are uncontaminated by modern civilzation:
During the Tai-yuan period of the Chin dynasty, a fisherman of Wu-ling once rowed upstream, unmindful of the distance he had gone, when he suddenly came to a grove of
peach trees in bloom. For several hundred paces on both
banks of the stream there was no other kind of tree. The wild
flowers growing under them were fresh and lovely, and the
fallen petals covered the ground . . . . He went on for a way
with the idea of finding out how far the grove extended. It
came to an end at the foot of a mountain whence issued the
spring that supplied the stream.
There was a small opening in the mountain and it seemed as though
light was coming through it. The fisherman left his boat and entered the cave,
which at first was extremely narrow, barely admitting his body; after few dozen steps it suddenly opened out onto a broad and level plain where well-built houses were surrounded by rich fields and pretty ponds. Mulberry, bamboo and other
trees and plants grew there, and criss-cross paths skirted the
fields. The sounds of cocks crowing and dogs barking could be
heard from one courtyard to the next. Men and women were
coming and going about their work in the fields. Old men
and boys were carefree and happy.”
The simple description of this agricultural pastoral given by Tao Yuan-
ming, and his use of animal imagery of cocks and dogs call to mind chapter
80 of Lao-tzu, which reads:
Let there be a small country with a small population.
Though there may be tens and thousands of contrivances
The people have no use for them.
They love their lives here and will not migrate.
Though there are ships and carriages, none will ride in them.
Though there are weapons and arrows, none will regard them.
May the people return to knotting cords.
Let them enjoy their food and clothing, and cherish their
home and customs.
Though the neighboring countries are within sight,
And the cocks crowing and dogs barking can be heard,
They may grow old and die without visiting them.”
Could this ideal, primitive society conceived by Lao Tzu be the
antecedent of Tao Yuan-ming’s vision of his “Peach Blossom Spring”
outside the world of men? However, Tao’s narrative does not end with
the description of his ideal society; it goes on to tell of its inaccessibility
at the end of the tale:
After the fisherman had gone out and recovered his boat, he
carefully marked the route. On reaching the city,
he reported what he had found to the magistrate, who at once
sent a man to follow him back to the place. They proceeded
according to the marks he had made, but went astray and were
unable to find the cave again. A high-minded gentleman of
Nan-yang named Liu Tzu-chi heard the story and happily
made preparations to go there, but before he dould leave he
fell sick and died. Since then no one has been interested in
trying to find such a place.”
This short story, with its straight-forward style and simple language,
has established a tradition of utopian literature in China. It has so stirred
the creative imagination that for generations the story has been told and
retold by creative men of letters in various forms. Among the better
known is the Tang poet Wang Wei, whose “Song of Peach Bloosom
Spring” is admittedly based on Tao Yuan-ming’s narrative, although
Wang Wei has added a supernatural quality to it by giving immortality to
the inhabitants of this ethereal world. Recently, a play bearing the same
title, Peach Blossom Spring, written by Chang Hsiao-feng of Taiwan, has
been produced on stage. This play provides a new sub-plot touching on
contemporary issues. It places greater emphasis on the conflict between
escapism and social commitment.
Aside from being a source of imagination for the creative mind,
Tao’s “Peach Blossom Spring” has been the subject of various critical
works. Some consider it a charming fairy tale; others claim it is a political
satire or a social protest against the chaos of the author’s own times. What
was Tao Yuan-ming’s intention in the narrative? May the reader believe
what he wrote elsewhere, i.e., that he wrote (as in “Mr. Five Willows”)
simply to amuse himself and to express his feelings? The utopian vision
of Tao Yuan-ming shares the simplicity and innocence of the Garden of
Eden before the Fall, and the peace and beauty of Shelley’s Arcadian
pastoral. But unlike Shelley, who had faith in the realization of his
utopian dream in some distant future (as expressed in his “Helas”), T’ao
Yuan-ming has stressed that his “Peach Blossom Spring” is unattainable in
this mundane world for men who have lost their pristine innocence or
the Tao. But it did exist for the poet, not only in his imagination, but in
the reality of his being. For utopia is, after all, a state of mind, not to
be found in the outside world, as Tao Yuan-ming himself has told us:
“When the heart is remote (i.e., free and detached from the dusty world),”
it creates its own hermitage (or utopia).The poet has created and
retained such a utopia in his “True Taoist vision”.
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