Once More, on the Empty Mountain

[green_message] The final line of the poem appears straightforward too, at first. The subject derives, clearly, from the preceding line. The returning sun again shines on, or reflects back from, the moss or lichen, which is c/fing. Ch’ing is a color term with multiple denotations. It can be any color in the blue-green range of the spectrum, and in poetry it is usually used in the description of mountain scenery and is associated with colors ranging from bright blues and greens to their most muted tones, including black and the “color” of clear water in motion. In other contexts, it may also refer to the brilliant green of spring foliage: a metaphor for youth—the ch’ing nien (green years). Thus, though we might look to the color term to help us  decide whether the penultimate character in the last line denotes moss or lichen, we actually get no help. The outline of the picture is clear: the poet (and by now his reader) is in a deep grove when a shaft of sunlight reenters the grove (at dawn or, following the usual Buddhist interpretation, at‘ dusk). In either case, when the sun appears briefly below the line of the canopy of the grove, it casts slanting rays around and between the trunks of trees onto the moss or lichen, which is the only thing that will grow in the deep shade. Maybe only those who have seen late light on a tuft of moss know how vibrantly alive a green can be: sunlit gray lichen or reindeer moss is more sun than green.

And does the sun shine “in and on,” or “on and up from”? Logically, it has to shine in before it shines on, and then, of course, it reflects up from, into your eyes, and thence where? Notice that we hear the voice in line two only as an echo. (I wonder if that’s actually possible?) The poem, beginning in the perhaps tranquilizingly vague permanence of the mountain, has come, riding its shaft of light, to rest on a little patch of lichen or moss. But it hasn’t gone straight there, nor has it stopped when it’s arrived.

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.