Going Back to Song Mountain A clear river is like a belt in the abundance of grass and bushes. On the road are few horses and carriages. The flowing river is full of feelings but the evening birds fly away, one by one. A deserted city lies behind an ancient harbor. All the autumn mountains stand in the setting sun. At the foot of sprawling Mount Song, the city gate waits for me to go in. Then closes behind. —Wang Wei (translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin)
The final act of The Bacchae, King Lear, or Phèdre sets the mind on fire. As I leave the theater, my thoughts and emotions burn brightly—and inconclusively—over the frailty of human will, the nature of good and evil, the ineluctability of fate. Later these speculations may be brought into rational balance, but the experience of the tragedy itself is far from “cathartic.” When I return to the poetry of Wang Wei (701-761), it is usually because I yearn for a true purgation, an emptying out, a stilling of the voice that natters on futilely about matters for which there are no solutions and no deeper profundities. Wisdom, in this sense, arises from knowing the limits of the self, of language, and of our place in the universe. In seeking to inhabit a stillness for which there are no words and by which the self becomes a vessel of silence, Wang Wei’s meditative and nature poems can calm a mind agitated by mundane yearning, regret, and despair.
Far from being a hermit, Wang Wei was a worldly success who maintained his livelihood as an imperial official for most of his life, but who always yearned to escape from his ambition and cultivate forms of solitude: in his Wang River retreat south of Chang’an, in two or three years of formal mourning for his mother, in his practice of Taoism and Chan Buddhism, in the arts he mastered, poetry, painting, calligraphy, the music of the pipa. Since the well-educated in ancient China were almost by definition of the upper class, he was an aristocrat, observing with the eye of a slightly patronizing outsider the working peasant life around his villa retreat and the distant places to which he was posted; he could even be a standard-issue apologist in governmental matters, like the borderland battles against “barbarians.” Poverty appealed to him as freedom from worldly things, as a sign of honesty and righteousness in others, and as a conventional expression of humility, just as his sometimes tiresome descriptions of the white hair and fragility of old age—he was, at most, in his fifties when he wrote those poems—were a way of employing self-deprecation and modesty to counter the worldly ambition inherent in writing a poem.
At his best, he valued all quiet pleasures outside the hurlyburly of society, especially nature and the memory of nature, displaying an attitude that was forward-looking, loving, and creative, not misanthropic. “At this moment I am seated by myself,” he wrote to his friend Pei Di, “with the servants hushed and out of sight. And my thoughts hark back to former days, when hand in hand we would walk along some mountain path to stop before a clear stream, composing verses as we went. It cannot be long before spring.” 1 The words that seem backlit by a preternatural clarity in his poems, like “reclusion” (幽), “emptiness” (空), “meditative” (禪), “deep” (深), “alone” (獨) and “quiet” ( 閒), could easily have been the basis for mere cris de coeur about loneliness and injustice, but in Wang Wei’s lines attain an equilibrium even in sadness, as if he were inhabiting the void and discovering what makes it harmonious within its fearfulness. It is apropos that the brushstroke he was most famous for as a painter was apparently a pattern of washes over the sharply defined lines of rock outcroppings in his landscapes, which had the effect of intensified clarity through a dilution of inky blackness.
A few of my favorite translations of Wang Wei are by American practitioners of some form of Buddhism, like Red Pine and Gary Snyder. Unlike some partisans of other faiths, the passion that their belief inspires leads them not to an intense mysticism disquieting to outsiders, but to greater clarity and simplicity. Here is one of Red Pine’s translations with his typically limpid and helpful introduction, which employs the tradition of Chinese commentaries:
“The retreat Wang Wei (701-761) bought on the Wang River was sixty kilometers southeast of Ch’ang-an and once belonged to the poet Sung Chih-wen. Although Wang rose to the post of deputy prime minister, he was a lifelong Buddhist and a vegetarian, and toward the end of his life he spent more time meditating at his retreat and hiking around the mountains than working in the capital. Hibiscus flowers only last a day, or two at most, and mallow leaves are best picked after the dew dries. Hence, Wang Wei is too hungry to wait. In Chuangtzu: 27 the arrogant Yang-tzu Yu returns to his inn after receiving instruction from Lao-tzu. But where he was once waited on hand and foot, he now has to fight for a place for his mat. ‘Seats’ here also refers to positions of authority, concerning which the poet no longer has any interest. In Liehtzu: 2.11 the author recounts how seagulls flock around a man, until he conceives of a plan to catch them.”
Written at My Wang River Retreat after a Steady Rain Steady rain deserted woods and finally kitchen smoke steamed greens and millet for those in the eastside fields snowy egrets fly above a sea of flooded fields golden orioles sing in the shadows of summer trees sitting in the mountains I regard the day’s hibiscus and cut dewy mallow leaves for a meal below the pines living in the country I’ve stopped fighting over seats why then do the seagulls still suspect me
A Note on Classical Chinese Poetry and Translations
Usually I believe a literary work should stand on its own. If it requires a full-fledged explanatory apparatus by some admirer or literary critic, I’m likely to fault the writer. Of course I can immediately think of exceptions, like the annotations that help clarify James Joyce’s intentions. The apparatus needed to appreciate classical Chinese poetry in English is another exception, although the necessity is different in kind from Joyce. In the first place, it usually doesn’t arise from the author’s polymathic densities, but from the distance between China and the West, linguistic, historical, and cultural. In the second, even the best translation cannot provide some information that may be gleaned from an original text. What would such an explanatory apparatus look like? A chart of the literal meanings of the words in Chinese would prevent leakage of extraneous English meanings (and etymological undertones) into the translation. An illustration of how the words look on the page, what the poem sounds like both now and (reconstructively) in its day, and how the tones form a musical or prosodic pattern, would bring us closer to the poet’s aesthetic intentions. If we have some knowledge of the history and uses of the Chinese verse form, we could approach the poem with the confidence we possess with “odes” when reading “Intimations of Immortality” or perhaps “ghazals” when reading Agha Shahid Ali. Some reference to Chinese traditional exegesis and biography, which can have the quality of centuries of disputatious midrash, may be necessary because meaning often depends on cultural context and biographical detail that may be difficult to discern in the poem itself. (An example would be the “exile” poems by Li Yü, a.k.a. the Emperor Li Hou-zhu, which show little to indicate his exile at all.) Finally, the apparatus would be utterly useless if it weren’t combined with a good, finished, English poem, ideally with the same high quality that the original is said to possess within Chinese culture.
Obviously this is an impossibly tall order, one that would require practicing poets—usually the most important translators of poetry—to set aside their own work for an extended period of time to concentrate on something that ends up being far more involved than mere “translation”: a scholarly and literary essay for each poem. Luckily, most translators and editors recognize these difficulties. Some have collected different translations, occasionally of the same poem, to do the Rashomon-like work of explanation; other translators have written extensive introductions, prefaces, and footnotes to their translations, such as Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin’s fine introduction to Laughing Lost in the Mountains; still others, scholars and teachers of Chinese, have presented lessons on poems that end up doing much of the work I’ve suggested. The essay “Introduction to The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese” (also collected in The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry), by Arthur Sze, illumines many of these complexities, offering a remarkably honest explanation of his process in translating a poem by Li Shang-yin.
Reviewing many versions of Wang Wei, I do think something of the poet—a poetic and spiritual essence, the meditative stillness of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, the simple harmony of Taoism, the delineated clarity of a landscape painter—comes through in the translations that I’ve listed below. But more so than with my recommendations for other writers in this series, my aim is narrow here: I’ve included pieces that I admired as English-language poems, but I make no claims that they do all or most of the work needed to embody Wang Wei’s poetry in our language. My approach is that of a practicing American poet. While it is important to make sure translations are accurate in a scholarly way, it is at least as important that poets judge the translations on their merits as poems in English, if only because Wang Wei and other Chinese poets will remain mere exotica until they are incorporated into the lifeblood of our literature. This list is a start in this direction. For a fuller grasp of Wang Wei, I suggest reading these two book-length editions: Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin; and The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton. Pauline Yu’s Poetry of Wang Wei contains helpful background information and scholarly footnotes, but is no longer in print.
Recommended poems by Wang Wei:
“Written in the Mountains in Early Autumn,” “Sketching Things,” “Stone Gate Temple in the Blue Field Mountains,” “The Wang River Sequence,” “Return to Wang River,” “For Zhang, Exiled in Jingzhou, Once Advisor to the Emperor,” “Saying Goodbye to Ping Danran, Governor,” “Sailing at Night beyond Jingkou Dike,” “A Peasant Family,” “Things in a Spring Garden,” “Going Back to Song Mountain,” “Walking into the Liang Countryside,” “A White Turtle under a Waterfall,” “Caught in Rain on a Mountain Walk,” “The Madman of Chu,” “For Taoist Master Jiao in the East Mountains,” “Weeping for Ying Yao” (“How many years can a man possess?”): Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin.
“Sent Far Away,” “Untitled” (“You just came from my old village”), “At Cloud Valley with Wang-fu Yüeh: 3, Cormorant Bank,” “Ch’i River Fields and Gardens,” “Wheel-Rim River: 5, Deer Park,” “Setting Out from Great-Scatter Pass and Wandering Fifteen or Twenty Miles of Meandering Trail Through Deep Forests and Thick Bamboo, We Reach Brown-Ox Ridge and Gaze Out at Yellow-Bloom River,” “In Jest, for Chang Yin,” “Farewell to Yang, Who’s Leaving for Kuo-chou”: The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton.
“Bamboo Retreat,” “The Chungnan Mountains,” “Passing Hsiangchi Temple,” “Seeing Off Yuan Er on a Mission to Anhsi,” “Written at My Wang River Retreat after a Steady Rain”: Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse, translated by Red Pine. His clear, introductory paragraphs to each poem may be the best solution to the problem of how to include necessary information in a readable way.
“Deer Park,” “Remembering My Brothers in Shandong on the Double-Ninth Festival,” “Autumn Nightfall at My Place in the Hills,” “Zhongnan Retreat,” “Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses”: Three Chinese Poets: Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu, translated by Vikram Seth. Metered and rhymed versions, with the resonances and limits of that choice. Seth, ever charming and humane, is especially good at bringing out the tender qualities of an important strain in Wang Wei’s work, his poems about friendships.
“Bamboo Grove”: The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese, by Arthur Sze.
“The Walnut Tree Orchard,” “The Hill of Hua-Tzu,” “The Creek by the Luan House,” “The Magnolia Grove”: Jumping Out of Bed, translated by Robert Bly. These versions are not labeled within the book itself as translations, but obviously include selections from the “Wang River Sequence.”
“Alighting from my horse to drink with you”: The Cassia Tree: A collection of translations and adaptations from the Chinese in collaboration with David Rafael Wang, English version by William Carlos Williams (in The Collected Poems of Williams Carlos Williams, volume II, 1939-1962).
“Autumn,” “Autumn Twilight in the Mountains,” “Bird and Waterfall Music,” “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness,” “Twilight Comes”: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning Year, translated by Kenneth Rexroth.
“Deer Camp,” translated by Gary Snyder: The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger. This poem, plus “En la Ermita del Parque de los Venados,” by Octavio Paz, “Clos aux cerfs,” by François Cheng, and Rexroth’s version, also appear in Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. The afterword by Paz, the great Mexican poet, is worth reading.
“A Spring Day at the Farm,” “Watching It Snow and Thinking of My Friend, the Hermit Hu”: Four T’ang Poets: Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Li Ho, translated by David Young.
“Birdsong Valley,” “Reply to a Magistrate”: Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Sam Hamill.
“Watching a Hunt”: An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, translated by Stephen Owen.
“Enjoying the Cool”: The Poetry of Wang Wei, translated by Pauline Yu. Scholarly versions of poems by Wang Wei, with extensive notes, and critical commentary about such subjects as Wang Wei’s Buddhism and nature poems.
“At Parting,” translated by Witter Bynner; “Melody of Wei City,” translated by William Dolby: Classical Chinese Literature: Volume I: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, edited by John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau.
“Toward the Temple of Heaped Fragrance,” “A Song of Peach-Blossom River”: The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, translated by Witter Bynner from the texts of Kiang Kang-hu.
“The Blue-Green Stream,” “Farm House on the Wei Stream”: Fir-Flower Tablets, translated by Florence Ayscough, English versions by Amy Lowell.
“Suffering from Heat,” translated by Hugh Stimson: Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo. Stimson’s classical Chinese primer, Fifty-five T’ang Poems, which includes word-by-word and line-by-line analyses of several poems by Wang Wei, provides much of the information necessary to appreciate these poems, although without final, finished versions.
“To See a Friend Off”: Hiding the Universe: Poems by Wang Wei, translated by Wai-lim Yip. The abrupt, clipped style of these versions do bring out the parallelisms of the original Chinese.
“End of spring near the river Ssû”: Wang Wei: Poems, translated by G. W. Robinson.
“Duckweed Pond”: The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, translated by Burton Watson.
“Peasant Life by the Wêi River”: Selections from the Three Hundred Poems of the T’ang Dynasty, translated by Soame Jenkyns
- From “Letter to Pei Di Written in the Mountains,” translated by H. C. Chang, in Classical Chinese Literature: Volume I: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, edited by John Minford and Joseph S. M. Lau. (back)