The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

The Wangchuan (literally “twirling stream”), or Wang River, is a river at the foothills of the Chung-nan-shan mountain range in Lan-t’ien, about thirty miles south of the capital Ch’ang-an (now Xi’an, Shaanxi Province). The range has long been a celebrated sanctuary for recluses. Wang Wei lived there on and off for more than two decades in an estate that he called the “Twirling Stream Country House.”

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The estate became the favorite subject of Wang Wei’s painting and poetry. Not long after the acquisition, he and his good friend P’ei Ti collaborated on a series of poems. Each was to write a quatrain for each of the twenty attractions around the Twirling Stream area. The poems were then put together into the collection “The Wang River Sequence,” which attracted many imitations. Some scholars speculate that the sequence corresponds to a long scroll by Wang Wei, depicting the same scenes. The scroll no longer exists, though a seventeenth century reproduction thought to be based on a tenth century copy survives.

The twenty attractions described in the poems are named for a variety of geographical, architectural, or vegetational features. The sequence is replete with pictorial sights, but in addition it possesses qualities that are more than visual. It is a testimony to “poetry in painting and painting in poetry,” a phrase critics often use to praise Wang Wei’s achievement.

The sequence essentially deals with thoughts and feelings arising from interactions between the recluse and the landscape. The scenery, which serves as the setting for the mind to operate, allows the poet’s ethic and aesthetic consciousness to unfold at a leisurely pace; in the process, the scenery also metamorphoses into a poetic “atmosphere” that transcends the physical world. Although the sequence follows this overall pattern, there are different points of interest in the twenty individual poems. Some of them (“Meng Wall Hollow” and “Huatzu Hill”) focus on associations and sentiments induced by the scenery. Others seem to be purely descriptive and devoid of human presence, suggesting that the landscape alone will emanate qualities worthy of poetry. Examples for this category include “Deer Park,” “Rapids by the Luans’,” “Magnolia Park,” “North Hill,” and “Magnolia Slope.” A third group, which is more preponderant, treats human beings either as in harmony with nature (for example, “Dogwood Bank,” “Lake Pavilion,” and “Bamboo Grove House”), or as a coexisting but unobtrusive presence in the landscape (for example, “Bamboo Hill,” “Sophora Walk,” and “White Stone Shallows”). In these poems, the relationship between humans and nature is often reversed, to the effect that the latter becomes the subject of the universe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

All the poems in “The Wang River Sequence” are “recent-style” quatrains known as chüeh-chü, with five characters to each line. Because the poet is given a mere twenty characters to maneuver for each poem, it is interesting to find out what kinds of devices he employs to maximize his expressive capabilities. In terms of prosody, other than following the tonal pattern (which also includes one rhyme) required for each poem, the poet deliberately seems to be using as few devices as possible. Couplets, constructed according to grammatical and semantic parallelism or antithesis, occur sparingly (in “Apricot Wood House,” “Magnolia Park,” “Rapids by the Luans’,” “Gold Dust Spring,” and “Pepper Garden”). The motivation could be to avoid artificiality. Even though historical allusions are used in some of the poems, one has the general impression that Wang Wei’s major concern in the sequence is to make language, rhetoric, and prosody function at a minimal level, so that a sense of immediacy and transparency can be achieved. In spite of the apparent simplicity, however, the sequence as a whole is endowed with a rich diversity thanks to the variety of poems assembled.

Two basic approaches are adopted in the composition of the poems. The first is a cinematic perspective, akin to the nonfocal or multiple-perspective vista commonly found in Chinese landscape painting. In “Deer Park,” for example, the scene shifts from the empty mountain to the sunset, from the sunset to the deep forest, and from there to the green moss. A similar series of shifts is also found in other poems, especially “Magnolia Park,” “Rapids by the Luans’,” “North Hill,” “Bamboo Grove House,” and “Magnolia Slope.” These shifts, analogous to a sequence of camera shots, correspond to the scenery that unfolds when a scroll of painting is unrolled or when one looks at the scenery from one point to another on the scroll. This cinematic or painterly approach encapsulates the practice (and notion) of yu, that is, “traveling” in the landscape with the intention of “play” or leisurely appreciation. By unfolding the scenery portion by portion, the approach recreates the vitality of the landscape and the continuity of the natural order. The leaps and gaps between individual scenes, analogous to montages in a film or blank spaces on a painting, are also highly suggestive because they leave room for the reader’s imagination.

The second approach is that of interfacing, or juxtaposing, human responses with the natural scenes, so that the two become interrelated and, eventually, fused together organically. Thus, the ceaselessness of migrating birds and the endlessness of hue-changing mountains are not only comments on the poet’s boundless sadness but also subjects commented upon by the latter (“Huatzu Hill”). Lotus flowers blooming in the lake, and the host and the guest drinking in the lake pavilion, are not separate events since they also blend into a unified condition (“Lake Pavilion”). Other examples abound. The basic pattern is a description of the scenery in the opening lines, followed by an explicit or (more often) implicit thought or feeling. The approach is similar to that of the objective correlative, in that the world outside (scenery) and the world inside (the poet’s mind) are intricately related; yet it goes one step further in that the two worlds interact and, as it were, melt into a new world of aesthetic harmony in which the landscape is “personalized” and the poet is also “naturalized.” In traditional literary criticism, the technique is known as ch’ing-ching hsiang-sheng, or “the mutual generation of scenery and sentiments”; the new “world” of aesthetic harmony resulting from it is commonly called ching-chieh.

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Themes