Wei Ying-wu

Wei of Suchou leaves me speechless, the feeling in his poems is so pure and serene.” When it comes to five-character lines, Wei is in a class by himself. — Pai Chuyi

Wei Ying-wu


Born into an aristocratic family in decline, Wei Ying-wu (737 – 791) served in several government posts without distinction. He disdained the literary establishment of his day and fashioned a poetic style counter to the mainstream: one of profound simplicity centered in the natural world. Wei Ying-wu is ranked alongside such Tang dynasty masters as Tu Fu, Li Pai, and Wang Wei. Yet only a handful of his poems had ever been translated into English.

about Wei Yig-wu - Red Pine


Wei Ying-wu (737 – 791) was one of China’s greatest poets. But unless you are a student of traditional Chinese literature, chances are you have never heard of him. There are no volumes in English devoted to his poetry. Even in Chinese you have to look hard. I can count on one hand the books I have managed to find. Somehow Wei Ying-wu has slipped past unnoticed. But somebody liked his poetry and took the trouble to pass it down. . .

The reason critics give for Wei Ying-wu’s lack of general recognition during his lifetime is that his limpid, serene style was not in vogue in the T’ang. In his chapter on Wei Ying-wu in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang, Stephen Owen writes, Wei Ying-wu’s poetry was seen to possess a plainness that did not draw the reader by sensual attraction. In her essay “The Invisible Landscape of Wei Yingwu” Paula Varsano notes, “The essence of Wei Yingwu’s poetry, like a faint and distant star, seems to dissolve under direct scrutiny.” And in his entry on Wei Ying-wu in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Oscar Lee says, “He was not especially renowned, perhaps precisely because of the qualities which set him apart from contemporary tastes as exemplified by the clever, if unexceptional, verses of the Ta-li shih ts ai-tzu {Ten Talents of the Ta-li Period]”

Besides the lack of ornate and clever language, there is something else missing in Wei’s poetry. The poetry of the Tang, whether coming out of the capital or the provinces, is laden with layers of allusion, allusions to all those people, places, and historical anecdotes an educated person should know and should delight in showing others he knows. It was one of the ways educated people displayed their credentials. Wei’s poetry is bereft of all but the most basic allusions there are far more, for example, in the poetry of his hermit contemporary, Han-shan.

Rather than trying to impress people with his erudition, Wei was more interested in drawing the reader into a landscape or a setting or a mood, especially the moods of seclusion and serenity. His poetry is also distinctive in its concern with the lot of ordinary people and not simply the educated elite. Finally, he was almost unique among major poets of his time in preferring old-style poetics: the five-character line as opposed to one of seven characters, and the relative absence of parallelism in adjacent lines in favor of a more natural flow of language.

Alone at Night at My Monastic Residence: To Secretary Ts’u

The recluse is in bed but not asleep
leaves are falling in flurries
a cold rain makes the late night darker
fireflies are gone from the tower
the blue flames of dawn are no help
I still suffer from a thin summer robe
I didn’t realize the year was so late or living apart was so lonely

Red Pine

The West River at Chu-chou

Alone, for love of hidden herbs, which flourish by the stream.
Above, the yellow oriole sings deep among the trees.
Spring’s flood tides, and rain, together, to this evening come.
No man at the ferry: a boat drifts there, on its own.

J.P. Seaton

On Leave and Watching the Rain: To My Colleagues in the County Government

With feet like Ch’ueh K’o’s I get nothing but laughs
unemployed now I dream of Tuling
The last oriole knows little of summer
but a festival rain foretells a good harvest
my grain isn’t gone because I wasn’t looking
compiling records was something I couldn’t do
of course I worry about quitting my post
I’d better stop here and thank my friends

Red Pine

 

~

Up high to a cloister of rock walls
I pushed aside clouds and climbed
a fine hike was what I hoped for
ignoring the dangers I reached my prize
but as light on the escarpment faded
and streams branched out like the lines in my hand
and the forests held nothing but loneliness
and the pinnacles disappeared into space
a man of the Way after reaching such heights
descended alone in the stillness of night
the mountain turned dark after sunset
a hundred springs echoed across the fall sky
my lamentable burdens reappeared intact
why can’t I stay free of cares

Red Pine

On Mount Lang-ya

At Stone Gate there is snow, no trace of travel.
Pine Valley’s mists, so full of fragrances.
To the crumbs of our meal in the court, cold birds come down.
A tattered robe hangs on the tree, the old monk’s dead.

J.P. Seaton

Planting Melons

When I follow my nature I’m rash
too careless to earn a living
this year I tried planting melons
in a garden that was mostly weeds
The plants all shared the rain and dew
but mine ended up in the shade
and once spring work got busy
the time for hoeing was past
the farmers laughed at my useless efforts
from dawn to dusk resulting in nothing
clearly this isn’t my kind of work
I’ll stick with ancient texts instead.

Red Pine

Crossing Langye Mountain

New snow on Stone Gate
unmarked bytracks,
In dense pine gullymists
float myriad scents.
On scattered lunch scraps
birds swoop down,
From a tree
a ragged cloak hangs
the old monk
no longer here.

Dongbo

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.