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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciaton: 9_Pastoral Poetry 》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

Ten Talk 9

(9) Pastoral Poetry an International Tradition

Chinese pastoral poetry is unique, not only because China was an agricultural country for thousands of years, but also because people who had left home to be scholars and officials in cities always yearned for the quietude and charm of a pastoral life. It has a practical honesty and a spiritual charm. The value of earning one’s keeps to meet needs is basic since antiquity.

Chinese history proceeded in recurring cycles of unity, division, and reunification. The Han Dynasty founded by Liu Bang (劉邦) in 206 B.C. was overthrown in A.D.220. The Tree Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu (魏、蜀、吳) followed. In the Wei Kingdom a family of three great poets surfaced to foster poetry development, headed by the founder Cao Cao (曹操). He and his two sons all wrote poems which enshrined how the human spirit was enriched by the grandeur and charm of Nature,

The Sea (觀滄海) by Cao Cao begins and ends with these lines:

“From the Rocky Hill on eastern shore東臨碣石   

I stand to watch the sea in awe以觀滄


How grateful I feel to be here幸甚至哉   

I sing this song for memory to adhere 歌以詠志

He also introduced wine into poems, singing in his Sing Along (短歌行):

“To drink is to sing 對酒當歌

How life in time rings” 人生幾何

The transcendental thoughts of Laozi dominated the Jin Dynasty (265-420) when scholars discredited the Confucius doctrines. At a time of prevailing famine and difficulties, scholars tried to escape from the hard reality and resorted to a secluded life with Nature. The best known poet of the time was Tao Qian (陶潛365-427). He refuted the orderly and torpid life in officialdom and went back to farming and writing, enjoying the simple life of drinking, pondering, and siding with the serenity and charm of hills and rills. Such a life of simplicity, honesty, reservation, and submission to fate concurred with the belief of Buddhism which began to flourish in China. He became the archetype of the hermit poet and an influential force in the development of pastoral poetry.

Let us begin with his poem on secluded life, Drink, Number 5 of 20 (飲酒):

“Amid man’s haunted environs I have my chalet 結盧在人境

Where noises of hoofs and wheels are kept away 而無車馬喧
Asked how such a place could have serenity 問君何能爾

A detached mind can create peace naturally 心遠地自偏

At dawn I pick daises by the fence at will 採菊東籬下

And watch the beauty of the southern hill 悠然見南山

Where the mountain air so fresh is here to stay 山氣日夕佳

Birds leave and return to their nests day after day 飛鳥相與還

Herein rests the true meaning of life 此中有真意

If need be told no words could be found to express my mind 欲辨已忘言”.

I taught the fifth to eighth lines as an independent poem in fourth grade in primary school in 1956. I did not know why the curriculum designers believed such a meaningfully deep poem could be understood by ten year old children. But, all pupils managed to recite the poem by memory with no difficulty. It was perhaps the beauty of the Chinese language. And the reason could be that such memorization would nourish the mind for life, even with no initial understanding. All I could do as a young teacher was to take the children to a picnic in the Shatin Hills, and taught them to enjoy the fresh air there. However, the point of the poem was centered in the poet’s leisure life in a beautiful environment, with birds disappearing and returning in time cycles.

Critics emphasize the skillful use of the verb (見) in the verse “And watch the beauty of the south hills”. I used the English word (watch) as the translation. I had considered the words notice, see, discover, sight, view, and behold. But, none, including watch, carries the “mindless or natural act of bewaring the presence of a beautiful and near by hill”; in short, knowing the existence of Nature’s objective beauty and the poet’s subjective feelings of serenity, peace, and contentment. Critics describe such a poetic expression as sweet, simple, wide, and far (恬淡致遠), a reflection of the poet’s unperturbed and noble character.

In the poem Back to Nature III (歸田園居), Tao Qian narrated his new life in the countryside:

At the foot of the southern hills growing beans I try  種豆南山下
To clear the weeds I early rise
Hoe on shoulder I return home by moonlight  帶月荷鋤歸
Narrow are the paths where shrubs grow tall 道狹草木長
My clothes are soaked when heavy dews fall 夕露沾我衣
It matters not if I’m wet衣沾不足惜
So long as my life goals are met  但使願無違

Here, the laborious experience of farming to feed oneself is vividly and artistically painted in a picture of Nature in its real and relevant perspectives. It reveals a concrete goal of life, which is innocent, meaningful, and free.

Yet, there is no escape for the inevitable question of death, wherever one may live. Death is never an individual matter. It relates to family and friends, time and meaning, body and soul, and finally, if there is continuity or finality. Tao Qian gave us his views in Elegy Song I (擬挽歌):

“To live is to accept death in peace 有生必有死

Day will come when I last breath 早終非命促


After ten thousand years have passed away 千秋萬歲後
Who will know my glory or disgrace  誰知榮與辱

I regret while living still 但恨在世時

Mellow brews I fail to drink my fill 飲酒不得足”.

It is simple, practical and colloquial. Artistically, the verses are all symmetrical in words as in meaning, demonstrating discipline and esthetic concords which are typical to his art of poetry. There are other aspects of this poet revealed in his 143 poems, long and short. But I will stop here for now.

         Historically, the Jin Dynasty was replaced by the Song Dynasty (, 420-589). The empire soon faced the invasion of strong tribes from the north. They drove the emperors south, splitting the country into Northern Song and Southern Song, thence changed to the Sixth Dynasty and then the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Golden Era of Chinese culture. Poetry thrived in style as in scope.

During the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong (玄宗, 712-755), the Hanlin Examination required candidates to compose a regulated verse on a given topic. Thus, poetry became an indispensable accomplishment of scholarship. Good poets abounded. Wang Wei (王維, 701-761) became the most important pastoral poet of this time. He was a devoted Buddhist, a fact which deeply shaped the way he viewed the world and his place in it. He celebrated the quiet joy of rustic life. Following Tao Qian he wrote with natural calm and detachment to narrate the charm of Nature. One example is The Dale Where Birds Sing (鳥鳴澗):

“Folks enjoy their respite when sweet osmanthus fall 人閒桂花落

Spring hills become empty on quite nightfall 夜靜春山空

A sudden moonshine could awake birds in the bare hill 月出驚山鳥

Their fitful twitters will keep a spring dale filled 時鳴春澗中”.

The poet did not assiduously describe the natural landscape. Rather, he painted the still and moving scenes around him as they appeared. The same style is seen in many of his quatrains, like In the Mountain (山中), and A Cot on Bamboo Hill (竹里館).

In the poem To My Brothers on Double-Nine Festival (九月九日憶山東兄弟) was on the textbook of primary schools when I was teaching. It was a popular poem because the festival is celebrated every year by the Chinese all over the country. This poem shows Wang’s caring of his separated brothers from a distance, a fundamental Chinese virtue.

High school students of my generation were all fond of the poem Yearning (相思). We used to joke around throwing red berries to one another to echo the mood in the poem, thus annoying the school genitor who had to do extra cleaning.

The comfort of pastoral life is fully depicted in Retirement at South Hill (終南別業). It tells us how Buddhism and Daoism underline the beauty of rural life, with folks caring for one another, and contented in being together with the rhythms of Nature. Today, it is not easy for most of us to enjoy such interpersonal warmth and pure quietude anywhere. But reading the lines can help us to experience the same situation and feelings more in consciousness rather than in dreams:

“I saunter to where the mountain stream no longer flows 行到水窮處

I sit waiting to watch rising clouds afloat 坐看雲起時

By chance I meet a firewood gatherer as I roam 偶然值林叟

We chat and cheer forgetting it is time to return home 談笑無還期”.

An ancient poet described how Chinese poetry travelled to other lands at ease, saying: “My leafy skiff winds to a ten thousand li land at ease (一葉隨風萬里身)”. One of these far away lands was just a group of islands where people concerned themselves to survive more than making luxurious literature. In fact, the name of today’s Nippon was created in the Chinese Imperial Court. The original name Ri Ben (日本) means the land of sunrise.
Around Kyoto a small group of literati studied the Book of Poetry diligently in the 6th Century. They used the kanchi (Han language) to compose native poems with the Japanese language to form haikai, which means Han poems. That started an active interaction between the two peoples during the Tang Dynasty when the Japanese Emperor sent throngs of scholars to learn from the Middle Kingdom. The result is what we see in Japan today, in ancestor worship, architecture, gardens, music, painting, life style, and beliefs of Confucianism, Daoism, Zen and Nature gods. In the midst of all these stands the pastoral poetry.
In a country of islands further away the literati elites were equally attracted to the calm and beauty of pastoral poetry. A ready example is the systematic translation of the pastoral poems of Fan Cheng Da (范成大, 1126-1193) by the renowned British scholar and poet Gerald Bullet (1893-1958). His Five Seasons of a Golden Year. A Pastoral was taught at the University of Hong Kong when Ru Xin was studying there. But she is critical of the fidelity of many of his translations.

Fan grew up in a poor family. But he taught himself the classics and, at the late age of twenty eight, he passed the Imperial Examination, securing the title jinshi (進士). He travelled extensively in south China and became a noted geographer. But it is his poetry that made him famous, not only in China, but also in Japan, England and France. Readers can enjoy some of his poems with my translation (link). I love them all because they help me to recall many happy days when I lived and played in my father’s village near Shenzhen, 1943-47. That experience has enabled me to conquer many a personal and academic battles around the globe in the ensuing years.

I would like to present two poems that are joyful and affable here before I conclude this Talk.

Spring I

At noon I hear cockerel calls in the Lane of Willow Flowers 柳花深巷午雞聲

New mulberry leaves are showing green tips this hour 桑葉尖新绿未成

Waking from a drowse in my chair I enjoy life at ease 坐睡覺來無一事

Outside the sunny window silkworms are breaking free 满窗晴日看蠶

Summer I

Ripe plums golden almonds in bounty 梅子金黄杏子肥

Wheat flowers like snow vegetable flowers scanty 麥花雪白菜花稀 

Long solitary days no one passes my hedged-in space 日長籬落無人過

Except dragonflies and butterflies dash enjoying their plays惟有蜻蜒蛱蝶

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