Article abstract: A major Tang poet, Wang Wei left a body of some 370 poems that can be considered authentic; his nature poetry has been particularly admired, and it accounts for his preeminence in Chinese literature. He was credited with founding the Southern school of landscape painting. Wang Wei was also a highly skilled musician and an unusually competent government official.
Not much is known about Wang Wei’s early life and education. Born in 701, in the district of Qi, in the modern province of Shanxi, China, he was the eldest child of a family of aristocratic, middle-level officials. Wang Wei’s father, Wang Chulian, despite his middle-official rank, belonged to the powerful Taiyuan Wang clan, while Wang Wei’s mother belonged to the prominent Boling Cui clan. The Wangs and the Cuis were among the “Seven Great Surnames” (qi xing) and wielded much political power.
Wang Wei was a prodigy and evidently had the typical Confucian literary education, which prepared him for the civil-service examinations. He began to compose poetry at the age of nine and also showed talent in painting, calligraphy, and music. At the age of fifteen, he went to the capitals of Luoyang and Xi’an to prepare himself for the examinations and was warmly welcomed at the courts of the imperial princes, especially that of Prince Qi (Li Fan), the younger brother of the emperor. Known for his court poetry and ability to play pipa (Chinese guitar), Wang Wei was an immediate success at court, where he shrewdly made important social and literary contacts.
Having taken first place in the provincial examination, he became qualified to take the metropolitan examination. In 721, he was among the thirty-eight successful candidates for the jinshi degree out of the several thousand who attempted it. As a result, he was soon appointed one of the court’s associate secretaries of music. His future looked bright.
Nevertheless, at this time, Wang Wei’s position as a literatus came to overshadow his background as an aristocrat. When the Empress Wu had usurped the throne in 690, she had initiated a conflict between the aristocracy and the literati by rejecting hereditary privilege in favor of the examination system for choosing high officials. Although Emperor Xuan Zong had revived the hereditary privilege after ascending the throne in 712, he remained suspicious of political intrigues and kept a watch on the princes. Soon after Wang Wei assumed his official position at the court of Prince Qi, the prince was suspected of conspiring against his brother. In 722 the emperor responded by breaking up the princely entourages. Wang Wei was charged with an indiscretion (allowing the performance of a tabooed dance). In 723 he was dismissed from court, demoted, and banished to the distant district of Jizhou (in modern Shandong Province), thus beginning the early period of his literary development.
Wang Wei served in Jizhou until 727, when he began a period of travel in the eastern provinces. These travels frequently provided inspiration for poems which are unusual in their perspectives. During his travels, Wang Wei made the acquaintance of Daoist and Buddhist masters and frequented their retreats. He also made important political friendships during his exile. His friendship with Pei Yaoqing, the prefect of Jizhou, led to his introduction to the outstanding statesman and brilliant poet Zhang Jiuling, the powerful imperial minister.
About 730 Wang Wei’s wife died. He never remarried and chose to remain celibate the rest of his life, beginning a serious study of Ch’an Buddhism with the Ch’an master Zuoguang. At this time, he also discovered his own poetic voice. In 733 he returned to Xi’an. Now his acquaintance with Zhang Jiuling paid off, for this powerful and highly ethical man sponsored his reentry into politics. In 734 Emperor Xuan Zong appointed him “reminder on the right” (you-shi-yi). True to his Confucian ideal, Wang Wei was in public service once again, thus ending his first stage of poetic development.
As reminder on the right, Wang Wei reminded the emperor of overlooked or forgotten matters. Such a position required much tact and subtle diplomacy; apparently Wang Wei was equal to it, for he maintained his position and continued to advance. Nevertheless, he found Xuan Zong’s new ministry dangerous. Although the triumvirate included Zhang Jiuling and Pei Yaojing, the third member was the ambitious Li Linfu. Zhang Jiuling and Pei Yaojing had both risen to positions of power through the examination system; they were literati. Li Linfu, however, was an aristocrat and a member of the imperial clan that supported hereditary privilege: Conflict was inevitable. When Zhang Jiuling was banished and Pei Yaojing demoted in 737, Wang Wei also was in danger. Nevertheless, he survived, although he temporarily became investigating censor (jiancha yushi) of Hexi, a post on the northwest frontier in the province of Liangzhou (modern Gansu). Here he assisted the military governor, Ts’ui Hsi-i, from 737 until 738, when Cui’s forces were defeated by the Tibetans and the general was killed. Although not technically an exile, Wang Wei’s frontier assignment gave Li Linfu time to consolidate his power without undue interference. He became a virtual dictator when the elderly emperor, preoccupied with his consort, Yang Guifei, began to allow him a free hand in public affairs.
When Wang Wei returned to Xi’an in 738, he was promoted to palace censor (dianzhong shiyu shi). In 740 he was sent to the south to supervise the provincial examinations, returning to the capital and continuing his steady advancement. At about this time, he seems to have acquired his famous Wangchuan estate, which was located in the foothills of the Zhongnan Mountains, some thirty miles south of Xi’an; the estate was to prove important to his life and to his painting and poetry. About 750 his mother died, and he withdrew from court for the customary period of mourning, a little more than two years. Upon his return to Xi’an in 752, Wang Wei was appointed secretary of the civil office (lilu langzhong), which obliged him to nominate, examine, and evaluate civil officials. In 754 he became grand secretary of the imperial chancellery (jishizhong), which represented a more prestigious rank. The following year, however, any further advance was abruptly curtailed by the onslaught of the An Lushan rebellion, which dispersed the entire court.
The years from 734 to 755 may be considered Wang Wei’s middle period, his most productive and significant literary period. It includes his poem written to Zhang Jiuling after the latter’s exile to Hsing-chou in 739 and the frontier poems inspired by his military experience at Hexi. There are also such outstanding court poems as “Tseng ts’ung ti szū k’u yüan wai Ch’iu” (“Given to My Paternal Cousin, Military Supply Officer Qiu”), “Fêng ho shêng chih chung-yang-chieh tsai ch’en chi ch’un ch’en shang shou ying chih” (“Written at Imperial Command to Harmonize with His Majesty’s Poem, ‘On the Double Ninth Festival the Ministers and Assembled Officials Offer Their Wishes for Longevity’”), and “Ta-t’ung tien shêng yü chih Lung Ch;’ih shang yu ch’ing yün; pai kuan kung tu; shêng...
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