Question and Answer in the Mountain

by Li Bo

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The Poem

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There are two other alternative titles for this poem in some existing editions, but neither is as apt. The first, “Answer to a Question,” is too general, whereas the second, “Answer from the Mountain, to a Worldly Person,” is too explicit.

The poem begins with an innocent question, which can be translated differently depending on which of the two variant texts is used. According to one text, the line can be rendered as: “You ask me what I am doing dwelling in the Emerald Mountain.” In the second text, the line would be: “You ask me why I intend to dwell in the Emerald Mountain.” The first reading specifies dwelling in the mountain as a fact, whereas the second suggests that the poet is contemplating doing so. The distinction between the two readings will have a significant bearing on the rest of the poem.

To answer the question, the poet writes that “I smile but make no reply, for my heart itself is at leisure.” In the variant text, the poet simply says nothing instead of making no reply. Although the wording “make no reply” echoes the title of the poem appropriately, saying nothing could be an interesting reading because it suggests that the poet does not wish to be bothered by the question at all. This reading is more consistent with the sense of serenity expressed in the phrase, “for my heart itself is at leisure.”

Having handled the question in one way or another, the poet begins to muse upon the pleasures of the idyllic world. In the last two lines, Li Bo describes a locale with peach blossoms floating along the stream “into the distance.” The variant text for line 3, which has the peach blossoms flow “in a meandering manner” instead of into the distance, is visually more pleasing but less meaningful, since the whole point of the stream is that it is a conduit into a horizon lost to the mundane world. In this realm, the poet concludes, there is a different heaven and earth not belonging to the world of human beings.

The relatively large number of varying texts and titles for this brief lyric suggests that the poem may have been popular enough to be widely circulated and thus corrupted in the process. The variant texts for the poem appear to be a minor issue, as in each of the three instances the difference involves one word (in Chinese) only. As pointed out above, however, the one-word difference in line 1 would require one to read the whole poem differently. If dwelling in the Emerald Mountain is already a fact, the poem would be a descriptive record; if it is only a matter of the poet’s contemplation, then the whole poem would be a psychological projection.

Forms and Devices

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“Question and Answer in the Mountain” is written in the seven-character, truncated-verse format. It does not employ the matched couplet usually found in “recent-style” Chinese poems. Although this is not an irregular practice, it gives one the impression of “craftlessness” and freedom from formal constraints—which are some of Li Bo’s virtues as a poet.

The poem employs several rhetorical devices. The first is the question-answer situation commonly found in Chinese writings, including poetry and religious (Taoist and Buddhist) dialogues. The device is effective for writers who intend to demonstrate some sort of truth, and Li Bo’s poem obviously has a similar purpose. The second rhetorical device is found in line 2, where a negation (not having words to say) is juxtaposed with an affirmation (having leisure at heart), with the latter being reinforced as the sharper focus. Because...

(This entire section contains 391 words.)

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line 2 does not really answer the innocent question in line 1, a tension is suddenly created for the next two lines to resolve. Finally, there is also a paradox in the poem: Although the poet has no answer to offer his interrogator, he has in fact answered the question in the end.

More important than the rhetorical maneuvers mentioned above, an allusion is used in the last two lines. In general, allusions are an indispensable resource for Chinese poets because explicit or implied references to historical figures, places, or events could give the poem an ornamental texture or thematic accent. In Li Bo’s case, he alludes to a tale by T’ao Ch’ien (also called T’ao Yüan-ming) entitled “The Peach Blossom Spring.” The story describes how a fisherman, following the trail along a peach-blossomed stream, reaches a secluded farming community. The people of this land, thanks to their ancestors who escaped the turmoils of the Warring States era, have been left alone to enjoy their idyllic life for hundreds of years, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of the dynasties outside. Having been entertained, the fisherman leaves, but somehow his strange encounter becomes public knowledge, thus jeopardizing the lost horizon. In the end, however, no one is able to relocate the secluded community. In his poem, Li Bo not only compares the Emerald Mountain to the Peach Blossom Spring figuratively, but he also objectifies the desire to get away from the mundane world and lead the life of a recluse.