Preface to Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape

David Hinton

I’ve been translating classical Chinese poetry for many years, and slowly over those years I’ve come to realize that in translation I’ve stumbled upon a way to think outside the limitations not just of the mainstream Western intellectual tradition, but also of my own identity, a way to speak in the voice of ancient China’s sage-masters, and for them to speak in mine. Ancient China had a long and diverse philosophical tradition centered on the nature of consciousness, the empirical, and the relationship between them; but virtually all of that tradition’s diversity begins with the same, relatively simple conceptual framework. This framework, apparently originating at the earliest levels of Chinese culture, in Neolithic and Paleolithic times, appears in the Taoist and Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhist philosophical traditions, and even more fundamentally in the structures of the classical Chinese language itself. And it provided a deep form that the minds of all ancient Chinese intellectuals shared, even across their remarkable diversity, as did all aspects of the cultural tradition they produced: classical poetry, for instance, or landscape painting.

I was content for a long time to simply inhabit this framework. It was a kind of practice. But eventually I wanted to cultivate its elemental dimensions, to work through the ways in which it clarifies immediate experience, for it represents a worldview that is remarkably contemporary. It is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual. It is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding. Although articulated in the written tradition entirely by male members of a virulently sexist society, it is profoundly gynocentric: a primal cosmology oriented around earth’s mysterious generative force, a cosmology whose deep sources in the oral tradition may well be female. And it is what we now call “deep ecological,” meaning it weaves human consciousness into the “natural world” at the most fundamental level. In fact, the West’s separation of “human” from “nature” is entirely foreign to it.

For a variety of reasons that will be explained in the early essays of this book, those ancient sage-masters saw the deep structure of things most clearly when in the presence of mountain landscapes (hence, for instance, the preeminence of mountain landscape in the painting tradition). It therefore seemed that tracing the physical and mental contours of mountain walks would be the best way to work through their insights and the possibilities that those insights open for experience today. And so, as autumn made its fitful way toward winter—days sometimes cold and sometimes warm, weather sometimes rain and sometimes snow, sky sometimes overcast and sometimes bottomless blue—I took a series of walks up a nearby peak called Hunger Mountain, following a trail I’ve taken often over my years translating the ancients.

Nothing much happens on these walks, which makes them the perfect occasions to explore consciousness and landscape in and of themselves, as well as the dynamic interplay between them (an archetypal form of the interplay between consciousness and the empirical world more generally, which is the very texture of everyday experience). To walk through a landscape is to walk through a culture, for it is culture that determines both what we are and what a landscape is for us. And each of these essays reflects my attempt to understand one of those walks on Hunger Mountain as the ancients might have understood it through their Taoist/Ch’an framework, to think through it in their voice, but also to let them think through it in mine, with whatever new possibilities that might open.

From Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape (Shambhala, 2012)


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.