The poems of Wang Wei were first collected by his brother, Wang Jin, at imperial request and presented to the throne in 763. The number of poems that can be attributed definitively to him is small—371, compared with the thousand or more each of Li Bo and Du Fu. The official dynastic history records his brother as telling the emperor that there were once ten times that many, the rest having been lost during the turmoil of the An Lushan Rebellion.
Whatever the case, the poems for which Wang is best remembered have fostered an image of him as a private, contemplative, self-effacing observer of the natural scene. In fact, however, despite references in several poems to his solitude behind his “closed gate” at home, many of his poems were inspired by social occasions—visits from or to friends, journeys of fellow bureaucrats to distant posts, his own departures to new offices—and by official occasions as well. Wang was a highly successful court poet, the master of a graceful, formally regulated style whose patterns had been perfected during the seventh century.
The ability to write poetry on any occasion was expected of all government officials and was in fact tested on the civil-service examination. Several of Wang’s poems bear witness by their titles to having been written “to imperial command” on some formal court occasion—an outing to the country, an important birthday, the construction of a new building, the presentation of some gift—and often “harmonize respectfully” with the rhymes of a model poem composed by the emperor himself. Most of these poems were written in a heptasyllabic eight-line form with rigidly regulated rules of tone, parallelism, and rhyme. Poets in attendance would vie with one another to complete their poems first, and there was often some official evaluation of literary quality. Other poems in Wang’s corpus arose out of less formally decorous contexts but reveal nevertheless the demands on the Tang poet to be able to respond to the stimulus of an occasion in an apparently spontaneous and sincere, appropriate, economical, and witty manner.
A good example of Wang’s mastery of the literary and contextual demands of the poem written on command is his early work “Xi furen” (“Lady Xi”). He is said to have composed this poem at the age of twenty (nineteen by Western reckoning), when he was preparing for the imperial examination and in residence at the court of the emperor’s half brother, Li Xian, prince of Ning. It is one of several poems in Wang’s collection for which was noted his supposed age at composition—unverifiable, but attesting the recognition of his early prowess. An anecdote recorded in a collection of stories attached to poems compiled in the ninth century provides the necessary explanation of the background of the poem. The prince, it seems, had been attracted by the wife of a pastry vendor and had purchased her as his concubine. After a year had passed, he asked her if she still thought of her husband, but she did not reply. The prince then summoned the vendor, and when his wife saw him, her eyes filled with tears. Ten or so people were present at the time, including Wang, and their patron commanded them to write a poem on the subject. Wang’s quatrain was the first completed, and everyone else agreed that none better could be written. The prince then returned the pastry vendor’s wife to her husband.
In the poem itself, there are, surprisingly, no overt references to the couple in question. The first two lines express a simple and general denial—that loves of the past can be forgotten because of present affections. The last two lines conclude with an allusion, but not to the pastry vendor and his wife; they refer to a text, a story in the Zuo commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” (722-481 b.c.e.) of the Chunqiu (sixth to fifth century b.c.e.), one of the Confucian classics. There it is recorded that the king of Chu defeated the ruler of Xi and took the latter’s wife as his own. Though she bore him children, Lady Xi never spoke to her new spouse, and when finally asked why, she is said to have answered: “I am but one woman, yet it has been my fate to serve two husbands. Although I have been unable to die, how should I dare to speak?”
This poem illustrates concisely Wang’s typical “artifice of simplicity,” his ability to charge the briefest of poems—twenty syllables in all—with a considerable burden. Typically, denials open and close the poem, revealing Wang’s penchant for the open-ended quality of negation as opposed to assertion. What could have been a merely sentimental episode becomes dignified here through the link made to the moral dilemma of a historical ruler’s wife and by the poet’s choice not to mention the contemporary protagonists at all. Typically effective, also, is the poet’s refusal to make any direct comment. Understatement and allusion work hand in hand here to make a point that is no less clear for not being stated explicitly.
The Wang River collection
These same methods of indirection and evocation, of using objects and events to suggest something lying beneath the surface, distinguish Wang’s most famous poems, his limpid and apparently selfless depictions of natural scenes. These works are not, as a rule, devoid of people, and much of their impersonal quality derives simply from the general tendency of the classical Chinese language to avoid the use of subjective pronouns and to remain uninflected for person, tense, number, gender, and case. Wang does, however, exploit the inherent potential of the language to create indeterminate or multiple meanings more than do most other traditional poets. This is true, for example, of several poems in his well-known sequence, the Wang River collection. As Wang’s preface explains, this group of twenty pentasyllabic quatrains, each of which names a site on Wang’s country estate, was written in the company of one of his closest friends, a minor official named Pei Di (born 716). Pei wrote twenty poems to match those of his host, and these are also included in standard collections of Wang’s poetry.
As Owen has noted in his history of poetry in the High Tang, Wang’s quatrains as a whole probably represent his most significant contribution to generic development, particularly because of his substitution of enigmatic understatement for the epigrammatic closure more common at the time. The Wang River collection is informed by some of the key modes of consciousness of the poet’s entire oeuvre: an emphasis on perceptual and cognitive limitations, a transcendence of temporal and spatial distinctions, and a sense of the harmony of the individual and nature. This is especially true of the fifth and probably most famous poem in the sequence, “Lu zhai” (“Deer Park”).
This poem exemplifies typical quatrain form, narrowing its focus from the massiveness of a mountain to a ray of the setting sun entering a mossy grove. Each line presents a perception that is qualified or amplified by the next. What is given in the first line as an “empty mountain,” where no people are seen, reverberates with echoes of human voices in the second line. Whether these echoes signify that other people are actually present on the mountain at some distance or are intended metaphorically, to suggest the poet’s memories of friends in an altogether different...
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