Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Collection and Li Qingzhao translations

Matthew Flannery

Painter and poet Wang Wei brushed a long handscroll of his large estate, Wangchuan Villa, then added twenty verses to describe its scenes. The villa was located on the Wang River (Wangchuan) in the Lantian district in the Zhongnan range (Southern Mountains) about thirty miles south of the sometime Tang capital Chang’an.

I: Mengcheng Hollow

My new home is near Mengcheng.
Of ancient forests, worn willows remain.
Who will come to live here next?
Will he grieve for men now gone?

II: Huazi Hill

Flying birds never cease.
Layered mountains redden again.
I pace the crest of Huazi hill.
Empty sorrow never ends.

III: The House of Apricot Wood

For beams, I chop down apricot wood
knotting sweet thatch, I roof my house.
White clouds quitting my rough-hewn rafters
perhaps will water the world of men.

Line three: clouds seem to be symbolic of the benign influence of one’s fame or good example.

V: Deer Enclosure

This mountain is empty of men.
Only their voices carry this far.
Deep in the woods, slanting sun
shines on jade green moss.

Line four: growing where traffic is slight, moss can represent separation, loneliness.

VI: Magnolia Park

Light slides from autumn slopes.
Hurrying birds pursue their flocks.
Jade shadows sometimes brighten.
The colors grow restless on darkening hills.

X: South Hill

I steer my skiff towards South Hill.
North Hill is too far.
Over the water, homes of men.
Who lives there now? Too far to tell.

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.