Saturday, February 29, 2020

White torrents and emerald depths

Because this blog focuses on the arts, I have rarely mentioned books by geographers, although it goes without saying that they often write beautifully about landscape.  In A Commentary on the Book of Rivers, Li Tao-Yuan (Li Daoyuan, d. 527) quoted no less than 437 different sources, but he also drew on his own memories and included the kind of description that would become common in future Chinese travel writing.  His monumental book was an expansion of an earlier author's Guide to Rivers, now lost, and it described 1,389 Chinese rivers (or 1,252 - I've seen both numbers quoted, but either way, that's a lot of water).

Li is regarded as the first writer to describe the famous Three Gorges landscape in detail.  For example:
'When winter turns to spring, there are white torrents and emerald depths; reflections appear upside down in the swirling eddies. Many oddly shaped junipers grow forth from jagged mountain peaks from which waterfalls plummet clamorously. Pure, verdant, lofty, flourishing—such qualities provide innumerable kinds of fascination. After a storm has cleared, or on frosty mornings, among forests chilled and streams desolate, the loud cry of a gibbon is often heard, prolonged and mournful. As it echoes through the empty valleys, its despairing wail lingers before disappearing. So the fishermen sing,
Of the Three Gorges in Eastern Pa
   Shaman Gorge is the longest.
Three cries of the gibbon
   and one's clothes become drenched with tears.'
Xie Shichen, Clouds and Waves at the Wu Gorge, 1368

This translation is from Richard E. Strassberg's Inscribed Landscapes, a wonderful book I have quoted from here before.  Strassberg also includes Li's descriptions of two other landscapes.  Meng's Gate Mountain (Meng-men-shan) straddles the Yellow River and Li describes its slanting cliffs with giant boulders poised to fall, white mist on the water where currents collide and colossal waves that 'multiply and collapse all the way down to the outlet.'  Lotus Mountain (Hua-shan) is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China and Li describes climbing it: ascending through junipers and past shrines and rock altars until, at the summit, he is able to see two sacred springs, one called Reed Pond that flows westwards, and the other, Supremely Exalted Spring, flowing east.

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