Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry


To understand their Way, we must approach it at its deep ontological level, where the distinction between presence (being) and absence (nonbeing) arises. Presence (psi) is simply the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation, and absence (ant) is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of presence perpetually arises. This absence should not be thought of as some kind of mystical realm, however. Although it is often spoken of in a general sense as the source of all presence, it is in fact quite specific and straightforward: for each of the ten thousand things, absence is simply the emptiness that precedes and follows existence.Within this framework,Way can be understood as the generative process through which all things arise and pass away as absence burgeons forth into the great transformation of presence. This is simply an ontological description of natural process, and it is perhaps most immediately manifest in the seasonal cycle: the pregnant emptiness of absence in winter, presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into absence in autumn.

At the level of deep structure, words in the poetic language function in the same way as presence, the ten thousand things, and the emptiness that surrounds words functions as absence. Hence, the language doesn’t simply replicate but actually participates in the deep structure of the cosmos and its dynamic process; it is in fact an organic part of that process. And the pictographic nature of the words, enacting as it does the “thusness” of the ten thousand things, reflects another central concept in the Taoist cosmology: tzu-jan, the mechanism by which the dynamic process of the cosmos proceeds, as presence arises out of absence.

The literal meaning of tzu-jan is “self-ablaze,” from which comes “self-so” or “the of-itself.” But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan is “occurrence appearing of itself,” for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things arising spontaneously from the generative source (wir)—each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient; each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating for ni. his vision of tzu-jan recognizes the earth, indeed the en-tire cosmos, to be a boundless generative organism. There is a palpable sense of the sacred in this cosmology: for each of the ten thousand things, consciousness among them, seems to be miraculously emerging from a kind of emptiness at its own heart, and emerging at the same rime front the very heart oldie cosmos itself.As it reflects this cosmology in its empty grammar and pictographic nature, the poetic language is nothing less than a sacred medium. Indeed, the word for poetry, shih, is made up of elements meaning “spoken word” and “temple.” The left-hand element, meaning “spoken word,” portrays sounds coming out of a mouth: . And the right-hand element, meaning “temple,” portrays a hand below  that touches a seedling sprouting from the ground Hence: “words spoken at the earth altar”:


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.