One of the things I aspire to show here is how poetry – good and remembered poetry – stands so strikingly different from one another as we drift from place to place. It’s true, country to country, but it is always most striking when one hops back and forth across the oceans. In that vein, perhaps some of the most curious poetic pieces for Westerners in recent years have been the styles of the Orient and its poets. While it is Japan’s haiku that often catch the attention, just across a narrow sea, the sprawling nation of China has always possessed a vibrant poetic quality as well.
This week, we look at a piece by the legendary Wang Wei. Born in the 8th century, in what China calls its “Tang Dynasty,” Wang Wei was a poet, musician, painter, and politician, and one of the most famous men of his time. While many of his paintings have perished with time, however, his poetry is well-preserved, and well-treasured within his country. Though many of his works were quatrains, today we explore one of his longer works:
“Peach Blossom Journey”
A fisher’s boat chased the water into the coveted hills,
Both banks were covered in peach blossom at the ancient river crossing.
He knew not how far he sailed, gazing at the reddened trees,
He traveled to the end of the blue stream, seeing no man on the way.
Then finding a crack in the hillside, he squeezed through the deepest of caves,
And beyond the mountain a vista opened of flat land all about!
In the distance he saw clouds and trees gathered together,
Nearby amongst a thousand homes flowers and bamboo were scattered.
A wood-gatherer was the first to speak a Han-era name,
The inhabitants’ dress was unchanged since the time of Qin.
The people lived together on uplands above Wu Ling river,
Apart from the outside world they laid their fields and plantations.
Below the pines and the bright moon, all was quiet in the houses,
When the sun started to shine through the clouds, the chickens and dogs gave voice.
Startled to find a stranger amongst them, the people jostled around,
They competed to invite him in and ask about his home.
As brightness came, the lanes had all been swept of blossom,
By dusk, along the water the fishers and woodsmen returned.
To escape the troubled world they had first left men’s society,
They live as if become immortals, no reason now to return.
In that valley they knew nothing of the way we live outside,
From within our world we gaze afar at empty clouds and hills.
Who would not doubt that magic place so hard to find,
The fisher’s worldly heart could not stop thinking of his home.
He left that land, but its hills and rivers never left his heart,
Eventually he again set out, and planned to journey back.
By memory, he passed along the way he’d taken before,
Who could know the hills and gullies had now completely changed?
Now he faced only the great mountain where he remembered the entrance,
Each time he followed the clear stream, he found only cloud and forest.
Spring comes, and all again is peach blossom and water,
No-one knows how to reach that immortal place.