#116: THE POETRY OF T’AO CH’IEN. Chinese poetry begins with two anthologies, the Shih Ching or Book of Songs, and the Ch’u Tz’u, the Songs of the South, dating from the eleventh century BCE to the second century CE, and their contents ranging from the simplest folk-like lyrics and court panegyrics to highly colored literary poems with shamanic themes, these latter attributed to Ch’u Yuan, the first great name in the Chinese poetic tradition. But it’s not for another couple of hundred years, with the appearance of T’ao Ch’ien, that we begin to hear the recognizable voice and mood of our usual idea of Chinese poetry: the reflective Confucian gentleman, torn between civic duty and a taste for reclusion, fond of his drink and civilized conversation, immensely sensitive to the natural landscape. Over the years between the classic anthologies and T’ao, we see Chinese poetry moving toward these themes and images; with T’ao, they come to full expressive flower.
During T’ao’s life, the enforced peace of the Han Dynasty had collapsed, and T’ao was outlived by a long period of disunity and warfare. Though sought out as a man of intelligence and honesty, T’ao was constantly trying to escape the capital and return to his farm and family. He had, as William Acker noted, a taste for reclusion, not seclusion. (Both T’ao’s given names, interestingly enough, reflected this: Ch’ien means “hidden in the depths,” while his courtesy name, Yuan-ming, means “a light in the abyss.”) He had little interest in the Taoism that had taken to elaborate alchemical and meditative exercises in the pursuit of immortality, or the asceticism of Buddhist monastic life. The changing of the seasons; the visits and partings of friends; the weight of mortality and the passing years, and a want of interest in the dizzying heights; these are the world of T’ao’s poems. Of the Chinese poets, he is the one who most closely resembles Horace.
All this led T’ao to ease his diction away from the colored style of Ch’u Yuan to a language of simplicity and restraint. This brought him an admiration given to hardly any other Chinese poet. Su Tung-P’o, the great Sung master, adored him to the point of writing poems that copied T’ao’s original rhymes. He called T’ao’s poems “withered and bland,” and he meant it as a compliment. Huang T’ing-chien wrote, “When you’ve just come of age, reading these poems seems like gnawing on withered wood. But reading them after long experience in the world, it seems the decisions of your life were all made in ignorance.” This simplicity worked also to make T’ao’s poems accessible to translation, and T’ao has been fortunate in his translators. Arthur Waley included a selection of T’ao in his Chinese Poems (Unwin Paperbacks, 1982). William Acker did what is probably my favorite version, T’ao the Hermit (Thames and Hudson, 1952); James Hightower did a complete translation with a good if somewhat laborious commentary, The Poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (Oxford, 1970); neither of these, alas, is available cheaply. There’s a good new selection, The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch'ien (Copper Canyon, 1993) by David Hinton; it includes the prose piece “Peach-Blossom Spring,” the most famous fable in Chinese literature. Red Pine in his wonderful last book Finding Them Gone (Copper Canyon, 2016) has a lovely chapter on T’ao and a few poems.
For The Book of Songs, Arthur Waley’s translation still reigns; newly augmented by James R. Allen, it’s still in print from Grove Press. Waley also did The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China, a translation and study of one sequence from the Ch’u Tz’u. Ch'u Tz'u: The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology, is a full and excellent translation by David Hawkes, in print again from Penguin. David Hinton has also done a good translation of T’ao’s near contemporary, in The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-Yun (Copper Canyon).