Saturday, December 10, 2005

Inscribed landscapes

'Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath', the Coleridge poem I mentioned here in my last post, echoes the practice in China of carving short inscriptions (ming) at beautiful natural sites. For example, Yüan Chieh (719-772) found a pretty but overlooked stream, dredged it and planted trees, and then inscribed a ming to alert people to its presence. This ming no longer survives. On another occasion he composed a ming drawing attention to a scenic terrace and cliff, recommending it to those weary of the city:

The Hsiang River's chasm is clear and deep; My Own Terrace is steep and precipitous. I climbed up and gazed afar; not a thing escaped my sight. To whomever is wearied of court and city, or feels harnessed and confined, I offer the use of this terrace to instantly relax your mind and eyes. The cliff on the south has been polished smooth, like a gem, like alabaster. I have written this inscription and had it engraved to make this known to all to come.

In both cases the act of inscription seems like a form of appropriation. But would the physical presence of a ming have had a very different effect to the circulation of a poem describing the same scene?

By way of contrast, one could consider the practice of medieval Arabic poets who added words to a wide range of objects, including buildings, like The Alhambra. According to Robert Irwin, there was a sub-genre of nostalgic poetry scratched onto the walls of ruined palaces. But it is one thing to write on walls, another to inscribe a landscape.

The ming of Yüan Chieh are described in Richard E. Strassberg’s wonderful anthology of Chinese travel writing, Inscribed Landscapes. It is an apt title for a survey of Chinese writing about nature and suggests the various ways in which the words of writers could directly or indirectly alter the landscape.

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