Lu Yu

Few works of literature so magnificently attest the power of the imagination to transcend the incursions of time and senescence as do these poems of Lu Yu’s last years.

The old man who does as he pleases – Burton Watson

Sung poetry has begun to be prized precisely because of its startling range of subject, its philosophical complexity, its unfastidious realism and colloquial turns of phrase, qualities that in the past might have been looked upon as faults, but which in many ways ally it with current trends in Western poetry…. Su Tung-p’o (was) the leading poet of the era known as the Northern Sung (960-1126). Lu Yu, better known in the Far East by his literary name Fang-weng, or “The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases.” (was) the most important poet of the era that succeeded it, the Southern Sung (1127-1280).

He held a series of rather insignificant posts in eastern China, and later in the area of Szechwan in the west, but was four times dismissed from office, ostensibly because of drunkenness and inattention to duty, though probably in fact because his hawkish views offended those in power. His later years were largely spent in retirement at his home in the countryside in Shao-hsing,… He surprised himself and others by living to the age of eighty-four—by Chinese reckoning, eighty-five, since a child is regarded as one year old at the time of birth—thus becoming one of the longest lived of Chinese poets. He was also one of the most prolific, leaving behind a collection of close to ten thousand poems, as well as miscell-neous prose writings. Most of his extant poems were written after the age of forty…

Lu Yu is a poet of many moods and styles, but it is generally agreed that two themes dominate his writings. One is that of patriotic indignation, his longing to see the north, which he was too young even to remember, once more restored to native rule, a longing that often appears in his poetry in the form of fitful dreams in which he sees himself and his countrymen , actually riding into battle against the hated barbarians. The other theme, wholly different in nature, is that of the quiet joys and experiences of everyday life. Lu Yu made no secret of his extreme fondness for wine, and in 1176, after being dismissed from a post on charges of “drunkenness and irresponsibility,” he adopted in a gesture of defiance the literary name Fang-weng, which means “the old man who does as he pleases.” In countless poems, particularly those written late in life, when he was living in retirement in Shao-hsing, it is this theme of carefree enjoyment of life that predominates… Lu the contented, philosophical farmer, derives eventually from another great poet of the past, T’ao Yuan-ming or T’ao Ch’ien (365-427), who was likewise one of Lu Yu’s literary idols…

It is (the) poems of daily life, with their abundance of succinct and evocative detail, that have won the admiration of readers in China and, popularized in Japan in late Tokugawa times, influenced the development of the haiku form. They are also the poems which, in my opinion, go best into English and are most likely to appeal to the modern reader,… Few works of literature so magnificently attest the power of the imagination to transcend the incursions of time and senescence as do these poems of Lu Yu’s last years.

Burton Watson
The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases

Columbia University Press, 1994

Lu Yu – David Hinton

Lu was… drawn to the personal cultivation of Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist practice. When he was removed permanently from government office at the age of sixty-four, he returned to spend his last two decades as an increasingly impoverished recluse on the family farm at Shan-yin (Mountain- Yin), his ancestral village. There, his long practice of Ch’an no-mind coming to fruition, he cultivated a profound transparency to experience. … In (his) late poetry the Sung interiorization of tzujan came to another of its logical conclusions, for the mastery of the poems lies more in their form than in any particular statement they make. They d0n’t just portray wisdom, they enact it by following the provisional insights of everyday life, and so demonstrating his understanding that ordinary experience is always already enlightened, that enlightemnent resides in the everyday movement of perception and reflection, rather than in the distillation or intensification of experience into privileged moments of insight. It is this day-to-day transparency that represents Lu Yu’s distinctive way of weaving consciousness into the fabric of natural process, of making every gesture in a poem wild.

David Hinton
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008


In twilit crosslight begins
as cocoon unthreads,

brushes earth,
then hard arrowheads, airborne.

Through mosquito net light rays
to daybreak-dreams

as the brass stove’s sweet grass
steam spring clothes.

Pond fish whip caudal fin
to follow spillway;

over weir swallows zoom, wheel,
touch wings, return.

Petals have only fallen
not yet blown away,

but wet blooms ruddling bough
are where I put trust.

David Gordor

Night Thoughts

I cannot sleep. The long, long
Night is full of bitterness.
I sit alone in my roorn,
Beside a smoky lamp.
I rub my heavy eyelids
And idly turn the pages
Of my book. Again and again
I trim my brush and stir the ink.
The hours go by. The moon comes
In the open window, pale
And bright like new money.
At last I fall asleep and
I dream of the days on the
River at Tsa-feng, and the
Friends of my youth in Yen Chao.
Young and happy we ran
Over the beautiful hills.
And now the years have gone by,
And I have never gone back.

Kenneth Rexroth

On the Fourth Day of the Eleventh Month During a Windy Rainstorm

Lying stiff in a lonely village I don’t feel sorry for myself;
I still think of defending Luntai for my country.
Deep in night in bed I hear wind blowing rain,
and iron horses on an ice river enter my dream.

Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

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.