Once More, on the Empty Mountain

J.P. Seaton

[green_message] Before reading this you may want to read about the Chinese written character here >>> Here we turn to something that I hope is not, in Monty Python’s immortal words, “completely different.”

Wang Wei’s “Deer Park,” written in rows and from left to right, reads:

You’ll immediately notice that you already know several of the characters in the poem, and if you look closely you’ll see that you can also recognize pictographic elements within several others (which must therefore be either ideographs or phonetic-signific compounds). A word-for-word translation goes as follows (a colon denotes the meaning of a given character, and a slash marks the caesura):

Empty: Mountain: / Not: See: Human
But (only): Hear / Human: Language (spoken word): Sound (Echo)
Return: Sun or shadow: / Enter: Deep: Grove
Again: Shine on or reflect on or from: / ch’ing: Moss or lichen:
    On or up

To get a Working prose version of the poem, we have to begin with the understanding that it is a convention of most forms of Chinese lyric poetry that the poem is written by the poet in his own voice, not in a persona, and that for reasons of economy and humility, the first-person pronoun is most often left out. Thus, the first line is not “The empty mountain doesn’t see anyone,” but rather “I, on empty mountain, don’t see humans” or “Empty mountain: (I) don’t see humans.” The construction is paratactical rather than grammatical: that is to say, the mountain, as a topic, is simply juxtaposed to not seeing humans; no grammatical connective is present, and the subject of the sentence is, by convention, left out. With line one properly read, line two is straightforward and easy to under-

Empty mountain: I don’t see humans,
but I hear human language echo.

The ambiguity of the beginning of line three (“Returnz Sun or shadow”) is actually productive only of a truism: when light returns, shadows do too. There may be here an allusion to T’ao Ch’ien or to a locus classicus, one or another of Chuang Tzu’s several playings with form and shadow, but for our purpose, we can let that question lie. The rest of the line certainly seems very straightforward: the subject (light or shadow) enters deep into the grove. It seems worth noting that the central characters in the lines of the central couplet—“human” ( ch) in line two and “enter” (ch) in line three—are mirror images of each other, particularly when you consider the role of reflection and echo in the poem and of reflected images in Buddhist poetry in general. Failing to find a way to reflect this flourish in the translation, I can only offer the following to bring us to the end of the third line:

Empty mountain: I don’t see humans,
but I hear human language echo.
Returning sun enters, deep, the grove


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.