T’ao Ch’ien

When you’ve just come of age, reading these poems seems like gnawing on withered wood. But reading them after long experience in the world, it seems the decisions of your life were all made in ignorance.

about T'ao Ch'ien - J.P. Seaton

T’ao Ch’ien (365-427), originally named Yuan-ming (Bright and Clear), changed his personal name to Ch’ien (“sunken” or “hidden”) in response to the fall of the Eastern Chin (or Tsin) dynasty, under which he had served in several official capacities. Complicating the issue was the fact that he had also served the general who was the eventual usurper of the Chin throne. Known traditionally as a nature-loving, quietistic Taoist, a hermit farmer who was a lover of little children and of large quantities of wine, the actual man was a complex and very modern one, a great poet whose ethical standards were as high as his artistic ones. He was influenced by the poetry of Juan Chi and by the works of the Taoist relativistic philosopher-sage and humorist Chuang Tzu to write poems that expressed his own strengths and weaknesses honestly, giving him a solid stance from which to criticize his times. After his death he was without a doubt the most quoted and alluded to of all traditional poets, for at least a thousand years. One of Li Po’s best loved quatrains uses a line from an official biography of T’ao Ch’ien as its third line, a wonderful joke that certainly set those who were prepared to discover it to gales of laughter, while leaving many a pretentious poetaster at a lose to understand. China’s greatest poet? Surely I jest? Well, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Su Shih all acknowledge him as there master/teacher. Who are we, after all, to argue that?

about T'ao Ch'ien - David Hinton
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 C.E.) stands at the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition like a revered grandfather: profoundly wise, self-possessed, quiet, comforting. T’ao was the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which distinguishes ancient Chinese poetry and makes it seem so contemporary.

T’ao gained quasi-mythic status for his commitment to life as a recluse-farmer, despite poverty and hardship, and his poetry mirrors that life. Its unassuming surface reveals a rich philosophical depth. Virtually all major Chinese poets recognized in T’ao a depth and clarity of wisdom that seemed beyond them, a wisdom which also made him a figure honored in the Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist tradition. Huang T’ing-chien, the Sung Dynasty poet, said of T’ao: “When you’ve just come of age, reading these poems seems like gnawing on withered wood. But reading them after long experience in the world, it seems the decisions of your life were all made in ignorance.”

WAYs: “Returning Home to My Fields and Gardens” >>>


I couldn’t want another life. This is my
true calling, working fields and mulberries

with my own two hands. I’ve never failed it,
and still, against hunger and cold, there’s

only hull and chaff I’m not asking for more
than a full stomach. All I want is enough

common rice, heavy clothes for winter and
open-weaves for the summer heat-nothing

more. But I haven’t even managed that. O,
it can leave you stricken so with grietf

And character is fate. If you’re simple-
minded in life, its ways elude you. That’s

how it is. Nothing can change it. But then,

I’ll delight in even a single cup of wine.

David Hinton

Return to My Country Home – #3

The weeds flourish but not the bean sprouts.
Morning, I get up to weed the fields.
I return, shouldering the moon and my hoe.
On narrow paths through thick grass and brush.
evening dew soaks my clothes,
but wet clmhes don’t bother me
so long as I follow my heart.

Tony Barnstone and Chou PIng

Success and failure? No known address.

Success and failure? No known address.
This or that goes on, depending on the other.
And who can say if Milord Shao was happier
ruling a city, or sacked, his excellent melon patch?
Hot, cold, summer, winter: don’t they alternate?
Mayn’t a man’s way wander on just so?
Yes, those who “get there” know their opportunities…
have learned to untie the knots of knowledge.
But was it the notable or the notorious that our Sage spoke of?
The latter he called opportunists. Those who get there, doubtless,
know doubt nor care no more. Yet, doubt you not, nor do dead generals,
who plotted carefully at what seemed opportune,
and knew naught, right or wrong.
If, of a sudden, you’re offered fine wine,
let the sun sink. Enjoy it.

J.P. Seaton