Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pavilion of Prince T'eng

Almost all you will learn about the poet Wang Bo (called Wang Po in the Wade-Giles system) from the brief stub on Wikipedia is that he was 'one of the Four Literary Eminences in Early Tang' whose 'forward way of thinking is reflected in the quote "friendships across the world make near neighbours of far horizons"' (an appropriate sentiment for a blog).  However, if this makes him sound like a saintly sage it is rather misleading, for Wang Po seems to have been a poet of the live-fast-die-young type.  According to Richard E. Strassburg (Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China), Wang was a child prodigy, recommended to the court as a teenager, entering service in 666 CE.  Expelled two years later for satirical writing, he was reinstated as an administrator in 672 but then sentenced to execution for the crime of killing a government slave.  Although pardoned, Wang was struck from the list of government officials and his father was demoted and exiled to a remote region that covers parts of modern north Vietnam.  Wang Po made the long journey to visit him but was drowned on the way: a promising poet, dead at the age of twenty-six.

On October 3rd 675, probably whilst on that journey to visit his father, Wang Po was invited to a feast at the Pavilion of the Prince of T'eng.  This Pavilion stood 105 feet high, facing the Kan River, and it was there that Wang wrote his famous Preface, introducing poems to be composed at the feast.  This naturally includes a description of the surrounding landscape, which begins: 'The swollen waters have subsided, and the cold lakes are clear.  The mist hangs thickly, so the mountains appear purple in the twilight; horses and carriages are neatly lined up along the high road while we visit the scenery of this imposing hill.'  Wang goes on to mention sandbanks with cranes, islets with wild ducks, mountains and planes, river and marshes.  'A pure breeze arose when lively flutes sounded; the white clouds were halted by the strains of a languid song.'

Wang summed up the occasion by saying that 'the four excellent conditions were present, and the two rarities came together.'  What were these?  According to Richard Strassberg's footnote, the four excellent conditions were a fine day, beautiful scenery, a delighted heart and a happy occasion, as described in an earlier poetic preface written by Hsieh Ling-yün ('Preface to Eight Poems Written in Imitation of the Poetry Gathering of the Crown Prince of Wei at Yeh').  The two rarities were: a worthy host and elegant guests.

Nevertheless, Wang Po's Preface ends on a melancholy note: 'Alas!  Scenic places do not endure; sumptuous feasts rarely occur twice.'  Wang's actual poem following the Preface describes the landscape around the Pavilion whilst evoking the passage of time: soaring clouds followed by rain, stars shifting in the sky, successive autumns passing and the river flowing ever onwards.   The Pavilion itself had been built in 653 and was constantly being restored, eventully becoming a shrine to Wang Po's prose.  According to Strassberg, it lasted 'for almost thirteen hundred years before its final destruction by a northern warlord in 1926'.  However, a new replica (below) has now been built in reinforced concrete and, according to Wikipedia, "mainly serves tourism purposes."

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