Wang Wei 699?–761?
(Also called Wang Mo-ch'i). Chinese poet.
The poet-painter Wang Wei is ranked among the most illustrious men of arts and letters from the Tang dynasty, one of the great golden ages of Chinese cultural history. Traditionally viewed as the father of monochrome landscape painting (the Southern School), Wang is also recog nized as one of the few poets, along with the highly re vered T'ang poets Li Po and Tu Fu, to master the art of "lyric poetry" (shih). Wang's poems, chiefly characterized by their meditative symbolism and graceful simplicity, exemplified his belief that poetry and painting were mirrors of one another, each medium was meant to emulate and reflect the beauty of the other. Although a distinguished court poet, Wang is most widely regarded for his nature poems, a body of verse that explores the edifying beauty of the natural world.
Wang was born to a powerful noble family in Ch'i-hsien, located in Shansi Province. His family had a tradition of government service, and he counted thirteen prime ministers among his ancestors. Wang was well educated as befitted a future courtier, and he excelled in poetry, music, and art. Indeed, his remarkable poetic abilities were apparent as early as the age of nine. Wang easily passed the government examinations and, at the age of 21, received the prestigious chin-shih ("advanced scholar") degree in the imperial civil-service examination system. This "doctoral" degree was principally based on his musical skill. After passing the examination, Wang was appointed Assistant Director of the Imperial Directorate of Music. This was the first of what was to be many government appointments. Wang pursued an unremarkable career in the service of the imperial government, serving in various official capacities and suffering professional setbacks due to political upheaval. During the An Lu-shan Rebellion, Wang was captured and forced to serve the rebel administration. The intercession of his high-ranking brother Wang Chin, together with the contents of a poem Wang composed while imprisoned by the rebel forces, helped save him from charges of collaboration with the enemy when imperial forces recaptured the capital at Ch'ang-an. Wang's later years were overshadowed by disillusionment and sadness following the deaths of his wife and his mother. He died while serving in the Department of State in his early sixties.
Wang Wei's undistinguished official career was frequently interspersed with periods of seclusion in the grounds of his private villa at Wan Ch'uan (Wang River), where he sought respite from the intrigue, corruption, and uncertainty of court life. The poems he composed while studying Buddhism and meditating in the quiet of nature reveal his love for landscape and country living together with his longing for peace and seclusion. The outward simplicity of his poems' imagery belies the profoundly metaphysical nature of the underlying concepts, that of man's place in nature and the pursuit of enlightenment through denial and retreat from the world. It has been argued that much of the conflict in Wang Wei's life and poetry springs from the contrary inclinations resulting from the dual influence of Confucianism, which urges political ambition, and Taoism, which teaches quiet meditation and a passive attitude regarding events in the physical world.
Of the 420 poems in Wang Wei's canon, there are approximately 370 poems that can be genuinely attributed to him. The style of the poems is simple and uncomplicated, and the underlying feelings are those of tranquility and detachment. The poems fall into three general categories: court poems that capture a vignette of life in the Imperial court, Buddhist themes and images, and nature scenes stripped of all ornament. The poems in this last category are his most famous, and include the Wangch'uan chi (Felly River Collection), a twenty-quatrain poem describing his country villa. Other well-known poems include "Answering Magistrate Chang," an example of a court poem, and Wang's "Deer Park," one of the most-often-anthologized Chinese poems, frequently cited as an archetypal nature poem. Wang's poetry is considered in the same league as Tu Fu and Li Po, the great T'ang lyric poets. While it lacks exuberance of Li Po or the controlled intellectuality of Tu Fu, Wang's poetry fuses literature and art with nature in the most simple and placid language.
Despite Wang Wei's popularity in China and the West, he has been the subject of very few critical studies in any language. Some critics speculate that the primary reason for this neglect is that the apparent simplicity of much of Wang's poetry obscures the disconcertingly elusive philosophical premises from which Wang draws his inspiration, and the complexity of these ideas discourages penetrating analysis of his poetry. Despite the paucity of critical analysis concerning his poetry, Wang Wei remains one of the most translatable and widely translated of Chinese poets. Indeed, Wang Wei's poetry can be found in nearly every anthology of Chinese poetry available.
Principal Translated Works
Hiding the Universe: Poems by Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by Wai-lim Yip] 1972
Poems of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by G. W. Robinson] 1973
The Poetry of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated PaulineYu] 1980
Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (poetry) [translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin] 1992
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SOURCE: "Discovering Chinese Poetry (an insight into three poems by Wang Wei)," in The Diliman Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January, 1970, pp. 91-6.
[In the following essay, the critic examines the function of imagery in Chinese nature poems.]
"My Hermitage in the Bamboo Grove"
Deep in the bamboo grove, sitting alone,
I thrum my lute as I whistle a tune.
No one knows I am in this thicket
Save the bright moon looking down on me.
"With Official Lu Hsiang, Passing Hermit Ts'ui Hsin-Chung's Bower"
Green forests cover the four directions with dense deep shade.
Every day untrodden mosses cushion the courtyard more thickly in bluish gray.
Under tall pines the hermit sprawls, leg outstretched,
Turning upon the vulgar crowd only the whites of his eyes.
"Light Verse on a Rock"
I pity the inert rock by a flowing stream
And the willows trailing fingers into my wine-cup …
But who can say the spring wind is not aware of the sound in my heart?
Why else should it blow these frail falling petals about me?
This paper makes no pretension towards an adequate critical evaluation of Wang Wei. Rather it is a...
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SOURCE: "Wang Wei and the Aesthetic of Pure Experience," in Tamkang Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, October 1971-April 1972, pp. 199-208.
[In the following essay, the critic asserts that Wang Wei's nature poetry is not simply about nature but that it actually becomes nature through the Taoist emphasis on pure experience.]
The best introduction to Wang Wei's poetry is a poem of Ars Poetica by Ssu-k'ung T'u (837-908):
Bend down—and there it is:
No need to wrest it from others.
With the Way, in complete consort—
The mere touch of a hand is spring:
The way we come upon blooming flowers,
The way we see the year renew itself.
What comes this way will stay;
What is gotten by force will drain away.
A secluded man in an empty mountain,
As rain drops, picks some blades of duckweeds.
Freely to feel the flash of dawn:
Leisurely, with the celestial balance.
To let criticism take wings requires the defeat of poetry. We are giving the readers an anatomized bird, a conceptualized Nature.
Wang Wei is Nature or Phenomenon as it is: no trace of conceptualization. Compare, for instance, the following two poems:
"Bird-Singing Stream" Wang...
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SOURCE: A review of Poems of Wang Wei, in Literature East & West, Vol. XVII, No. 2, 3, 4, June, September, and December, 1973, pp. 421-23.
[In this review, Wagner comments favorably on G. W. Robinson's translations of Wang Wei's poems and praises his poetic judgment.]
… G. W. Robinson's graceful translations of over 120 of Wang Wei's poems constitute the most successful English version to date.
Robinson's selection generally overlaps previous translations, emphasizing Wang Wei's most popular and personal poetry while avoiding more heavily allusive court poems and Buddhist poems. It is regrettable that Robinson did not include more poems which have not been anthologized in the past; not all of Wang Wei's occasional poetry is as devoid of feeling and interest as Robinson suggests. His criterion was to choose poems which did not require extensive annotation, and the relatively few explanatory notes which Robinson does give, although brief, are clear and adequate for the general reader.
The introductory comments offer a summary of Wang Wei's life and of T'ang poetic forms, intended for the lay reader. In spite of its brevity, the introduction confronts the significant issue underlying Wang Wei's complicated stance in his poetry: the "unresolved conflict… between the worldly and the mystical sides of his nature". The two helpful appendices present Wang Wei's...
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SOURCE: "Wang Wei: The Artifice of Simplicity," in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T'ang, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 27-51.
[In the following excerpt, Owen examines the perceived conflict between public and private life in Wang Wei's poetry.]
Wang Wei, your brother, was the most revered man of letters in all the world. He served throughout the former reign, and his fame was great among the treasures of the age. High he soared among Chou's Odes; deeply he reverenced the Songs of Ch'u. In all his works the humors of the cosmos were in harmony, and the rules of musicality were correct in his noble rhymes. The waterfall sent his lush imagination leaping into the sky; scattering clouds spread his innermost emotions with them.
Emperor Tai-tsung to Wang Chin in 763, on the presentation of Wang Wei's collected works to the throne.
Now, late in life, I love only stillness;
The affairs of the world touch not my heart.
I look within, there find no great plans,
Know nothing more than return to the forests of home.
Wang Wei, "Answering Magistrate Chang"
It is an important and nearly universal attribute of high civilization that those who have attained wealth and power are fascinated by...
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SOURCE: "Beginning with Images in the Nature Poetry of Wang Wei," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1, June, 1982, pp. 117-36.
[In the following essay, the critic argues that the nature poems contain "the essence of Wang Wei's achievement" and that they describe the relationship of landscape to poetry.]
Wang Wei (701-61) is a poet whose reputation primarily rests on his nature poems. Although in the poems which have survived other themes are well represented—elaborate and perfect poems about the emperor's court, sentimental sketches of bucolic life, poems expressing friend ship—it is with the nature poems that his name is universally identified. The prominence given a handful of nature poems reflects both the judgment that they contain the essence of Wang Wei's achievement and an acknowledgment of the position they occupy in the evolution of nature poetry. The sense displayed in these poems of a life lived in harmony with nature marks an important development in the appeal of landscape and nature to the poetic sensibility.
The world of Wang Wei's nature poems is a narrow one of simple and recurring scenes—a brief wind lifts his sash, a slight chill hangs in the air, light fills the mountainside, a bell sounds once. These are small moments intensified, during which nothing much happens. In general, Wang Wei does not draw any conclusions from scenes so presented—and...
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SOURCE: "Taoist-Buddhist Elements in Wang Wei's Poetry," in Chinese Culture, Vol. XXX, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 79-89.
[In this essay, Ang examines the role language plays in Wang Wei's poetry and assesses its effect on mood and theme.]
My heart has always been serene:
The clear river is equally at peace.
Wang Wei's (701-761) poetry is often characterized by its harmonious and integrated tone. As a poet-painter and devout Buddhist, Wang Wei's poetry presents a concrete natural world not only pictorially but also transcendentally or metaphysically. In other words, he expresses his poems aesthetically and philosophically. These characteristics are particularly apparent in his so-called Buddhist poems as well as in his nature poems. Most of the poems in these two categories are permeated by a sense of Buddhist quietism or Taoist ideal. Thus, in his poetry, he presents not only a strong sense of solitude and emptiness, but also things in their natural state. In addition, Wang Wei is capable of attaining a state of selfless contemplation and allows his consciousness to dissolve in order to merge with nature. The following poem is a good example:
"Bird Call Valley"
Man at leisure, cassia flowers fall.
The night still, spring mountain empty.
The moon emerges, startling...
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SOURCE: "The Point of View—The Narrative Quality in Wang Wei's Poems," in Tamkang Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 2-18.
[In the following essay, the critic explores how Wang Wei's "'painter's eye' influenced his poetic narration."]
There are paintings in the poems of Wang Wei, and there are poems in his paintings.
(Ch'üan T'ang shih 125. 1234)
Wang Wei occupies a special position among the most famous T'ang poets for many reasons. One of the reasons for this, I think, is the narrative quality in his poems, especially his way of handling point of view. Wang Wei was mainly a poet, but also a painter and musician. Naturally, when he writes poems with the brush-pen, Wang Wei may consciously or unconsciously write with a painter's eye and musician's ears which would enable him to add and cultivate some unique dimensions to his poetry. In the following discussion, I will explore the use of "point of view" in some of his most representative poems and his unique artistic features. According to Stanzel, [Stanzel, Franz Karl, A Theory of Narrative, 1989.] "Point of view is a precise term." The general meaning of it is "viewpoint," "attitude toward a question." The special meaning of it is "standpoint from which a story is narrated or from which an event is perceived by a character in the...
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SOURCE: "Wang Wei and Saigyo: Two Buddhist Mountain Poets," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, March/April, 1993, pp. 45-8.
[In the following excerpt, Hamill explores the Buddhist influences on Wang Wei's poetry and empahsizes the impact classical T'ang dynasy poetry has had on modern American poetry.]
Perhaps no aspect of classical Chinese poetry in translation has touched contemporary American verse more deeply than the "nature poery" of the T'ang dynasty. From the three hundred-odd poems of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), poems that often fall into a kind of Buddhist doggerel, to the almost selfless poems of Wang Wei, the western poet has been drawn to the evocative and descriptive powers of the ancient Chinese poet writing alone in his hermitage deep in the mountains.
While the translations by Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, and Red Pine have brought a large audience to Han Shan, Wang Wei has generally fared less well. Several accurate translations have been available in recent years, but none have sparkled like any of the above. That may be in part because Wang Wei is a better poet, a more subtle stylist, and far less ecstatic or declamatory.
While Wang Wei and Han Shan may represent two prominent branches of what I shall call Buddhist Mountain Poetry, both are indebted to the grandfather of all Chinese recluse-poets, T'ao Ch'ien (also called T'ao Yuan-ming) who...
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Bynner, Witter. "At the Foot of This Mountain." Poetry. Vol. XCVI, No. 5 (August 1960): 309-13.
Assesses the influence of Taoism on Wang's poetry.
Pollack, David. "Wang Wei in Kamakura: A Consideration of the Structural Poetics of Mishima's Spring Snow." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Vol. 48, No. 2 (December 1988): 383-402.
Examines Wang's influence on Mishima Yukio's novel Spring Snow.
Robinson, G. W. "Introduction." in Poems of Wang Wei, pp. 13-25. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973.
Provides biographical and historical background for Wang Wei.
Wai-lim Yip. "Wang Wei and Pure Experience." in Hiding the Universe, pp. V-XV. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972.
A condensed version of the essay titled "Wang Wei and the Aesthetics of Pure Experience" in Tamkang Review that assesses the Taoist influence on his poetry.
Zhaoming Qian. "Ezra Pound's Encounter with Wang Wei: Toward the Ideogrammic Method of the Cantos." Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 39, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 266-82.
Examines Wang Wei's influence on Pound's...
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