Monday, July 24, 2006

The Mountain Where Hui-pao Meditated

Wang An-shih

Speculation on the future role of Tony Blair has not so far considered the option of his retiring from public life to compose exquisite four-line landscape poems. This was the course followed by Wang An-shih (1021-1086), who resigned from the role of Chinese prime minister in 1074. Wang An-shih had devised an extensive social reform programme which formed the basis of the New Laws (Hsin-fa) instituted by Emperor Shen-tsung in 1069. However, opposed by both conservatives and pragmatists, he eventually lost the support of the emperor. Leaving office disappointed, he retired to the countryside near Chiang-ning on the south shore of the Yangtze, devoting himself to Ch’an Buddhism and writing short poems, many of them in the rivers-and-mountains genre.

Interestingly there is a description written by the young Wang-An-shih in 1054, of an expedition to a cave at the Mountain Where Hui-pao Meditated (Hui-pao was a seventh century Buddhist monk), which seems to prefigure symbolically his thwarted future plans as prime minister. On entering the cave, ‘the deeper we advanced, the more difficult our progress, but the more fantastic the sights’. Unfortunately, ‘one person grew tired’ so the party decided to go back. Reflecting on this later, Wang An-shih writes that ‘the most unique magnificent, fabulous, strange, and extraordinary scenery in the world is usually found in these dangerous and distant places that people rarely reach. Therefore only those with ambition can reach them… However, he who exhausts his ambition, even if he cannot go further, can still be without regrets. Who could ridicule him then? This is the insight I obtained from this journey.’ (Richard E. Strassberg’s translation in his anthology Incribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China).

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