Professor David Gilcrest
LIT 422 Ecocriticism
December 18, 2017
Chinese Wilderness Poetry for Today
In David Hinton’s translations of Chinese poetry from his book Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, Westerners are introduced to non-Western ideas that can help them reconnect with the wilderness. Hinton states that “China’s tradition of rivers-and-mountains (shan-shui) poetry represents the earliest and most extensive literary engagement with wilderness in human history” (par. I). In Western thought, “‘Nature’ calls up a false dichotomy between human and nature, and “landscape” suggests a picturesque realm seen from a spectator’s distance—but the Chinese wilderness is nothing less than a dynamic cosmology in which humans participate in the most fundamental way” (Hinton “Introduction” par. II). This is because the ancient Chinese believed that humans were fully connected to the remote wilderness. For these Chinese poets, human and other biotic communities form nature as a whole. These supposedly separate realms of human and wilderness were actually long connected before a dichotomy was normalized in the West (Snyder 7; Turner 35). Highly influenced by these ancient Chinese beliefs, Gary Snyder states that “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home” (Snyder 7). In fact, part of the world included the human home:
[T]he ideal situation for living a broadly civilized life and typically included, along with the wonders of mountain wilderness, a relatively comfortable house, a substantial library, art, wine, family, and friends. And this personal fulfillment had, in turn, clear political dimensions—for the wisdom cultivated in such a recluse life was considered essential to sage governing. (Hinton 6)
In Hsieh Ling-yün’s poem, A Mountain Walk, we can see how humans are an integral part of the landscape: “Climbing far into cold mountains, the stone path steepens. / White clouds are born up here, and there are houses too” (Hinton 193, emphasis added). This is but one example of humans within the ancient Chinese wilderness.
In addition to dropping the notion of a human/nature dichotomy, Hinton stresses that this poetry is critical to consider because “in an age of global ecological disruption and mass extinction, this engagement with wilderness makes it more urgently and universally important by the day” (“Introduction” par. II). This poetry was fueled by crisis that we can relate to today. War and political corruption plagued the people of ancient China since before the early 5th century CE when wilderness poetry was established.
This often led to ancient Chinese poets to look for alternative ways of living. Poets like T’ao Ch’ien and Du Fu especially fall into this category. However, it is key to remember that “this is neither escapism nor sentimental pastoralism: it is [ ] about returning to a life in which the perpetual unfolding of Lao Tzu’s organic cosmology is the very texture of daily experience” (par. VI). Westerners do not need to run away into the wilderness for years on end in order to experience these feelings because “[t]he wilderness cosmology of ancient China is perhaps most fundamentally alive in the classical Chinese language itself” and we can turn to this poetry for its wisdom (par. XIII). This is because “it is a poetry suffused in a world-view that is, however foreign, remarkably contemporary and kindred” (par. X).
Westerners can look at Chinese native cosmology to understand how these poets considered the world. This “cosmology has its source in the originary Taoist masters: Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, who lived in the fourth to sixth centuries B.C.E.” and encompasses “the central concept in [Chinese] cosmology” known as the “Tao, or Way” (par. IV). Hinton explains that “Tao originally meant ‘way,’ as in ‘pathway’ or ‘roadway,’ a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu redefined it as a spiritual concept . . . through which all things arise and pass away” (par. IV). Through this cosmology, the “poetry articulates a profound and spiritual sense of belonging to a wilderness of truly awesome dimensions” (par. I). We can experience the Chinese notion of wilderness on a daily basis by reading this poetry and practicing what its writers believed. Hinton states that while reading the language of Chinese poetry that “you mentally fill in the grammatical emptiness, and yet it always remains emptiness” (“Introduction” par. XVIII). This is crucial because it “means participating in the silence of an empty mind at the boundaries of its true, wordless form, [is] an experience you can know directly in the depths of consciousness through the practice of meditation” (par. XVIII). As a key focus in Chinese culture, as Hinton states the following:
[W]ilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. (par. IX)
Yet sometimes, language fails the poets like the poet Liu Tsung-yüan in his poem Getting Up Past Midnight and Gazing Across the West Garden, I Encounter the Rising Moon. In the poem, Liu is overwhelmed by silence: “Distance clarifies a waterfall into silence. / Now and then, a mountain bird calls out. / I lean on a column, stay till dawn in these / isolate depths of quiet: no words, no words” (Hinton 151, emphasis added). On the other hand, the poet Po Chü-i welcomes the silence in his poem Li the Mountain Recluse Stays the Night on Our Boat. In the poem, Po states that “[o]ur thoughts begin where words end. / Refining dark-enigma depths, we gaze / quiet mystery into each other and smile, / sharing the mind that’s forgotten mind” (171, emphasis added). And ultimately, I believe Su Tung-p’o clarifies the limits of language best in his poem, With Mao and Fang, Visiting Bright-Insight Monastery, stating “[a]ll this joy in our lives— what is it but heaven’s great gift? / Why confuse the children with all our fine explanations?” (230).
If language alone is not fully able to help, Westerners can achieve a connection with the Way through meditation. As Cold Mountain states in his poem numbered 226 “I delight in the everyday Way, myself / among mist and vine, rock and cave, / wildlands feeling so boundlessly free, / white clouds companions in idleness. / Roads don’t reach those human realms. / You only climb this high in no-mind” (Hinton 137, emphasis added). Hinton states that “meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology” (“Introduction” par. IX). The poet Hsieh Ling-yün, in On Stone-Gate Mountain’s Highest Peak, clearly practices meditation as he says “I keep to the inner pattern, deep in meditation, / and nurturing this Way, never wander amiss” (Hinton 34, emphasis added). In Mountain Dialogue 199, Hsieh states “[t]he moon hasn’t set. It’s the unpolished jewel. Incandescence round and full, it hangs there in blackest-azure skies, my very mind” (134, emphasis added).
Silence during meditation is also key to the process of connecting with nature because “as with meditation, this silence is itself wilderness, the non-verbal and non-human” (Hinton 41, emphasis added). Cold Mountain says, in his poem numbered 306, “this / mountain I inhabit: deep in white clouds, / forever empty, silent” (141, emphasis added). This silence is a major factor in Ch’an buddhism. This is because Ch’an buddhism “emphasized the old Taoist idea that deep understanding lies beyond words” (41). Even poems that were destroyed are a part of the grand tapestry of wilderness poetry. Hinton says that the Meng Hao-jan “ destroyed most poems after writing them because he didn’t feel words could capture his intent. Those poems survive as silence, that most perfect literary embodiment of wilderness” (41, emphasis added). Silence is the focus in Li Po’s poem, At Hsieh T’iao’s House, where “it’s all silence” and “[n]othing stirs but the idle clarity of breezes / playing midstream across water and stone” (91, emphasis added). For Li Po, even noise only emphasises the power of silence: “In spring mountains, alone, I set out to find you. Axe strokes crack—crack and quit. Silence doubles” (98, emphasis added). Cold Mountain’s poem, numbered 81, advises readers: “Leave wisdom dark: spirit’s enlightened of itself. / Empty your gaze and this world’s beyond silence” (132, emphasis added).
To witness “the perpetual unfolding of Lao Tzu’s organic cosmology,” one can witness the passing of seasons as the ancient Chinese poets did. Hinton states that this organic cosmology is “immediately manifest in the seasonal cycle: the emptiness of nonbeing in winter, being’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into nonbeing in autumn” (Hinton "Introduction" par. IV). This is because “ancient Chinese poets inevitably locate themselves in this cosmology by referring to the seasonal cycle [because] deep wisdom in ancient China meant dwelling as an organic part of this ontological process” (par. IV). A key to this is the notion of tzu-jan. This is defined as “The mechanism by which being burgeons forth out of nonbeing is tzu-jan . . . hence “spontaneous” or “natural” (par. V). But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan might be “occurrence appearing of itself,” for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things emerging spontaneously from the generative source, each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient, each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form” (par. V). This poetry “was not a romantic return to the bucolic, but to a life in which the spiritual ecology of tzu-jan was the very texture of everyday experience” (Hinton 6) Hinton states:
The vision of tzu-jan recognizes earth to be a boundless generative organism, and this vision gives rise to a very different experience of the world. Rather than the metaphysics of time and space, it knows the world as an all-encompassing present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future. It also allows no fundamental distinction between subjective and objective realms, for it includes all that we call mental, all that appears in the mind. (par. VII)
We can see this in the poem Turning Seasons where the poet T’ao Ch’ien walks out into fields. After considering the seasons and the weather, T’ao writes: “feeling south winds, / young grain ripples like wings” (Hinton 12). There is a great union he feels within nature as living creatures and plants have come together. In another untitled poem, T’ao’s recollection of seasons causes deep pause and reflection for him. “Days and months never take their time. / The four seasons keep bustling each other / away. Cold winds churn lifeless branches. / Fallen leaves cover long paths. We’re frail, / crumbling more with each turning year” (Hinton 19). Here, the poetry “is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual; it is thoroughly empirical and basically accords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the “natural world” in the most profound way” (Hinton "Introduction" par. X). Because of this, it is relatable to a modern audience. T’ao Ch’ien considers the seasons again in his poem An Idle 9/9 at Home and asks “if you live in a bramble hut, helplessly watching / these turning seasons crumble— what then?” to which he provides the answer “I’ll take my time / here. It is whole. How could it be any less?” (Hinton 16). Cold Mountain declares in his poem, numbered 163, “I’ve lived out tens of thousands of years / on Cold Mountain. Given to the seasons, / I vanished among forests and cascades, gazed into things so utterly themselves” (133). Po Chu-i considers the seasons in an incredibly humanizing way in his poem Autumn Thoughts, Sent Far Away. He writes that “[w]e share all these disappointments of failing / autumn a thousand miles apart” and that “[t]hese lovely seasons and fragrant years falling lonely away” allow us to “share such emptiness here” (162). One poet, Fan Ch’eng-ta, has his “most famous work” structured “according to the seasonal cycle” (250). Because of this “Fan emphasizes deep wilderness as the context of daily life” because “the wilderness cosmology of being and non-being is nowhere so clearly manifest as in the seasonal cycle: winter’s empty nonbeing, spring’s burgeoning forth, summer’s fullness, and autumn’s return to pregnant emptiness” (250).
Another key feature of Chinese wilderness poetry is the concept of li. This is defined as
“something akin to what we call natural law. It is the system of principles according to which the ten thousand things burgeon forth spontaneously from the generative void” (Hinton 20, emphasis added). We are able to experience li if we practice shang, which Hinton translates as adoration. Shang is defined as “an aesthetic experience of the wild mountain realm as a single overwhelming whole” (Hinton 20). This may be comparable to the sublime felt by romantics like Shelley at Mont Blanc and transcendentalists like Thoreau whilst walking in the northeastern woods of the United States. We can see the sublime echoed in Hinton’s word choice as the poet Hsieh Ling-yün declares in his poem, Dwelling in the Mountains 12, that “when you go deep, following a winding river to its source, / you’re soon bewildered, wandering a place beyond knowing: / cragged peaks towering above stay lost in confusions of mist, / and depths sunken away far below surge and swell in a blur” (29, emphasis added). Choices like bewildered, blurr, and confusions of mists recall the vocabulary of shock many Western romantics felt and transcribed in their own work. According to Thomas Weiskel, the original process includes three stages and are simplified thusly: The first stage can be labeled “normal,” which is the human mind in the pre-sublime state; the second stage can be labeled “rupture,” which is when “an excess on the signified disrupts the mind’s sense of meaning," and is caused by something outside the human body within nature, like viewing mountains; finally, there is the third stage, which can be labeled as “reaction." The reaction stage is where “one’s encounter with sublimity rectifies the disequilibrium between object and meaning painfully felt in [the second stage]” (Fischer). Christopher Hitt argues that the second stage of the sublime experience offers a sincere opportunity to feel humankind dethroned as center of the universe while becoming humble and bearing witness to nature as untamable. This rupture can be seen in poems like Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-chia where Hsieh Ling-yün “wander[s] up to [his] home in quiet mystery, / the path along streams winding far away / onto ridgetops” experiencing “no end to this wonder at / slow waters silent in their frozen beauty and bamboo glistening at heart with frost, cascades scattering a confusion of spray / and broad forests crowding distant cliffs” (Hinton 23, emphasis added).
Westerners can practice walking while simultaneously meditating as these writers did. Especially to connect with shang, Westerners can walk back into nature and meditate. Hinton says of Hsieh Ling-yün’s poetry while discussing walking that “each walk [is] another walk at the very heart of the Cosmos itself” (21). Su Tung-p’o takes part joyfully in the act of walking in his poem, Visiting Beckons-Away Monastery, where he describes himself walking: “[W]alking, I sing of ridgelines in white cloud, / and sitting, chant hymns to bamboo orchards” (228). Snyder states that “[w]alking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind. Walking is the exact balance of spirit and humility” (18). This is a critical point to help humanity practice mindfulness. In the poem In Reply to Mulberry-Bramble Liu, the poet T’ao Ch’ien eases his worries by walking with his family: “Get the kids together, I call to my wife, it’s the perfect day for a nice long walk” (Hinton 11). In the poem On Thatch-Hut Mountain, Hsieh Ling-yün says “I can’t get enough, just walk on and on, / and even a single dusk and dawn up here / shows you the way through empty and full” (37, emphasis added).
Through meditation and walking, Gary Snyder believes that Westerners can change their character by understanding nature in a new light. Snyder suggests that the world wild has a negative connotation in the west (Snyder 9). Snyder suggests Westerners can “turn” the definitions. “Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what—from a human standpoint—it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is” (Snyder 9). If Westerners can redefine the wilderness, they can remove the anthropocentric focus. He argues that these turned definitions match how the Chinese define the term [T]ao, the way of Great Nature” (Snyder 10). Snyder defines the way of Great Nature:
[E]luding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it [wild nature] sacred. (10)
This definition allows nature to be put into new light, where wilderness encompasses not only fecundity and impermanence, “the ecstatic and the demonic”, but also “archetypal power, teaching, and challenge” (Snyder 11). Hsieh Ling-yün declares in his poem I’ve Put in Gardens South of the Fields, Opened Up a Stream and Planted Trees that “[y]ou can heal here among these gardens, / sheltered from rank vapors of turmoil, / wilderness clarity calling distant winds” (Hinton 24).
From the ancient Chinese, we can combine meditation, silence, and walking to lead to a sublime-like connection to the wilderness. In the poem, Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-chia, Hsieh Ling-yün says “[w]alk humbly and it’s all promise in beauty, / for in quiet mystery the way runs smooth, / ascending remote heights beyond compare.” This allows him to “embrace primal unity, / thought and silence woven together, / that deep healing where we venture forth” into what I believe can be a reconnection of humans with the wilderness (Hinton 23).
Fischer, Michael. “Review: Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence.” Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 3, 1976, pp. 93–95, bq.blakearchive.org/pdfs/10.3.fischer.pdf.
Directions, 2005. Kindle Edition.
Hitt, Christopher. “Toward an Ecological Sublime.” New Literary History, vol. 30, no. 3, 1999,
pp. 603–623. Ecocriticism, www.jstor.org/stable/20057557. Handout. Ecocritical Theory & Practice: Literature 422. (Professor David Gilcrest.) University of Montana. 2017.
Snyder, Gary. The Etiquette of Freedom. Handout. Ecocritical Theory & Practice: Literature 422. (Professor David Gilcrest.) University of Montana. 2017.
Tuner, Jack. “The Abstract Wild: A Rant.” The Abstract Wild. Handout. Ecocritical Theory & Practice: Literature 422. (Professor David Gilcrest.) University of Montana. 2017.
My teacher was in China in April!
Pictures from his show
Video from his show
I'll be practicing The Drunken Concubine over summer while getting my TEFL certification and selling on E-bay for my parents ^^;
I am very nervous, very excited, and very happy!
Here's the e-mail that's got me smiling:
I am really glad that you can make the trip. Hope you would be ready for performing 贵妃醉酒 on stage. But for some reason, if you can't get ready, I still hope you can go with us. Shenzhen Cultrural Society will host the delegation and will guide some intereting sightseeings. And you can check out this fastest growing city (3 times the LA populaiton now I think) for possible teaching opportunities. Also we will do some off-stage singing with local fans (a lot of fun). What I mean is you don't have to feel pressured for the performance. We'd like you to be a part of the delegation anyway. If your parents are interested in going, they are welcome as well.Not sure if I have told you that the trip will be during Thanksgiving week when a lot of us can get some time off. Hope it will work with you.
The Faculty Advisory Committee has received and accepted your Abstract, submitted for participation in the Fifth Annual Symposium for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity to be held on the UCR campus, Thursday, May 5 and Friday, May 6, 2011. Currently we are reviewing your abstract and accompanying information; therefore if there are any specific questions related to your submission, we will e-mail you individually to inform you."
But that list seems to be growing ever longer. Now, words like "regal" and "luxury" have fallen foul of political correctness, and are being removed from billboards in the Chinese capital, Beijing.
But Beijing's attitude toward luxury is somewhat contradictory — only the ads, not the products themselves, are being restricted.
Read more here