Once More, on the Empty Mountain

[green_message] And one last little flourish from the poet: the first word in line two of the poem (ff) is not an ideograph, but a phonetic-signific, and a weak one at that. It means “but” or “only” and is pronounced “tan,” like its phonetic element, the character for “dawn” I cited in the language lesson.

But what do we see when we look as closely at the character as we have been directed by the poet to look at the lichen? We see a man standing beside a sun on the horizon—at dawn or at dusk, at the time when we are reminded of the cycles of nature, of ending and of beginning again, the time when the rays of the sun penetrate the grove to alight upon the moist plants on the ground. Then We look again and see a man speaking of the yang line, or of the One all mystics speak of. Fu and tan are, in Chinese, what are called “empty words”; they are the only purely grammatical words in the poem. Through the use of classical allusion and visual play, Wang Wei has managed to fill both of them.

Wang Wei was an aristocrat. He knew his classics by heart. In a waning age (high T’ang was about to take a terrible fall from which it would never recover), he was a patron of a new way of approaching the problem of suffering in the world of humankind. A follower of Zen, he speaks here not just to converts like himself, but also to confirmed Confucians, men of his own class. It is a new light that enters, he says, but it is an old grove into which it comes. His poem says something we may have already known: it is time to begin again, anew, at the beginning. Always.

That this poem’s structure and imagery alone, without allusion and deep wordplay, are sufficient to carry its meaning to the modern world through the medium of sensitive and talented translators is only the most obvious of the miracles of Wang Wei’s art.

J.P. Seaton

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.