Wei Ying-wu

Wei of Suchou leaves me speechless, the feeling in his poems is so pure and serene.” When it comes to five-character lines, Wei is in a class by himself. — Pai Chu¬yi

Wei Ying-wu
Born into an aristocratic family in decline, Wei Ying-wu (737–791) served in several government posts without distinction. He disdained the literary establishment of his day and fashioned a poetic style counter to the mainstream: one of profound simplicity centered in the natural world. Wei Ying-wu is ranked alongside such Tang dynasty masters as Tu Fu, Li Pai, and Wang Wei. Yet only a handful of his poems had ever been translated into English.

about Wei Yig-wu - Red Pine
Wei Ying-wu (737—791) was one of China’s greatest poets. But unless you are a student of traditional Chinese literature, chances are you have never heard of him. There are no volumes in English devoted to his poetry. Even in Chinese you have to look hard. I can count on one hand the books I have managed to find. Somehow Wei Ying-wu has slipped past unnoticed. But somebody liked his poetry and took the trouble to pass it down. . .

The reason critics give for Wei Ying-wu’s lack of general recognition during his lifetime is that his limpid, serene style was not in vogue in the T’ang. In his chapter on Wei Ying-wu in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang, Stephen Owen writes, “Wei’s poetry was seen to possess a plainness that did not draw the reader by sensual attraction.” In her essay “The Invisible Landscape of Wei Yingwu,” Paula Varsano notes, “The essence of Wei Yingwu’s poetry, like a faint and distant star, seems to dissolve under direct scrutiny.” And in his entry on Wei Ying-wu in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, Oscar Lee says, “He was not especially renowned, perhaps precisely because of the qual¬ities which set him apart from contemporary tastes as exemplified by the clever, if unexceptional, verses of the Ta-li shih ts’ai-tzu {Ten Talents of the Ta-li Period].”

Besides the lack of ornate and clever language, there is something else missing in Wei’s poetry. The poetry of the T’ang, whether coming out of the capital or the provinces, is laden with layers of allusion, allusions to all those people, places, and historical anecdotes an educated person should know and should delight in showing others he knows. It was one of the ways educated people displayed their credentials. Wei’s poetry is bereft of all but the most basic allusions — there are far more, for example, in the poetry of his hermit contemporary, Han-shan.

Rather than trying to impress people with his erudition, Wei was more interested in drawing the reader into a landscape or a setting or a mood, especially the moods of seclusion and serenity. His poetry is also distinctive in its concern with the lot of ordinary people and not simply the educated elite. Finally, he was almost unique among major poets of his time in preferring old-style poetics: the five-character line as opposed to one of seven characters, and the relative absence of parallelism in adjacent lines in favor of a more natural flow of language.

Alone at Night at My Monastic Residence: To Secretary Ts’u

The recluse is in bed but not asleep
leaves are falling in flurries
a cold rain makes the late night darker
fireflies are gone from the tower
the blue flames of dawn are no help
I still suffer from a thin summer robe
I didn’t realize the year was so lateor living apart was so lonely

Red Pine

The West River at Ch’u-chou

Alone, for love of hidden herbs, which flourish by the stream.
Above, the yellow oriole sings deep among the trees.
Spring’s flood tides, and rain, together, to this evening come.
No man at the ferry:  boat drifts there, on its own.

J.P. Seaton


On Leave and Watching the Rain: To My Colleagues in the County Government

With feet like Ch’ueh K’o’s I get nothing but laughs
unemployed now I dream of Tuling
The last oriole knows little of summer
but a festival rain foretells a good harvest
my grain isn’t gone because I wasn’t looking
compiling records was something I couldn’t do
of course I worry about quitting my post
I’d better stop here and thank my friends

Red Pine