Wang Wei Analysis

Other literary forms

(World Poets and Poetry)

Although known primarily for his poetry, Wang Wei (wong way) was also the author of several important writings pertaining to various traditions in Tang Dynasty Buddhism, in particular his funeral inscription for the stl of the Sixth Chan (Zen) Patriarch, Huineng. In addition, Wang was an accomplished musician and painter, acquiring considerable renown for the latter talent after his death. No painting authentically attributable to him is extant, but numerous copies of several of his works were executed over a period of centuries. One of the best known of these is the long scroll depicting his country estate on the Wang River. From the Song Dynasty onward, when only copies of his works survived, he became glorified as the preeminent Chinese landscape painter, with his work honored as the prototype of wen ren hua (literati painting)—amateur rather than academic, intuitive and spontaneous rather than formalistic and literal.


(World Poets and Poetry)

Wang Wei is generally acknowledged to be one of the major poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the most brilliant period in the long history of Chinese poetry; he was probably the most respected poet of his own time. In one of the many classificatory schemes of which traditional Chinese critics were particularly fond, he was labeled the “Poet Buddha,” ranked with the two poets of the era who were to exceed him in fame, Li Bo, the “Poet Immortal,” and Du Fu, the “Poet Sage.” This appellation reflects Wang’s association with Buddhism, which flourished in eighth century China, but it is important to note that very few of his poems are overtly doctrinal or identifiable solely with any one of the many traditions or lineages of Buddhism active during the Tang.

Like those of most men of letters of the time, Wang’s life and works reflect a typically syncretic mentality, integrating yet exploring the conflicts among the goals and ideals of Confucian scholarship and commitment to public service, Daoist retreat and equanimity, and Buddhist devotion. Such issues, however, are not dealt with directly or at length in his works. His poetry relies on suggestion rather than direct statement, presenting apparently simple and precise visual imagery drawn from nature which proves elusive and evocative at the same time. He eschews definitive closure for open-endedness and irresolution, leaving the reader to attempt to resolve the unanswered questions of a poem. His best poems rarely include any direct expression of emotion and frequently suppress the poet’s own subjective presence, yet this seeming impersonality has become the hallmark of a very personal style.

Because Wang’s poems embody what Stephen Owen has called the artifice of simplicity, they were frequently imitated, both by the coterie of court contemporaries at whose center he stood and by later poets, followers of the “Wang Wei school.” Although many of the imitators were able to replicate the witty understatement, the stark imagery, and the enigmatic closure of Wang’s work, none—by general critical agreement—succeeded in probing to the same extent depths of emotion and meaning beneath a deceptively artless surface.


(World Poets and Poetry)

Chou, Shan. “Beginning with Images in the Nature Poetry of Wang Wei.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 42 (June, 1982): 117-137. Chou proposes that the solution to the problem of meaning in Wang’s nature poetry is to be found in understanding the Buddhist influence.

Owen, Stephen. “Wang Wei: The Artifice of Simplicity.” In The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Owen supplies an excellent short overview of Wang as poetic technician and relates the poet’s work to his life and historical context.

Wagner, Marsha L. Wang Wei. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Part of the Twayne World Authors series, this scholarly, well-written account of Wang’s life provides a balanced, perceptive appraisal of his contributions as poet, painter, and government official. Includes fine translations.

Wang Wei. Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei. Translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1991. Excellent translation of 171 poems. The critical introduction, “The Ecstasy of Stillness,” by the Barnstones provides insights into these poems.

_______. The Poetry of Wang Wei: New Translations and Commentary. Translated by Pauline Yu. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. This study provides excellent, scholarly translations and notes as well as knowing critical appraisals of Wang’s poems.

_______. The Selected Poems of Wang Wei. Translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2006. A translation of Wang’s poems, with an introduction providing critical analysis and a biography.

Wang Wei, Li Bo, and Du Fu. Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. Translated by Vikram Seth. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992. A collection of poems by Wang, Du Fu, and Li Bo. Commentary by translator Seth provides useful information.

Weinberger, Eliot. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Mount Kisco, N.Y.: Moyer Bell, 1987. This short book offers insights into the art of translating Chinese poems. Includes commentary by both Weinberger and writer Octavio Paz.

Yang, Jingqing. The Chan Interpretations of Wang Wei’s Poetry: A Critical Review. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2007. Looks at Chan (Zen) Buddhism and how it relates to Wang’s poetry.

Young, David, trans. Five T’ang Poets: Wang Wei, Li Po, Tu Fu, Li Ho, Li Shang-yin. Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1990. Provides an opportunity for appreciating Wang along with contemporary poets during the Tang Dynasty.