Sunday, October 04, 2009

On a Tower Beside the Lake

Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun) lived from 385 to 433 and initiated the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry. An intellectual in government service, he was exiled in 422 to Yung-chia on the southeast coast where he recovered his strength and grew to love the wild scenery. Here's part of 'On a Tower Beside the Lake', translated by David Hinton:

Too simple-minded to perfect Integrity
and too feeble to plow fields in seclusion,

I followed a salary here to the sea's edge
and lay watching forests bare and empty.

That sickbed kept me blind to the seasons,
but opening the house up, I'm suddenly

looking out, listening to surf on the beach
and gazing up into high mountain peaks.

From 423, Hsieh lived at Shih-ning 'in a comfortable mountain-side house, which included an enormous library and vast landscape gardens, and a smaller retreat atop Stone-Gate Mountain that could be reached only after a long hike from the main house'. There he tried to find peace:

My thoughts wander Star River distances.
A single shadow alone with forgetfulness,

I swim in a lake down beneath cliff-walls
or gaze up at gibbons haunting treetops,

listen as evening winds buffet mornings
and watch dawn sunlight flare at sunset.

Slant light igniting cliffs never lasts long,
and echoes vanish easily in forest depths:

letting go of sorrow returns us to wisdom,
seeing the inner pattern ends attachment.

Hsieh lived in the mountains until 431, meditating, walking, talking with friends.  He would head off for days at a time, wearing special hiking shoes of his own invention, a knapsack and peasant's hat.  He wrote his best poems there, describing both the landscape as seen and the emptiness of nonbeing from which it emerges, an approach that has influenced both poets and painters down the years.  But Hsieh remained an enemy of the emperor, who banished him again to Nan-hai. 'There, beyond the southern fringes of Chinese civilisation, his intransigence apparently continued until he was finally executed in 433'.


Some sample translations by David Hinton from The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yün can be found on his website.  And you can read more about Hsieh at The Hermitary, a useful web resource on hermits and solitude which includes articles on some of the Chinese nature poets along with Saigyo, Basho, Thoreau and several other writers of interest from a landscape perspective.

1 comment:

ntbd said...

This is a great link, thanks, have been meaning to read san-shui poetry for some time - now's the time I guess.

As new blog discoveries go, this is a fine one indeed.

Edwin