Monday, October 05, 2009

The Peach Blossom Spring

Having described the poetry of Hsieh Ling-yün last time, I now feel the need to refer to his contemporary T'ao Yüan-ming (also known as T'ao Ch'ien or Tao Qian), who is traditionally seen as the founder of 'fields-and-gardens' poetry.  According to David Hinton, both poets 'embody the cosmology that essentially is the Chinese wilderness, and as rivers-and-mountains is the broader context within which fields-and-gardens operates, it seems more accurate to speak of both modes together as a single rivers-and-mountains tradition.' (see his introduction to Mountain Home: The Wilderness poetry of Ancient China).


Portrait of Tao Qian by Chen Hongshou

In The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984) Burton Watson devotes a whole chapter to T'ao (whereas Hsieh only gets three poems).  Watson writes that the poetry of T'ao is ambiguous - 'exclamations upon the beauties of nature and the freedom and peace of rustic life, set uneasily alongside confessions of loneliness, frustration, and fear, particularly of death.  He sought solace in his lute, his books, and above all in wine, about half of his poems mentioning his fondness for "the thing in the cup," though in one of the poems he wrote depicting his own funeral, he declares that he was never able to get enough of it.'

T'ao Yüan-ming is probably most famous for the 'Peach Blossom Spring', a story told first in a preface and then as a short poem.  It concerns a fisherman who lost his way in a valley stream and came upon a forest of blossoming peach trees.  At the end of the forest was a hill with a spring, and an opening through which the fisherman squeezed, coming out onto a broad plane with houses, rich fields, pretty ponds, mulberry and bamboo.  Everyone he saw seemed happy and when they noticed the fisherman in their midst they invited him for a meal.  The villagers explained that people had first come to this secluded place during the troubled times of the Ch'in dynasty and had been cut off from the world since then.  The fisherman stayed several days before taking his leave, whereupon the villagers asked him not to tell the people outside about them.  However after making his way home, the fisherman did tell the local governor about the Peach Blossom Spring, who sent ment to find it only to have them return unsuccessful.  Nobody since then has been able to find it.

Among later poets inspired by this tale was Wang Wei, who wrote his 'Song of the Peach Tree Spring' at the age of 19.  He tells the same story as T'ao, but ends with the fisherman mistakenly thinking he will be able to find the place again (from G. W. Robinson's translation):

He was sure of his way there
                             could never go wrong

How should he know that peaks and valleys
                             can so soon change?

When the time came he simply remembered
                             having gone deep into the hills

But how many green streams
                             lead into cloud-high woods -

When spring comes, everywhere
                             there are peach blossom streams

No one can tell which may be
                             the spring of paradise.

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